May 24, 2004 – After seeing off the last of last week's Animal Welfare Conference delegates, Paul Chakroff paused a moment before saying what he found most satisfying about the event.
"It went so well, it's hard to say, but I think it's the opportunity for so many people from the Caribbean to be able to come together to talk about common issues," Chakroff, executive director of the sponsoring St. Croix Animal Shelter, said. "They knew they were among friends with similar situations where they could find the emotional support they need." (See "Link Between Animal Abuse, Human Violence Explored".)
Participants from Puerto Rico and smaller Caribbean islands shared frustrations and concerns in a lively interchange of information over the three-day conference which ended on Sunday. The theme was "The Connection between Animal Abuse and Interpersonal Violence," and one of the most forceful speakers was a diminutive police officer, Lt. Sherry Schlueter from Florida, where animal abuse is a felony.
"Dog fighting and cock fighting are barbarous," Schlueter told the gathering of more than a hundred persons at the Buccaneer Hotel on St. Croix. "Come forward and speak. Don't accept this any more. Tell people it's not okay to abuse animals. Embarrass people out of it."
Schlueter created and commands the Special Victims and Family Crimes section of the Broward County (Florida) Sheriff's Office. It is the nation's first abuse and neglect investigation unit. She has 32 years of investigative and law-enforcement experience, with an emphasis on animal cruelty investigation.
Her original animal abuse unit has grown to include child, handicapped and elder abuse.
"They are all connected," she said.
She stressed that connection speaking on Friday. Pets in homes where there is domestic violence always are part of the picture, she said, citing as an example a case where a father threatened to kill his 12-year-old daughter's dog if she wouldn't have sex with him.
"We need cross-training for agencies to work together in these cases," Schlueter said. "Social workers in other fields need to be sensitive to all members of the family, including the pets."
A Part of Protecting the Public
On Thursday, Schlueter spoke with 30 Police Academy graduates about the importance of recognizing the link between animal abuse and domestic violence as a part of their responsibility for protecting the citizenry. "She told them what to look for" in terms of cruelty toward animals on the part of youngsters "as a predictor of potential violent behavior in the future," Chakroff said. "If kids are acting out now, they may be experiencing abuse, themselves."
Chakroff said he is working with the Police Academy and hopes to include presentations by animal welfare workers as a regular part of the cadets' curriculum. He praised Sgt. Thomas Hannah, police public information officer, and Officer Charles Nibbs for getting the cadets together for Schlueter's presentation on "just a few days' notice."
Schlueter has written successful local and state legislation, including the original Florida felony animal cruelty statute, which became law in 1989. On Friday, she shared her experience with that measure in an effort to help get similar legislation passed in the territory. A felony animal cruelty bill has lingered in the Senate for more than four years. (See "Pickard-Samuel, Bryan Kill Animal-Rights Bill".)
Cockfighting was cited by some senators as a political ploy to thwart the bill. Arguments advanced by opponents include that the practice is "part of the culture," that "the roosters enjoy it" and that "it's more humane than the methods the poultry industry uses in killing chickens."
Chakroff challenged such views, and on Friday he presented some findings from a poll he commissioned that was conducted last December and January. Out of 500 residents queried, he said, 90 percent indicated they are against cockfighting and 10 percent said they favor it.
And, he said, "the figures are across the board for race and culture." Opposition was expressed by 89 percent of respondents who identified themselves as black, 89 percent of those who said they are Hispanic and 91 percent of those who said they are white.
It is popularly thought by some V.I. politicians, although rarely expressed outright, that criminalizing cockfighting could cost them the Hispanic vote. "This poll shows a strong endorsement against the practice" among that group as well as the community overall, Chakroff noted.
Cockfighting, although illegal in 48 states, is a centuries-old practice that has proven difficult to stamp out. Cockfights, like other illegal animal fights, take place surreptitiously. Two specially bred roosters are placed into a ring to fight, in many cases to the death of one. Roosters are born with natural spurs, which are removed and replaced with razor sharp blades called gaffs which measure up to three inches in length.
Cockfighting Banned in 48 States
Oklahoma became the 48th state to ban cockfighting. Only in Louisiana and a few counties in New Mexico does it remain legal. Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating stated after passage of legislation outlawing the practice: "Cockfighting is cruel; it promotes illegal gambling and it is simply embarrassing to Oklahoma to be seen as one of only a tiny handful of locations outside of the Third World where this activity is legal."
In the Virgin Islands, there are three legal cock-fighting arenas in each district, Chakroff said. Speaking after the conference on Friday, Randall Lockwood, keynote speaker and a vice president of the Humane Society of the U.S., suggested going to the arenas, making note of the license tag numbers of the cars parked there, and then asking the police to check the ownership.
"I bet you wouldn't find your upstanding citizens," he said. "It's probable you would find people with criminal records, possibly with outstanding violations."
V.I. Law Makes Dog Fighting Hard to Prove
Dog-fighting is illegal throughout the United States, including in the Virgin Islands. Chakroff praised the Police Department for its cooperation in breaking up a dog-fighting ring last fall on St. Croix. The shelter impounded 18 of more than 100 dogs found in the raid last fall near the Kennedy housing community.
But the department had its hands tied, Hannah said on Friday. Because the officers had not witnessed any actual fights, Hannah had said at the time, they could make no arrests. The dogs were released to their owners after they paid a fine, registered their animals and showed proof of providing a safe environment for the dogs.
At the location, officers confiscated a treadmill used to build the muscles of dogs being trained to fight, along with fighting cocks, television sets and junked cars. The treadmill device was on display at the conference last week.
Lockwood said on Friday that people abuse animals "because they can. Because it works. Because they can get away with it. It is power and control." And, in the case of dog-fighting, it is big bucks — the money generated by gambling on the fights.
Mary Edwards, who was executive director of the St. Croix Animal Shelter for some 20 years, lamented the lack of enforcement of dog-fighting laws locally. Speaking by telephone on Monday, she said she couldn't remember how many times she had spoken to police officials about the law. "I have asked them to make sure each officer has a copy of the law to carry with him," she said. "There is a law; it is part of the dangerous dog law."
Chakroff also said there is a
need to collect data on the effective management of animal population control. William Fielding, a statistician and a member of the International Society for Anthrozoology, provided information at the conference about collecting and analyzing data.
"Information gathering is something a lot of animal welfare organization don't do well," he said. "We might have an estimate of stray animals, or those in need of spaying or neutering but not registered. But we need hard, scientific evidence to effectively control the population and know from year to year if we are making progress."
Fielding shared information on new research techniques and control studies using photography.
Chakroff said he hopes to see the conference become an annual event. "We could do it on a different island each year," he said. "Now we have the enthusiasm."
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