A year-old campaign to crack down on animal cruelty in Orange County has not only led to a substantial increase in felony animal-abuse cases, but it's also helping law-enforcement agencies uncover a host of other crimes – from domestic violence to drug-running to possessing illegal weapons.
The Cruelty Hurts campaign, launched in April 2009 by Orange County Animal Services, is credited with fostering a new spirit of cooperation between abuse investigators, the Orange County Sheriff's Office and police departments from Orlando to Ocoee. It also led to a partnership with Central Florida Crimeline, which began encouraging the public to report animal abuse via its anonymous hotline.
"Studies show that people who abuse animals are five times more likely to commit violent crimes against people," said Kathleen Kennedy, spokeswoman for the animal services department. "It's really exciting to see people take crimes against animals seriously."
Two prominent cases – one national, one local – sparked public interest in the severity of animal abuse and its connection to other problems. In August 2007, NFL quarterback Michael Vick was convicted on charges of operating an interstate dog-fighting ring that killed and tortured the animals. That was followed, in the spring of 2009, by charges of animal cruelty against popular Orlando radio personality Shannon Burke for shooting his wife's dog. In a sworn statement filed in court, Catherine Burke said her husband had threatened, "I'm going to shoot the dog in the head, and you're going to watch." Later, both said it was an accident.
"Especially since the Michael Vick case, people have just paid more attention," said Crimeline Executive Director Barb Bergin. That case, coupled with the Cruelty Hurts campaign – which plastered local billboards and bus shelters with ads publicizing reward money – has led to a sharp rise in tip-line calls reporting animal abuse.
In the year preceding the Cruelty Hurts campaign, Crimeline had just 16 such calls. In the year since, it has had 112. The most shocking call led to the arrest last summer of then-21-year-old Laszlo Horvath of Bithlo, who investigators said had repeatedly sodomized his dog. The Whippet mix was so severely injured that she had to be euthanized.
Last month, Horvath pled no contest to animal cruelty charges and was sentenced to three years' probation and forbidden to own animals.
"The sentence was not ideal," Kennedy said. "And that's still a hurdle, but it's something we're working on this year – reaching out to the judges."
Only a few years ago, cases of felony animal cruelty in Orange County were practically nonexistent. Because Animal Services cannot pursue criminal charges on its own – it can only levy civil fines – it needed the cooperation of police and prosecutors to do the heavy lifting. But in the past six months alone, Kennedy said, her department has worked with prosecutors on a dozen felony animal cruelty cases.
In the past year, it has held training sessions on the issue for the Orange County Sheriff's Office, Orlando Police Department, Ocoee Police and the State Attorney's Office.
Further, Animal Services has partnered with Harbor House of Florida – Orange County's lone domestic violence shelter and prevention program – to train its own animal-abuse investigators to recognize and respond to signs of domestic violence. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that nearly 1 million animals a year are abused or killed to threaten or traumatize their human owners.
Earlier this month, CourtWatch Florida also got involved to monitor animal abuse cases and publicize the outcomes. Incorporated in 2007, the nonprofit organization was already sending impartial volunteers to observe court proceedings on domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse cases.
"I was aware of the correlation between animal abuse and domestic violence," CourtWatch Executive Director Laura Williams said. "But it took the Shannon Burke case to make me realize we needed to start following these cases too…. Because it's so often a precursor to other violence, it's really important that they not get away with it."
In fact, what begins as a call on animal abuse often turns into something else when officers investigate.
A recent cockfighting investigation, for instance, led to the discovery of guns and illicit drugs, said Orange County Animal Services manager Katherine Lockett. Another complaint, about a dog being abused, expanded into a domestic violence case. "The victim was sitting on the couch when the police came in," Lockett said. "And she's mouthing to the police, ‘Help me.'"
Kate Santich can be reached at 407-420-5503 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Animal cruelty investigations on the rise
10/1/08 – 9/30/09 - 3,486
10/1/07 – 9/30/08 - 3,148
10/1/06 – 9/30/07 - 2,841
10/1/05 – 9/30/06 - 2,740