Finally, the federal government is treating animal abuse as a serious crime.
Last month the Federal Bureau of Investigation quietly changed its policy by agreeing to add animal cruelty as a distinct offense in the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS). The new policy followed proposals from the National Sheriff's Association and the Animal Welfare Institute.
Until now, the FBI classified animal abuse under the "other" category, with a group of less serious offenses. That made it difficult for law enforcement agencies and animal welfare groups to monitor, and fight, the unlawful harming of animals across the country. Now the crime will have its own felony classification similar to other violent crimes such as murder, assault and rape. "It will be a Group A offense and a Crime against Society," the FBI said in a statement provided to The Dodo. "Criminal activity and gang information will be expanded to include four types of abuses."
The four categories are: simple/gross neglect; intentional abuse and torture, organized abuse (ie, dog and cock fighting); and animal sexual abuse.
What constitutes cruelty? "Intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly taking an action that mistreats or kills any animal without just cause, such as torturing, tormenting, mutilation, maiming, poisoning, or abandonment," the FBI statement said.
Examples of such abuse include failure to provide food, water, shelter or needed veterinarian care, confining an animal in a way that is likely to cause injury or death, and inflicting excessive or repeated pain and suffering.
"This definition does not include proper maintenance of animals for show or sport; use of animals for food, lawful hunting, fishing or trapping," the FBI statement added.
While disappointed that the new policy will not cover industrial animal production and does nothing to reverse so-called "Ag-Gag" laws - which ban the taking of photos or video inside a factory farm without permission - animal welfare advocates applauded the move.
"It's an excellent thing and it has two immediate effects," said John Goodwin, director of animal abuse policy at the Humane Society of America (HSUS). "First, the fact that the FBI is taking animal cruelty crimes seriously enough to track them sends a message to all law enforcement agencies that this is a serious concern and they need to take it very seriously." The second result will be real-time tracking of animal abuse in all 50 states, as compiled in monthly crime reports by local law enforcement. Data reporting will begin in January 2016.
"Accurate data will give people information on what needs to be done about the problem," Goodwin said. "It can tell us the geographical range of the crimes and which individuals are committing them." That information could help alleviate the problem. "There are different ways to tackle different types of cruelty," Goodwin said. The answer to neglect, for example, may be better education, acts of torture will require stronger penalties and serious psychological counseling, while animal fighting data will show where gambling profits need to be addressed. The new classification could also put more teeth into the enforcement of animal cruelty laws on the state level, according to Madeline Bernstein, president and CEO of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles. "It will help get better sentences, sway juries and make for better plea bargains," she told the Associated Press. The new classification will also help identify juvenile offenders, who sometimes go on to harm or kill people. "We're very, very pleased. A lot of good things are happening in law enforcement now, and we can continue to make the world a better place for animals," said HSUS's Goodwin. "But a lot of policy making still needs to be done before we reach the point of referring to ourselves as a completely humane nation."