Animal Rights

Animal Cruelty Is a Clear Predictor of Future Violence, So Why Are Perpetrators Merely Slapped on the Wrist?

We need stronger animal cruelty laws to protect both animals and people.

Photo Credit: Ksenia Raykova/Shutterstock

Bella deserved better.

One afternoon just before Christmas last year, 56-year-old Michael Gallagher tried to strangle his elderly rescue dog Bella by tying plastic zip ties tightly around her neck. Then Gallagher put Bella into a black plastic bag and beat her mercilessly with a shovel.

Gallagher's horrified neighbors in Levittown, Long Island, witnessed the vicious attack. They begged him to stop and called the police. Gallagher stopped attacking Bella and fled.

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When Gallagher's wife arrived home she found Bella hanging onto life, still tied up in the bag. His wife cut the zip ties from around Bella's neck and rushed the dog to the veterinary hospital. But Bella was too severely injured, with blood and tissue coming out of her head. She was euthanized to prevent further suffering.

Gallagher was picked up later that evening at a 7-Eleven. He was charged with one felony count of animal cruelty, and three misdemeanors—and faced up to two years in jail.

In a statement, the prosecutor's office emphasized the seriousness of the crime. “This defendant is accused of truly despicable cruelty that fatally wounded his innocent and helpless 11-year-old dog, Bella," Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas said. “We know from studies and experience that those who commit crimes against animals are more likely to perpetrate violence against people, and my office is committed to prosecuting these heinous offenses aggressively.”

But on Nov. 28, 2017, Gallagher received a distressingly light sentence, amounting to a mere slap on the wrist. After pleading guilty to felony animal cruelty charges, Gallagher was sentenced to just four months in county jail, plus five years probation and a ban on owning animals for two decades.

As District Attorney Singas said in response: “These types of inhumane actions against animals are heinous and unjustifiable, and should serve as a rallying cry for the state to finally enhance penalties for those convicted of felony animal abuse.”

We at the Animal Legal Defense Fund could not agree more. Animal cruelty must be taken more seriously and the penalties should reflect that seriousness. This is both for the sakes of the animal victims and for the safety of our communities more broadly.

There is a clear and well-established link between abuse of animals and abuse of humans. One oft-cited statistic, from a landmark 1997 study by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Northeastern University: Animal abusers are five times as likely to also harm other humans.

In the last couple of years, the FBI began tracking incidents of animal cruelty in the National Incident-Based Reporting System. The agency made this important change in part to better understand the relationship between animal cruelty and violent crimes against humans. It's expected this data will begin to show important and revealing patterns within the next three years.

“If somebody is harming an animal, there is a good chance they also are hurting a human,” John Thompson, deputy executive director of the National Sheriffs’ Association, said in a statement published on the FBI's website. “If we see patterns of animal abuse, the odds are that something else is going on.”

Animal abuse portends violence toward people. This was made painfully clear by Devin Patrick Kelley, the man who shot and killed 26 people at a Texas church in November. Before Kelley committed what's been called the worst mass shooting in Texas history, he was cited for animal cruelty in Colorado. In fact, nearly every notorious mass murderer had histories of torturing and killing animals.

In 2014, Kelley was charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty by the El Paso County Sheriff, for abusing a brown and white husky. A witness said the dog had failed to come when called, so Kelley jumped on the dog and "began punching the dog with a closed fist near the head and neck area," according to a sheriff's report.

The witness saw Kelley punch the dog four or five times, before he dragged the dog away. Another witness described seeing Kelley throw the dog on the ground. Coming to Kelley's trailer home, police officers found the dog so skinny and malnourished they could feel every rib.

Kelley was given a deferred probationary sentence and ordered to pay $368 in restitution, according to court records obtained by local media outlets. The charge was then dismissed in 2016, after Kelley completed his sentence—and a year and a half before he killed 26 people, and injured 20 more, at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs.

There were other acts of violence against animals beyond what Kelley did to his own dog. A former Air Force colleague of Kelley's told CNN he'd said to her that he'd also bought dogs off Craigslist to use as target practice.

Of course, Kelley was also known to have committed brutal acts of domestic violence against his human family members, as well, prior to the church shooting. He was kicked out of the Air Force for beating his first wife and his toddler stepson, cracking the young boy's skull.

This is a tragic illustration of the well-known fact that those who commit acts of violence against animals rarely stop there. It also shows why animal cruelty must be taken more seriously under the law.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund is asking those who agree to sign our petition: It states that "I believe animal cruelty should be taken seriously and the punishment should fit the crime—abuse an animal, go to jail." Find the petition at aldf.org/Bella.

New York's animal cruelty laws are insufficient. New York does not perform well on the Animal Legal Defense Fund's annual ranking of animal protection laws in all 50 states shows. Last year, New York was number 41 on the list -- the bottom tier. This year's rankings, which have not yet been published, show New York to have dropped further still, to number 42.

No one can think justice was delivered, with Michael Gallagher's four-month sentence for strangling Bella then bashing her in the head with a shovel. Moreover, this cruelty and violence seems like a clear warning sign of a dangerous individual. If someone like Gallagher kills a person next, can anyone say we heeded the warning signs?

Bella deserved better. New Yorkers deserve better. We will work with the state's lawmakers to strengthen the state's animal protection laws.

All 50 states have felony animal cruelty laws on the books. And increasingly, the law is evolving to recognize animals as legal victims -- not mere property. But, as these tragic recent cases show, we aren't doing enough. Stronger animal cruelty laws, and stronger enforcement of those laws, are essential to all our safety.

Not slaps on the wrist, but real accountability. This is the only way to protect animals, and people. This should be Bella's legacy.

 

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Stephen Wells is executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund.