Nearly two years ago, a pitbull later dubbed Phoenix
was doused with gasoline and set on fire in Baltimore. The following summer, at least three cats were set aflame. Animal cruelty cases remain disturbingly common: a puppy beaten to death on a golf course, a tied-up dog pelted with rocks and bricks. Just before Valentine’s Day, a cat in Fells Point was beaten with a stick and suffered a broken leg. Yet since the high-profile Phoenix case, Maryland has dropped from 32nd to 43rd in the nation in terms of the strength of its animal welfare laws, according to Animal League Defense Fund ratings.
But changes are afoot, at least on paper. Earlier this month, the City Council unanimously passed a resolution in support of a bill pending in both houses of the state legislature that would authorize courts to prohibit animal abusers convicted under criminal law from owning or living with a pet for a specific period of time. (According to the Humane Society of the United States, 22 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands already have similar statutes.) The bill is the latest in a flurry of proposed legislation and changes in protocol regarding animal welfare, at the state level and in Baltimore City.
“I know people are very frustrated and there have been a number of crimes even since the Phoenix trial,” says Caroline Griffin, chair of the mayor’s anti-animal-abuse advisory commission, which grew out of a task force that formed in response to the Phoenix case. (The trial of the twin brothers charged in the case recently ended in a mistrial. A new trial is scheduled for May 4.) “But I think the Phoenix case has prompted meaningful change. Everybody is stepping up to the plate here.”
Montgomery County Del. Jeffrey Waldstreicher (D-18th District), who introduced the House version of the bill, says there is some legal debate over whether Maryland courts already have the ability to ban future pet ownership by defendants. “But what is not debatable is they don’t have the power beyond the traditional five years of probation,” he says. “For example, if the twins in Baltimore were convicted of the heinous act [of] which they’re accused, that type of extreme example might be an appropriate case to ban lifetime ownership of pets.”
Waldstreicher says he isn’t aware of any opposition to the bill and is optimistic it will pass. But animal welfare legislation—including a version of this very bill last session—has tended to stall in the legislature of late. The bills often die in the House Judiciary Committee, of which Waldstreicher is a member. Such was the case last session with a bill that would have increased the penalties for misdemeanor animal cruelty. It passed unanimously in the Senate, but never came to a vote in the House Judiciary. Proposed legislation to allow courts to include pets in domestic violence orders has failed to pass the committee three times. (Versions of both bills are once more wending their way through the General Assembly this session.)
Waldstreicher is hopeful his bill will be given a vote, and if it is, he says, it’s likely to pass. “The Judiciary Committee has traditionally been a difficult committee to pass any legislative initiative out of because there is always a strong worry about unintended consequences, one that I share,” he says. “We get a lot of big bills, 20-page, 40-page bills. This bill is a sentence. It’s drafted gracefully, narrowly, and carefully.” Griffin says as long as judges have discretion to craft sentences, bills such as this one are entirely appropriate.
Maryland judges have at times seemed in need of legislative guidance as to how to treat those convicted of animal abuse. In a high-profile case from last fall, for instance, a judge ordered a man charged with the fatal beating of a mini-pin—a breed of dog that generally weighs less than 10 pounds—to 50 hours of community service at the state Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). Animal welfare advocates far and wide—including more than 2,000 who signed an online protest petition—immediately denounced the decision, and the Maryland SPCA declined the offer. At the time, Aileen Gabbey, executive director of the organization, told WBAL-TV: “If the court wants rehabilitation, then counseling for violent behavior is appropriate, and it’s safer.”
“You don’t sentence a pedophile to do community service at a daycare center,” says Dr. Randall Lockwood of the American SPCA, a member of the city’s anti-animal-abuse commission and an expert on the interactions between people and animals. “It was an ill-informed decision.” However, the judge’s decision—not to mention the ongoing Phoenix case and the pending pet-ownership bill—does beg the question: How should animal abusers be dealt with?
The answer isn’t simple, Lockwood says. “Judges would like to have something like substance abuse or domestic violence programs that they can sentence people to,” he says. “The difficulty with that is that every animal abuse case is different.” Cases can range from elderly cat hoarders who’ve allowed their charges to starve to death to violent offenders who’ve actively injured an animal to dog fighters. Many animal abusers are themselves victims of abuse, Lockwood says, and others injure animals in the context of domestic violence. “Some of the existing treatment models that are out there are based on batterer intervention and treatment programs,” he says. “Those are relevant to certain kinds of animal cruelty, but definitely not all.”
Some states, such as California, mandate that anyone convicted of animal cruelty undergo psychological assessment. In Maryland, it is not mandatory, but judges have the discretion to order it. The problem, Griffin says, is that not all therapists are equipped to treat those convicted of animal cruelty. “I think that’s been an underutilized provision because there aren’t people trained in this area,” she says. In response, the commission is planning to provide training for some Baltimore-area mental health providers on the psychology and treatment of animal abusers. Lockwood and Griffin also plan to meet with judges of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City in March to speak about the link between animal abuse and human violence.
In other animal abuse news, City Councilmember Robert Curran (D-3rd District), the Council’s liaison to the anti-animal-abuse commission, has hinted that a rewriting of the city’s animal code will come before the Council in the next few months. “I don’t want to say what the changes are yet,” he says, “but there will be changes that bolster the criminal penalties for certain activities and cruelty.”
If all of these initiatives and bills come to pass, those convicted of animal cruelty in Maryland will face stiffer penalties and a more coordinated response. Whether cruelty cases will diminish is another matter, Waldstreicher says.
“The unfortunate thing,” he says, “is that as a legislator I’ve learned very quickly that no matter how many laws you pass, no matter how stiff the penalties, sometimes bad people are going to be bad people and continue to abuse animals.”