The COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered animal shelters, strained law enforcement resources, and left some families unable to feed and care for their pets.
It is still too early to tell if the current climate will lead to a spike in animal cruelty crimes, but we do know this: Perhaps now more than ever, it’s important to remain vigilant and encourage cooperation between law enforcement and animal control agencies that track and respond to animal abuse.
Increasingly, legal and mental health experts have come to recognize that animal cruelty is both a serious crime on its own and clearly associated with other violent crimes, including domestic violence.
In 2015, in recognition of the importance of animal cruelty crimes and their effect not only on animal welfare but also on public safety, the FBI added animal cruelty crime incidents to the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). The following year, local police agencies began voluntarily reporting animal cruelty crimes to NIBRS.
The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) was instrumental in persuading the FBI to add animal cruelty crimes to NIBRS. Subsequently, we began facilitating discussions among law enforcement, humane law enforcement, and animal control agencies to help them accurately report animal cruelty data to the FBI.
The majority of states, however, have gotten off to a slow start, according to a recent AWI analysis.
AWI’s Animal Cruelty Reporting Scorecard lists the top 20 states according to the apparent robustness of their efforts to track animal cruelty crimes. In 2017 and 2018 — the two most recent years for which statistics are available — Delaware, Colorado and New Hampshire led the pack, while Massachusetts, West Virginia and Idaho were at the bottom of the list.
Not all states are currently in the NIBRS system. Moreover, some states that are participating in NIBRS are not yet collecting animal cruelty crime incidents, and a few states reported fewer than six animal cruelty incidents in 2018 — an indication that adoption of the new policy is still in its early stages. Those states are excluded from AWI’s ranking.
Under NIBRS, an animal cruelty incident is any report of a suspected offense, either from a citizen or initiated by a law enforcement officer, animal control officer or humane law enforcement official. To be “counted,” an incident does not have to result in an investigation or an arrest.
Realistically, when changes are made to NIBRS, it typically takes a few years before they are adopted by the 16,000+ independent law enforcement agencies that report crime data to the FBI. But AWI had hoped to see more progress by this point.
Among the highlights of our scorecard:
- Delaware reported the most animal cruelty incidents in 2018 — a total of 1,097 incidents, or a rate of 113 incidents per 100,000 population. The second-highest rate reported was from Colorado, with 782 incidents, or a rate of 14 incidents per 100,000 population. The striking difference between Delaware and other states in their reported incident rates can be attributed in large part to Delaware’s more streamlined and successful system for capturing and reporting animal cruelty crime statistics — and not to a vastly higher rate of animal cruelty incidents in the state. Delaware’s statewide Office of Animal Welfare is primarily responsible for reporting animal cruelty crime incidents, while other states rely on the individual law enforcement agencies to report.
- Massachusetts, West Virginia and Idaho each reported less than one incident per 100,000 population. Idaho, which ranked last on the scorecard, reported only seven incidents in 2018, or 0.4 per 100,000 population.
- The 2018 national average for reported animal cruelty incidents was four per 100,000 population, a number that AWI considers to be artificially low based on delayed state participation. Reported rates of crimes associated with animal cruelty — assault, vandalism, robbery, and drugs — were exponentially higher. For instance, an average of 799 drug offenses per 100,000 population were reported to NIBRS in 2018.
As animal cruelty data continue to flow in, AWI expects reported incident rates to rise considerably. As a result, it will be easier to obtain an accurate picture of how often animal cruelty occurs, where it is happening, and the characteristics of offenders.
What You Can Do
Animal cruelty is against the law in every state, and certain acts of animal abuse are also considered felonies. It is important to report suspected abuse to the local police or sheriff, along with calling your local animal services agency or humane society. In emergency situations, call 911 first.
You can also contact local law enforcement through social media and encourage them to start recording and reporting animal cruelty data. Data collection is key to identifying nationwide trends in animal abuse. Another idea is to submit a letter to the editor to your local newspaper to bring attention to this issue. AWI has a handy tool that allows you to look up media in your area and easily submit a letter for editorial review.
The Animal Welfare Institute (www.awionline.org) is a nonprofit charitable organization founded in 1951 and dedicated to reducing animal suffering caused by people. AWI engages policymakers, scientists, industry, and the public to achieve better treatment of animals everywhere – in the laboratory, on the farm, in commerce, at home, and in the wild. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for updates and other important animal protection news.
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