Zeroing In On Sociopaths: Feds Finally Make Animal Cruelty a Top-Tier Felony

The last big bust of a dogfighting ring in the U.S. spanned several Southern states and rescued 367 pit bulls destined for lives of misery and eventually violent deaths.


That was in August 2013. Since then, dog fighting busts have spanned the country, some discovered in drug raids, others revealed as gambling operations, others some combination of both. Animal welfare groups say thousands of dog fighting rings are operating nationwide and that the numbers may be increasing.

But no one can say for sure as neither law enforcement organizations nor animal welfare groups know how many dogs or people were involved in fight rings last year. No one can say with certainty how many people were arrested for organizing — or attending — these fights or if the numbers are more or less than other years. No reliable national statistics about dog fighting are available. In fact, no comprehensive national statistics involving any crimes against animals—torture, physical abuse or neglect—are kept.

That’s why animal welfare groups and law enforcement organizations are hailing the FBI’s decision to change the way it categorizes animal cruelty crimes. In a move advocacy and the National Sheriffs Association consider a big step forward in preventing and prosecuting cruelty to animals and associated crimes, the FBI is making animal cruelty a Group A felony, along with homicide, arson and assault. The move, announced two weeks ago, will take animal cruelty out of the category of “other” crimes not considered major by the FBI and will offer a way to track animal abuse.

For many in the animal welfare community, the change is a sign that the federal government is finally acknowledging the well-established fact that people love animals. Americans live with an estimated 74 million cats and 70 million dogs (as well as 3.7 million birds, 1.8 million horses and uncounted fish, reptiles, rabbits, pigs and other creatures considered pets or companions, according to the Humane Society of the United States).That’s a four-fold increase in companion animals since the 1960s (though the human population has only doubled). Moreover, 90 percent of those surveyed say they consider their animals family members and 80 percent would risk their lives for them.

Instances of dogs harmed by humans that are caught on video become viral outrages condemned by millions. Early this year, a bill by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D.-WA) passed that makes it a felony even to watch a dog fight, or any organized animal fight.  

But collecting data on animal cruelty—which the FBI said can’t begin until January 2016, as it will take time and funds to revise law enforcement databases and manuals—is only one step for the national animal welfare movement. There still remain many other federal policies and practices regarding animals that animal welfare organizations call counter to humane treatment.

In a country where dogs and cats are social media stars and pet boutiques, and sitters and hotels are booming businesses, there remains little awareness—and thus, outrage—at a number of widespread practices derided by animal welfare and protection groups. They include allowing animal torture and prolonged suffering in research labs; the widespread killing of wildlife by feds on public lands so private ranchers can graze their livestock; a lack of inspectors and monitoring of puppy mills; extreme confinement of animals in factory farms and horrific conditions in animal slaughterhouses, to name some obvious examples of extreme conditions animals endure on a daily basis.  

A week after the FBI announced animal cruelty would become a Class A Felony, the Department of Agriculture appointed Julian Prager to a key post involving regulation of puppy mills. Prager has been criticized as an opponent of laws that animal welfare groups have pushed to protect dogs living in overcrowded and filthy puppy mills.

“Yes, what the FBI change shows is that we’re making progress—and still have a long way to go,” said John Goodwin, director of animal cruelty policy for the Humane Society of the United States. “It helps the cause when we have partners, like the National Sheriffs’ Association, to bolster our efforts for the animals.”

The FBI change in the Uniform Crime Report comes after years of lobbying by advocacy organizations and the Sheriffs’ Association. Both groups share mutual interests in analyzing crimes against animals, including the numbers, where and when they happen, what kind of abuse may be trending up or down on local and national levels, and whether there are any patterns about the kinds of people who commit such crimes.

The change will allow federal law enforcement officials to analyze the correlation between animal cruelty and other crimes. Crime reports indicate that serial killers often have a history of animal cruelty, including torture and murder, but perhaps a more robust set of data can show a definitive link. Only through incidental knowledge do law enforcement officials know that people who are cruel to animals at a young age sometimes become serious and violent criminals as adults. Jeffrey Dahmer began as a serial killer of dogs, cats and other animals, using them as practice before moving on to torture and kill human beings.

But could animal cruelty laws be used to fight organized crime? Dog fight rings, such as one discovered in the bedroom of a house in Paterson, NJ in April during a drug bust, are often part of organized criminal rings engaged in other felonies. Busting a dog fighting ring could mean stopping crime of all kinds, according to the Sheriffs' Association.

“The immediate benefit is that it will be in front of law enforcement every month when they have to do their crime reports,“ said John Thompson, interim executive director of the National Sheriff’s Association. Officers, he said, will be able to discern patterns and clues in the data they collect, as they do with homicides or drug crimes.

For animal welfare groups, exposing animal abuses in a nation of animal lovers is one of the most effective change agents. “Michael Vick was a big boon,” said Goodwin, referring to the 2007 federal bust of the NFL star’s dog fighting operation in Smithfield, Virginia.

The bust, which landed Vick in prison for nearly two years, led to the rescue of 53 pit bulls and exposed some of the horrors of the dog fighting underworld, including rotting carcasses, skeletal remains of dogs who lost fights or were killed because they weren’t tough enough, syringes for the horse steroids dogs were injected with, and other horrors. The Vick bust yielded a “rape stand”—a device to which a female dog was strapped and restrained so that male dogs could rape her without being hurt themselves. Vick, whose rehabilitation included working with the Humane Society to expose the dog fight world, admitted killing dogs by slamming their heads on the ground, hanging them from trees, shooting them, hosing them down and electrocuting them or drowning them by putting their heads in a five-gallon bucket of water.

These sorts of abuses, animal welfare and law enforcement organizations say, continue every day in this country, hidden in plain sight.

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