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Charlotte Amalie
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HomeNewsArchivesLink Between Animal Abuse, Human Violence Explored

Link Between Animal Abuse, Human Violence Explored

May 21, 2004 – Phoenix wasn't able to say a word. He didn't have to. He was clearly the silent star of the Caribbean Animal Welfare Conference Friday at the Buccaneer Hotel on St. Croix.
The eight-month old pup was almost burned to death when he was seven weeks old. Somebody had doused him with a flammable liquid and set a match to it. His body has big patches of raw skin with no fur. He has one ear, which sits, almost in the middle of his head where it was pulled by the tight skin from the burn. He lost the other ear. He doesn't have full use of his left front leg for the same reason. He holds it up as he hops on the other three.
And Phoenix was maybe the happiest pup in Christiansted, Friday morning as he hopped through the conference room on the end of a leash held by Marilyn Chakroff, soliciting all sorts of petting and attention. Marilyn is the wife of conference organizer Paul Chakroff, Animal Shelter executive director. Marilyn said Phoenix is used to people. The center employees take him to schools for animal education. "He has every reason to be a snarly, unhappy dog," Paul Chakroff said, holding a squirming Phoenix in front of the audience for a short interview, "but he's obviously not." Though Phoenix's appearance at the three-day conference was brief, he made his point.
The conference theme was "The Connection between Animal Abuse and Interpersonal Violence."
Members of local, national and international animal humane societies met with representatives from an array of Caribbean island nations, local domestic violence agencies, the V. I. Police Department, attorney general's office and one senator.
An observer noted the positive energy in the room was almost contagious as the participants met each other and shared similar concerns. Puerto Rico had a large contingent, not only from San Juan, but also from Rincon and from the island of Vieques; all lamented the lack of police cooperation in their communities.
Also represented were both French and Dutch St. Maarten, the Turks and Caicos, St. Lucia, Antigua, St, Eustatius, and, at home, St. John and St. Thomas.
Barbara Young, vice chairman of the Turks & Caicos Islands animal society said they have no backup at all, no laws to speak of. "We are under the Department of Health and Sanitation," she said.
Lincoln Clarke, of the St. Lucia Animal Protection Society, started in 1998, has an advantage. "I am a school teacher," he said. "So I educate the students about animals, but my brother is a police officer, so he backs up our efforts." Clarke said abuse issues on his island aren't as severe as he has witnessed in the Virgin Islands.
Johanna Chawzuik of the St. John Animal Care Center was possibly the most enthusiastic attendee. "Its so good to be with these people, who all share my concerns," she said. Chawzuik has been pretty much a one-man-band on St. John, though she has other volunteers, she is the only regular employee. The group started in the '70's by a small group of citizens working mainly out of their homes. Eventually, they built a shack, which was replaced by the new facility last March. They have for years maintained a program for "bush" cats with feeding stations throughout the island. And, like with most animal groups, funding is a chronic problem. The St. John center gets $8,000 yearly from the V. I. government, as opposed to an annual $75,000 to the St. Thomas and St. Croix districts, she said.
Randall Lockwood, a vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, acknowledged he was "preaching to the choir," with his audience of professionals. He said communication should be a priority. He said people do not understand the deadly relationship between human and animal abuse. He gave a definition of evil, which resonates with abusers, people or animal. "Evil is the absence of empathy," he said.
The connection is well documented, the speakers noted. Notorious serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer were animal abusers as children. He is reported as having impaled animals' heads on sticks. The Columbine school killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, also bragged about mutilating animals before they shot and killed 12 people in 1999.
Lockwood spoke of an Oregon serial killer he had interviewed. "There was a case of teenagers having set fire to cats that was in the papers. Many people wrote in, but the most chilling letter came from the serial killer. He wrote the paper: "Take this seriously; that's how I got started."
Lockwood said the killer told him that he first had killed an animal as a child and thought, "that felt good, I wonder what a human would feel like."
"Why do people abuse animals?" Lockwood asked. "Because it works. Because they can. It's power and control. It's the same reason people abuse people."
Mary Mingus, Women's Coalition of St. Croix director, echoed this same thought later in the day. "It's because they can get away with it," she agreed. Mingus said she believes there is no gene that leads to abuse. "It's a learned behavior," she said. "It's been said that violence begets violence.
"One of the most dangerous things that can happen to a child is to kill or torture an animal and get away with it," Mingus said. "Evidence found by psychological and criminal researchers in the field overwhelmingly illustrates that certain forms of animal cruelty translate into human abuse."
The Virgin Islands, nor any other Caribbean island nations represented at the conference, have laws defining animal abuse as a felony. "All but a handful of states now have animal felony laws," Lockwood noted.
Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg has sponsored an animal rights bill; it has been stalled time after time, most recently over a cock-fighting provision. See
Animal Cruelty all too Common in the Territory "," the first of a three-part series the Source ran last fall.
Donastorg called animal abuse "horrifying." "And," he said, "it goes unpunished. A person who would torture a helpless animal would have few qualms about hurting humans. A teenager torturing kittens may be crying for help. When he doesn't get help he may turn that rage toward people."
Donastorg said Friday that he is awaiting suggestions from the National Council of State Legislators on amendments to the bill. It is now in Sen. Lorraine Berry's Public Safety, Judiciary, Homeland Security and Justice Committee.
There is a disconnect between lawmakers, police and the public on abuse issues, Lockwood and Chakroff said. Chakroff praised the efforts of the V. I. Police Department with whom his agency works closely. "When we need them, they respond immediately," he said. This is a new development in the community.
Previously, the only loud commitment from the Police on animal issues has come from the K-9 corps who strongly advocated the animal cruelty bill when it has come before the Legislature.
The push now, Lockwood and Chakroff said, is to make the connection between animal abuse and domestic violence apparent to the public, and to get individual agencies to communicate with each other on these issues and to communicate with the police. Cross training in both fields is urgently needed they said.
Police Sgt. Thomas Hannah said, "This is a learning session for me." Hannah said before his association with Chakroff and the animal center, he had been unaware of how serious the problem really is. He said he assisted Chakroff in the case of the burned puppies last fall, and he became aware of how deeply rooted Virgin Islanders' lack of concern about animal welfare really is.
"In 16 years, only two cases of animal abuse have been prose
cuted," he said. In the Virgin Islands animal abuse is a misdemeanor. Animal abuse now cannot be prosecuted unless it happens in the presence of an officer, Hannah said.
He provided a sobering observation. "Eighty-five percent of the residents I've talked to couldn't care less about animal abuse. 'It's just an animal; that's not my problem,' is the attitude," Hannah said.
He said the police are grossly understaffed for domestic violence officers, with only five assigned to that duty. "One out of three calls we get is about domestic violence," he said. "It is out of proportion. Out of 57,000 calls last year, one-third were for domestic violence. We don't have the support system for a kid who needs counseling. There's nowhere for him to go to learn how to treat animals."
Minut Sanden, a St. Croix assistant attorney general and domestic violence prosecutor, had encouraging words. "When we have a defendant, we can prosecute in animal abuse cases. These cases usually don't have a defendant. If you bring me a defendant, I will prosecute."
Sanden said it saddens her that when youngsters in trouble hear the term "attorney general," they automatically think that means jail. "We don't automatically recommend jail, unless it's very serious. We are here to help find solutions to the anger that motivates their behavior."
Isa de Luc, of Animals R. Friends on St. Maarten, said, "Why not do a Caribbean big group, where we can all join together in a common cause?"
There is, in fact, just such an initiative in the works. It is sponsored by the Pegasus Foundation as an outgrowth of a 2002 conference, "Challenges of Animal Protection on Island Nations." The goal of the initiative is to expand communications with and among all island-based animal welfare organizations through an e-mail list, as well as to coordinate spay/neuter services and coordinate training opportunities for animal welfare organizations.
The e-mail group provides a forum for animal welfare groups working in the region to share ideas and help each other work toward solutions for common problems. It has about 50 subscribers now. It is a discussion group. Recent topics have included:
– Use of animals in entertainment, e.g., dolphin captivity programs
– Controlling the spread of disease
– Resources for animal groups available on the web
– Upcoming training events
– Helping to develop humane solutions to animal overpopulation problems
– New developments in veterinary medicine
– Media coverage of Caribbean animal welfare issues.
The theme for Saturday, the second day of the conference, was "Best Practices in Humane Control of Stray and Feral Dogs and Cats in the Caribbean." There were addresses, panel presentations and discussions, including an address by Neil Trent of the Humane Society International on "Caribbean Animal Laws Overview: What Works and What Doesn't." The program concludes on Sunday morning with a "post-conference" hands-on workshop on animal capture and handling.
The Source plans to write future articles covering issues brought up during the conference. The issues include ways to combat cock fighting and dog fighting and the future of Animal welfare legislation.
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