The Washington Humane Society is investigating seven unrelated violent attacks on dogs and cats by children and teenagers since May, an upsurge in juvenile cruelty crimes that is fueling calls for preventive education, court-mandated counseling for offenders and tougher laws.
Last year, there were only two major cruelty cases involving juveniles, which "were mild by comparison to these recent incidents," according to a statement by the Humane Society, which investigates animal abuse cases in the District and refers them to prosecutors for possible charges. The group also refers abusers to welfare agencies and school psychologists.
The attackers included a group of about 30 junior and senior high school students who beat a dog; 7- and 8-year-old boys who used a baseball bat on the family cat; and a teenager who forced his dog to fight another dog, then shot the other dog. Three of the animals died of their injuries or were euthanized because of them.
The Humane Society is looking into an eighth case in which young men stole a goat from a children's farm in Oxon Hill and brought it into the District with the intention of having their dog kill it, but they were interrupted before they could carry out their plan.
"We hope it's an anomaly and that it will calm down, but we just don't know what it means," Adam Parascandola, chief operating officer of the Washington Humane Society, said of the juvenile crime wave.
Although the cases are unrelated, experts say there are often common threads in these types of crimes. Parascandola said most children found to have abused animals have other problems, such as mental illness, chronic truancy or fighting. Almost all perpetrators are male, and animal abuse often takes place in households where there is other violence, such as domestic abuse.
One reason there is such concern about stopping animal abuse is that many children who assault animals later commit other violent crimes, studies show. Animal abuse offers an opportunity to intervene early and try to reverse a child's tendency toward antisocial violent behavior, said Ken Shapiro of the Animals and Society Institute, formerly the Society & Animals Forum.
Parascandola said his organization is working with Shapiro's group, which is based in Montgomery County, to implement a counseling program for animal abusers in the District. The Animals and Society Institute has developed a program called AniCare that tries to counter violent behavior by teaching empathy, problem-solving, anger management and other techniques.
Shapiro said 27 states allow judges to recommend or require counseling for convicted animal abusers. The District would join them under proposed legislation being drafted by the Animal Welfare Project at George Washington University Law School. The project released a report this year asking the city to tighten its laws and policies on animal treatment.
Law professors Mary Cheh and Joan Schaffner, who oversee the project, said that D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) asked them to prepare draft legislation that would implement their ideas and that he would consider it in the Health Committee, which he chairs. The committee oversees the District's animal-control agency. They hope to complete the draft bill by the year's end.
Among its wide-ranging provisions is one saying judges must consider requiring psychological counseling for animal abusers. It also would require government agencies investigating child abuse to tell the Humane Society if there is an animal in the house that might be at risk, and vice versa. The Humane Society now does so, but child abuse agencies do not, Schaffner said.
Schaffner and Cheh would also like D.C. schools to integrate "humane education" into the curriculum to teach children not to harm animals. The Humane Society and Washington Animal Rescue League run programs in some schools.
Parascandola said that after 30 teenagers attacked a dog on Minnesota Avenue SE, administrators at Anacostia High School and Kramer Junior High School let his group distribute fliers and talk with students about treating animals humanely. Students at the two schools allegedly participated in the dog attack, said Parascandola, who added that he wants to begin a humane education program in the schools.
Cheh said such a program would not be costly for the schools because it could be done in partnership with animal-welfare groups. "You need someone with zeal to see that this is carried out, not a pot of money," she said.
In general, Cheh said, the city's "animal cruelty laws are pretty strong. . . . They are adequate to do the job. But is that the way to prevent cruelty? They are after the fact. What we need is a better ethic."