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Mobtown Beat

Inhumane Budget Cuts

Animal advocates say cut-backs to animal services could jeopardize public safety

Jefferson Jackson Steele
BARCS employees show off two of the 400 animals the shelter is currently housing.

By Andrea Appleton | Posted 5/5/2010

Last May, two teenagers doused a young pit bull named Phoenix with gasoline and set her on fire in the middle of a city street, in front of a group of onlookers. The dog did not survive, and the story made national news. But Phoenix's story is not unique--like other forms of violence, animal cruelty is common in Baltimore. There were at least five incidents of cat torture in the city last summer, and this year, on Easter Sunday, a group of children pelted a young dog with rocks and bricks, causing severe injuries. When a passerby tried to intervene, they started throwing rocks at him instead.

After last year's burning pit bull incident, the city took steps to curb animal cruelty in Baltimore, and formed a task force on animal abuse to, among other things, make recommendations for better policing of animal-related crimes. But animal services are now vying with other city agencies, including the police and fire departments, for limited city funds. In a city like Baltimore, where interpersonal violence is chronic, the torture and neglect of animals can seem like a regrettable footnote. Yet local animal advocates warn that animal abuse does not exist in a vacuum. Cutting funding to curb animal abuse could diminish the city's ability to quell other kinds of violence, they say. Where there is violence against animals, there is often violence against human beings.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's austere preliminary budget for 2011 suggests cutting the city's annual grant to the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter (BARCS) by about $120,000, the equivalent of four staff positions. Animal Control would lose two drivers, the employees responsible for collecting more than 4,000 dead animals a year. The mayor recently proposed $50 million in new taxes and fees--including the much-discussed "bottle tax," which would levy a small tax on bottled beverages sold in the city--that, if passed, would restore all of the cuts in the preliminary budget. But given the stiff opposition a number of these money-making measures face, the city's animal-welfare advocates are worried.

"We get in animals that are abused and neglected every week," says Jennifer Mead-Brause, executive director of BARCS. "It's really sad."

BARCS houses some 400 animals at any given time, with an average intake of 33 animals a day, including these acute cases. And the city's Bureau of Animal Control, generally the first responder in such matters, receives about 32,000 service requests a year. The percentage that involve abuse or neglect is unknown because the agency does not currently track animal-abuse cases.

According to standards set by the National Animal Control Association, Baltimore should have 25 animal-enforcement officers. It currently has 16, and will, in practical terms, lose several more if enforcement officers are forced to take over the collection of dead animals in the absence of drivers. A city Health Department statement indicates the cuts could have financial impacts as well: "Fewer officers writing fewer citations means fewer fees collected by the city," it says, pointing out that Animal Control may reach $1.5 million in civil citations this fiscal year. Very little has been collected so far. The statement claims that the dollar value of the citations could drop by a third if staff cuts are made.

"I don't see how in God's name they can cut Animal Control any more," says Bob Anderson, who retired as director of the bureau late last year. "How can they say 'You're woefully understaffed' and then say 'OK, we'll cut you back.'"

As for BARCS, it is already "extremely understaffed," according to Mead-Brause. The shelter has reduced its euthanasia rate by almost 60 percent in recent years--only 40 percent of the animals it takes in end up being euthanized, compared to 98 percent five years ago--but, she says, budget cuts could mean the percentages will rise again.

Given that animal services are in competition for funding with other vital city services, the prospect of more dead dogs is unlikely to move city officials. But, in a recent report, the Mayor's Anti-Animal Abuse Task Force put the importance of stopping animal abuse in stark terms: "If the City of Baltimore seeks to eradicate drug violence, gang violence, child abuse, and spousal abuse, it must also eradicate animal abuse, for when one encounters animal abuse or dogfighting, one of the former scourges is likely to be present. Stamping out animal abuse is one of the most effective crime prevention tools available to law enforcement."

Randall Lockwood, senior vice president for anti-cruelty projects at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and a member of the task force, has spent much of his career studying the dynamics between animal abuse and interpersonal violence. "One of the points I've made in much of my work is that animal cruelty . . . can be one of those broken-window crimes," he says. It can be "predictive," he says, a warning sign of a person's violent tendencies.

An increasing number of studies show there is a correlation between animal abuse and other kinds of violence. The FBI has recognized for decades that most serial killers kill or torture animals as children. And several studies have shown that violent offenders incarcerated in prison are significantly more likely than nonviolent offenders to have tortured animals as children. Most of the research on what is dubbed "the link" in animal-advocacy circles has been retrospective. For instance, a population of offenders is asked, after the fact, whether they've ever abused animals. Few if any longitudinal studies--in which a population is followed through time--have been conducted. "The problem with doing that kind of study is that juvenile records are usually sealed," Lockwood says.

Nevertheless, the so-called link is often glaring, particularly in domestic-violence situations. In one study of women seeking shelter at a safe house, 71 percent of those with animals said their partner had threatened, hurt, or killed their pet.

In such cases, pets are often used to exert power, says Frank Ascione, executive director of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection at the University of Denver and the author of the study. He tells the story of a woman who fled her abusive husband and sought help in a shelter for battered women, leaving her dog behind. "Within a few days, her husband managed to smuggle a packet to her," Ascione says. "Inside was a videotape of him torturing her dog." The woman left the shelter.

If a pet is being abused it can also, perversely, be useful. "[If animal abuse is discovered], there's the potential for intervening earlier," Ascione says, "and also the potential of identifying people who have a tendency toward other antisocial activities and forms of violence."

Baltimore officials were once well aware of this link, according to Ann Gearhart, education director at the Snyder Foundation, a local animal-advocacy nonprofit. "It was a really huge saturation 14 or 15 years ago," she says. In the mid-1990s, the Snyder Foundation conducted trainings for city agencies and social-service organizations on the overlap between animal abuse and interpersonal violence. Lockwood and Ascione, leaders in the field, gave presentations. "Cross-reporting," in which law enforcement, social services, and animal control shared information, was briefly employed.

Ascione says he still uses a poster developed in Baltimore in his work. Once in heavy circulation, it shows a woman, a child, and a dog cowering in a corner under a menacing, presumably male, shadow. It reads love should not mean fear, and domestic violence includes every member of the family. It includes contact information for the police department, counseling and domestic violence organizations, and the Snyder Foundation for Animals.

But awareness of "the link" faded as new officials came into office, says Gearhart. Local animal-welfare advocates now find themselves fighting a battle they thought they'd won. "That's enormously sad to those of us that are old enough to have worked on it since its inception," she says.

In its latest report, the Anti-Animal Abuse Task Force recommends that the city officially institute cross-reporting, develop a media campaign on animal abuse, and begin to track animal abuse, among other measures. It concludes that "[m]any of these recommendations will be nothing more than mere aspirations without financial support."

The Task Force's tenure was to have ended on June 30, the same day the twin brothers accused of drenching Phoenix the pit bull with gasoline and setting her aflame go to trial. But on May 3, City Councilman Ed Reisinger (D-10th District) introduced a bill to make the Task Force a permanent commission that would include representatives from each legislative district, and give recommendations to both the City Council and the mayor. The bill is currently in committee.

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