- The Washington Times - Monday, June 24, 2002

NEW YORK Three cats are mutilated with knives then chopped up with an ax. A pet llama is beaten to death with a golf club. A stray dog is dismembered. Three raccoons are fatally bludgeoned with a baseball bat.
In each of these recent cases, those charged with the grisly, unprovoked crimes were teen-agers.
Animal cruelty committed by young people is not a new phenomenon, but it is attracting more serious attention than ever from police, prosecutors, psychologists and animal-welfare groups.
"Animal cruelty may be one of the first signals you're going to see as a warning of future aggressive behavior and violence," said psychologist Mary Lou Randour. "Until recently, it's been below the radar screen. Teachers and mental health professionals haven't been attuned to it."
Among the developments that have pushed the topic to the fore:
The Humane Society of the United States highlighted the problem in its annual report on animal cruelty, released in April. Of more than 1,000 cruelty cases examined for 2001, 20 percent of the intentionally malicious acts were committed by teens, 95 percent of them males, the society said.
Maryland-based Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is announcing a new treatment program, designed specifically for young people who abuse animals. One of the goals is to enable a young abuser to empathize with animals, said Miss Randour, the group's director of programs.
Last September, the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention released a report on animal abuse by young people. Its author, Utah State University psychologist Frank Ascione, said the problem has been "underreported and understudied," and said greater scrutiny "may add one more piece to the puzzle of understanding and preventing youth violence."
Some of the recent incidents have stunned authorities with their seemingly senseless barbarity. Thomas Doetsch, a juvenile-court referee in Michigan's Wayne County, said he lost sleep thinking about the case of the 16-year-old boy who dismembered a stray dog and took the body parts to his school.
In Colorado, the case of two boys who set a cat on fire prompted the legislature to consider toughening animal-cruelty penalties. Many lawmakers shared public outrage that the boys, 16 and 17, spent only two days in jail after the assault last year, but a bill to make a repeat animal-cruelty offense a felony died in committee in April.
The mixed-breed cat, Westy, was adopted by a veterinary hospital worker after undergoing three major surgeries for skin grafts and amputations, and painful rehabilitation to regain mobility. A prosecutor said the two teens were curious about what would happen if the cat's tail was set on fire "like the cartoons."
With 35 states classifying some forms of animal abuse as a felony, some young abusers do face tough penalties.
In Florida's Pinellas County, Robert Pettyjohn received a five-year prison sentence in April for killing one llama and partially blinding a second in an attack in February 2001, when he was 18. Pettyjohn had been convicted earlier of shooting bulls with arrows.
In Amsterdam, N.Y., Nicholas Brodsky, 18, and Carly Furman, 16, face as much as two years in prison and $5,000 in fines if convicted in the mutilation and killing of three cats. The teens, jailed while awaiting trial, are among the first people charged under New York's so-called Buster's Law, which toughens punishment for animal cruelty and was named after a kitten burned to death in 1997.
Teen-agers have become a priority of the First Strike Campaign, a Humane Society initiative seeking to raise awareness of the link between animal cruelty and human violence. The campaign's literature includes background on serial killers and mass murderers who in their youth tormented animals.
Virginia Prevas, manager of the First Strike Campaign, says mandatory counseling is probably the best initial option in cases where a youth is arrested for animal cruelty.
"Often, these kids have experienced violence themselves or witnessed violence, and they're dealing with a lot of emotional problems," she said.
However, Miss Prevas believes that incarceration can be warranted in serious cases.
"You have to look on a case-by-case basis," she said. "Was this a calculated act of animal cruelty, as opposed to something where there's an anger-management problem?"
Mr. Ascione, in his report for the Justice Department, said several studies have found that animal abuse is more likely among children who have been physically or sexually abused.
"Even if the adult family members do not abuse animals, some children may express the pain of their own victimization by abusing vulnerable family pets," he wrote.
Miss Randour, noting that even preschoolers can engage in animal abuse, says younger children are more likely than teen-agers to benefit from abuse-prevention programs.
However, Nancy Katz, who works with juvenile offenders in Virginia's Fairfax County, believes that the right kind of program can work well with teens. She is director of the Shiloh Project, which pairs troubled youths with dogs from local animal shelters.
"The kids don't realize that animals can feel. They don't understand that you don't have to be physically abusive to an animal in order to train it," she said.

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