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Protect Baltimore's animals

In a city where violence against humans is so prevalent, it may seem odd for the mayor, police and sheriff to be devoting energy to cracking down on cruelty to animals. But a recent report by the Mayor's Anti-Animal Abuse Task Force, which found flaws in the way animal cruelty cases have been handled in the city, deserves attention.

Cruelty to animals isn't just ugly. In addition to the harm it inflicts on defenseless creatures, it also serves as a predictor of even more serious violence. Studies have shown that when animals in a home are abused or neglected, it is a warning sign that others in the household may not be safe. Because abusers target the powerless, crimes against animals, spouses, children and the elderly often go hand in hand.

Mental health professionals and educators regard animal abuse as a significant form of aggressive and antisocial behavior and consider it to be a red flag identifying the propensity for other violence. History is replete with serial killers — Jeffrey Dahmer, Albert "The Boston Strangler" DeSalvo, sniper Lee Malvo — whose violent tendencies were first directed towards animals.

Prosecuting animal cruelty, far from a distraction in a city like Baltimore, is good for community safety. But according to the task force report, cases of animal abuse have too often fallen through the cracks.

Abused animals are turned over the city's Bureau of Animal Control, but the bureau has no power to arrest suspects or pursue criminal investigations. That duty falls to local law enforcement officers. But as The Sun's Jill Rosen reported, until this summer sheriff's deputies who spotted cruelty while serving warrants had wrongly assumed that animal control bureau would investigate these cases. In some cases when city police were summoned, they lacked either the manpower or training to respond quickly and adequately. As a result, no one pursued the people who starved dogs, hoarded cats, skipped town and left their pets behind.

Steps are being taken to remedy this situation. The sheriff's department now routinely pursues cases of animal cruelty and neglect. The Baltimore Police Department has at least one officer in each of the city's nine districts who is trained to identify and investigate animal abuse. Moreover a supervisor monitors pending animal abuse court cases. Task force chairwoman Caroline Griffin would like to see more officers trained so that each shift in each district would have an officer familiar with the ins and outs of animal cruelty cases.

Prosecutors and judges need to demonstrate a heightened awareness of the seriousness of these charges. Another good idea, recommended by a member of the task force, is having the state's attorney designate a prosecutor who specializes in these cases. That could prevent the repeat of the recent confounding incident in which a man was charged with felony animal cruelty after beating his dog to death but in a deal worked out with prosecutors had the charges dropped and was ordered to perform 50 hours of community service at an animal shelter. Officials at the shelter, who were not consulted about the deal, rejected the move saying an animal abuser is not the person who should be working with rescued animals.

These recommendations make sense, as does the idea of transforming the task force — an all volunteer group — into a commission, a move that would give it permanency.

Baltimore's courts are crowded with homicides, and municipal money is tight. But animal abuse is against law, and prosecuting lawbreakers should not be a pick and choose situation. Communities and courts that dismiss cruelty to animals as a minor crime are ignoring a time bomb.

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