Son of Sam, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and the Columbine High School shooters are among the infamous criminals who had a history of hurting animals before they went on to target humans, a tendency that’s part of what’s behind a movement to create public online registries of known animal abusers.
New York is among 11 states with animal abuse registry bills pending in their legislatures, following Tennessee, which started its in 2016 along with a growing number of municipalities in recent years, including New York City, and the counties that include Chicago and Tampa, Florida.
“Animal abuse is a bridge crime,” said the sponsor of New York’s bill, Republican state Sen. Jim Tedisco, who noted that Nikolas Cruz, accused of killing 17 people in the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting on Feb. 14, reportedly also had a history of shooting small animals.
While the main goal of collecting names of convicted animal abusers is to prevent them from being able to adopt or purchase other animals, registry backers say such lists could also be a way to raise red flags about people who may commit other violent crimes ranging from domestic violence to mass shootings. But some animal welfare advocates, mostly notably the ASPCA, question how effective they can really be.
Under registry laws, people convicted of felony animal cruelty are required to submit information to the registry and pay a maintenance fee. Failing to do so brings fines and jail time. Shelters and pet dealers in a county with a registry are required to check it and risk stiff fines for providing an animal to anyone listed. It’s not difficult, since most registries have only a handful of names and mug shots of cruelty crimes ranging from dog fighting to beating or starving a pet to death.
A high-profile animal cruelty case is often the impetus for passing a registry law. In Nassau County on New York’s Long Island, it was the case of Miss Harper, a fawn-colored 7-month-old pit bull left earless and badly infected after the couple who bred her paid a friend to perform surgery he wasn’t licensed to do.
The couple had previously been charged with cruelty for putting bleach on another puppy. Since their convictions predated the registry, they’re free to buy and breed more dogs. Another loophole is the current scattershot nature of such registries. While neighboring Suffolk County on Long Island has a registry, along with 11 counties in upstate New York, many do not.
“There really needs to be a statewide law,” said Gary Rogers of the Nassau County Humane Society, which manages that county’s registry established in 2014. “Otherwise, someone on our registry can just go to another county to get an animal.”
Tedisco, who pushed through New York’s felony animal cruelty law in 1999, said the Miss Harper case underscores the need for passage of his statewide registry law, which would also require convicted offenders to get psychological evaluation and treatment.
Stephanie Bell, director of cruelty casework for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said PETA is strongly in favor of animal abuser registries. But not all animal welfare groups agree.
“Given the limited scope, reach and utilization of animal abuse registries, it is unlikely they would have any significant impact on the incidence of animal cruelty,” said Randall Lockwood, senior vice president of anti-cruelty projects for the ASPCA. The number of people who end up on registries is negligible, he said. Tennessee’s has just 12.
Leighann Lassiter, of the Humane Society of the United States, said that while her organization agrees with the motivation behind registries, it’s already possible to do a nationwide criminal background check on a potential pet adopter, which would reveal not only cruelty convictions, but also other violent crimes.
Instead, Lockwood said, communities should focus on strengthening anti-cruelty laws, using no-contact orders to prevent offenders from having contact with pets, livestock and wildlife, and expanding protective orders in domestic violence situations to include animals.
The other states considering registries are Hawaii, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Virginia and Washington.