For years, the FBI has filed animal abuse under the label "other" along with a variety of lesser crimes, making cruelty hard to find, hard to count and hard to track. The bureau announced this month that it would make animal cruelty a Group A felony with its own category - the same way crimes like homicide, arson and assault are listed.
"It will help get better sentences, sway juries and make for better plea bargains," said Madeline Bernstein, president and CEO of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles and a former New York prosecutor.
The category also will help identify young offenders, and a defendant might realize "if he gets help now, he won't turn into Jeffrey Dahmer," she said.
Law enforcement agencies will have to report incidents and arrests in four areas: simple or gross neglect; intentional abuse and torture; organized abuse, including dogfighting and cockfighting; and animal sexual abuse, the FBI said in statement. The bureau didn't answer questions beyond a short statement.
"The immediate benefit is 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 Sheriffs' Association who worked to get the new animal cruelty category instituted. "That's something we have never seen."
Officers will start to see the data are facts and "not just somebody saying the 'Son of Sam' killed animals before he went to human victims and 70-some percent of the school shooters abused animals prior to doing their acts before people," said Thompson, a retired assistant sheriff from Prince George's County, Maryland.
FBI studies show that serial killers like Dahmer impaled the heads of dogs, frogs and cats on sticks; David Berkowitz, known as the "Son of Sam," poisoned his mother's parakeet; and Albert DeSalvo, aka the "Boston Strangler," trapped cats and dogs in wooden crates and killed them by shooting arrows through the boxes.
It will take time and money to update FBI and law enforcement databases nationwide, revise manuals and send out guidelines, Thompson said, so there won't be any data collected until January 2016. After that, it will take several months before there are numbers to analyze.
The new animal cruelty statistics will allow police and counselors to work with children who show early signs of trouble, so a preschooler hurting animals today isn't going to be hurting a person two years from now, Bernstein said.
The FBI's category will track crimes nationwide and is bound to give animal cruelty laws in all 50 states more clout. Many states are seeing more of those convicted of animal cruelty being sentenced to prison, in marked contrast to years past.
Whether talking about state laws or the FBI change, it is clear "that regardless of whether people care about how animals are treated, people - like legislators and judges - care about humans, and they can't deny the data," said Natasha Dolezal, director of the animal law program in the Center for Animal Law Studies at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon.
- National Sheriffs' Association: www.sheriffs.org
- Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles: www.spcala.com
- Center for Animal Law Studies: law.lclark.edu/centers/animal_law_studies