Animal Cruelty Shines a Light on What's To Come

by Lori Goodman

Responsibility for the proper care of animals and preventing cruelty involves a community effort

Each year we read about pets who are abused, tortured, abandoned, disposed of or killed. It's a touchy subject not for the faint of heart, most certainly not something we like to hear about. However unfortunate, animal abuse and neglect exists, not in some far off place but in your own neighborhood. We all know the person who hoards animals and hear the stories of the child that tortures his pets. It's a tragic side of life that stems from a variety of beginnings including learned behavior, acting out pain suffered as a result of their own abuse, neglect, ignorance, mental illness and so on.

It's not a problem with a one-layered solution. One of the first steps towards combatting this problem is raising awareness. It's one thing to talk about the abuse or show photographs that shock and awe prompting viewers to express their disgust and outrage; it's important to take it beyond awareness by fighting for change in your community.

One of the smartest steps local governments could take is to ban the sale of holiday pets. That's a pipe dream with a billion dollar industry fighting to keep things as they are. The Industry has remained largely unchanged and unchallenged for years. With our increased awareness about the effects of pollution and so many environmental groups urging us to think about limiting our environmental footprint including what we dump into landfills, the chemicals we use in our everyday lives, preventing pets from becoming unwanted animals should be on the forefront of any potential pet owner's mind.

Pet dumping (releasing domesticated animals) is a huge environmental problem with thousands of domestic ducks every year dumped into local waterways, lakes, streams, pond and canals. Environmental educators have been writing about this issue for years, including myself. It became frustrating after limited awareness was raised and the feedback showed that some people cared yet the action part of the formula was missing. Most people who took the time to notice the problem did little more than report what's been occurring in their own neighborhoods. It takes action to move it from "oh look, there's a problem" to "look what we can do when we put our heads together!" It's a complicated issue requiring a multi-step solution. Occasionally I hear about success stories, and those small victories are what keep us in the game. Despite these efforts it seems the numbers of dumped ducks and abuse cases climbs every year as our human population grows and sale of novelty pets remains largely unregulated. As long as there's a dollar to be made, little will be done to change the status quo.

As an animal lover and avid supporter of responsible pet ownership it saddens me to see that years of work have gone relatively unnoticed by the people who need this education the most. Responsible pet owners will think twice before bringing a new pet into their home. The pet owners who don't think - the ones who act on impulse are not inclined to do much (if any) research in advance. Many never venture beyond the pet store owner for information. Some think it's cool to dye ducks and chickens to look like Easter toys for kids. Most ignore the facts including the animal's lifespan, nutritional requirements, proper housing needs and the big one: supervision and education of children and teens alike when the welfare of an animal is at risk.

What pet store owners can do to help

In my 14 years as an pet care educator I've found that many stores engaged in selling exotic pets are not educated about their basic care requirements. A few of you might remember my battle with Tractor Supply a few years ago when story after story of abuse and neglect crossed my desk. It's a sad fact that some sellers don't know the first thing about exotic pet care or they purposely downplay it to make the sale. They avoid telling a potential customer that the $3.00 they are about to spend on their pet will ultimately cost them hundreds of dollars in food, shelter, veterinary care and other expenses over the animal's lifespan. When problems arise as they do in most exotics, the expense can reach thousands of dollars. I was shocked to overhear a pet store owner tell a customer that when the duck got too big, just take it down to the lake and "release" it. It's shocking that business owners are allowed to freely sell live animals yet not required to know anything about their care or be required to include a fact sheet on proper care. It would be amazing to see some resources mentioned addressing the problem people face when they can't keep their pet.

It's not all bad news. There are some success stories that give us hope, one shining example is Petco. Their animal fact sheets are in plain sight and free to anyone purchasing or considering the purchase of the pet. Their information went a step beyond general information and included specific data related to the species. How did this come about? First, someone decided it was a good idea, gathered the information, printed it and distributed it to the stores. For that reason, when I am shopping for my dog, I have remained loyal to Petco. I'm not endorsing the Petco Corporation or their stores, I'm simply pointing out that providing comprehensive information is not difficult. Any small business owner with a printer can easily follow Petco's lead.

On Live Ducks landing page under the webcam image is a link to my Duckling Care Printable Flyer. I urge people who purchase ducks from their local stores to ask them to offer them to their customers. I've urged local pet stores to include the flyer with every duck purchase and to encourage the potential buyer to read the checklist before buying the animal. The checklist also serves as a shopping list by design - we must give store owners an incentive to hand the flyers out or it ends up in the trash bin.

Animal abuse is a parent's responsibility

The issues of abuse come into play when a parent (who may mean well and doesn't know better) buys an animal for a child without following up by educating the child how to care for, love and protect their new pet. Supervision and proper parenting is the key to preventing abuse. When supervision is not available it falls to older siblings, peers, neighbors, friends - anyone who may not have the children's or the animal's best interest in mind. Some may think it's fun to inflict harm on an innocent animal. There is a well known connection between violent crime, including domestic violence and it almost always dates back to a history of animal abuse. This is NOT an isolated problem happening in someone else's community, it may be happening in our own back yard.

Sometimes we simply don't know how to mentally process abuse we see or know how to act. When I was growing up my high school was home to a stray dog that we'd feed at lunch break. Most of the kids loved her and some brought things to help her survive. Then a couple of teens thought would be fun to inject with drugs. As shocking as that was for me to see as a child, no one including school officials (or me) did anything to stop it. Some of the students were very upset and complained to each other. No one seemed to know what the protocol was for reporting abuse. Nobody knew what to do and everyone was too afraid to step in and stop the kids from hurting her. The dog died from an overdose after wandering the halls for 2 years. That amazing dog, deserving of human love and attention was likely abandoned or lost and became the victim of abuse. Every child at the school who witnessed the abuse was also victimized. Whenever that poor creature came up in conversations, dozens of stories surfaced involving students who were known to do horrific things to animals. The students in question were always from troubled homes. The worst offenders were neglected or unsupervised. Had any of our parents taken a stand and reported the incidents, perhaps as kids we would have learned that animal cruelty is intolerable and not something we can turn a blind eye to.

One of the side notes on this subject that surprised me the most is how many tortured pets remain trusting of humans. Ducks are no exception. They may have been cared for at the critical bonding time during the first hours of their lives and fed by people before (and after) being abandoned.

A heart-wrenching story about a duck named Betsy who started out as an Easter gift and was terribly abused by some children before being dumped at a rehabber's facility came to my attention last week. This miracle duck survived shocking abuse resulting in severe injury and despite the torture she continues to be "people friendly". The other two ducks given to these children as Easter gifts reportedly did not survive. I don't know (and frankly don't want to know) what happened to cause their demise. Betsy's story has caused an outpouring of outrage on Facebook and in the animal community at large. Perhaps more shocking still is that local law enforcement has done nothing to investigate or acknowledge that a crime was committed. So far nothing has been done to punish the abusers or hold their parents accountable. It seems these acts of violence are not important enough to do much about because it was "just a duck." Perhaps a dog, cat or horse may have gained greater public awareness and pressured local law enforcement to take action. I know a few people who would love to take the law into their own hands, however that is not a viable solution. I can't stop thinking about what's going to happen to these kids and how they are going to damage so many more lives if this goes unpunished.

At the very least the parents should be investigated and the children given mental health intervention. Forensic experts have traced the histories of every violent criminal including the most brutal murderers and serial killers and discovered that the cycle of violent crime started with animal abuse. This is such a huge problem that the Human Society of the US (HSUS) created a task force in 1997 called "First Strike" that addresses the violent crime-animal abuse connection head on. Educating people is a critical step - however, it's not enough to simply know it exists.

Children who take part in or witness acts of violence against animals learn to desensitize pain. It requires more and more violence to get the desired reaction, the need to feel something, to repeat the "rush".

As citizens of an ever growing and rapidly changing society, we have an obligation to take care of each other. We must expose the people who commit these crimes by alerting the law and pressuring the media and our local lawmakers to get involved. It's critical that the good people in our society make a big deal out of animal abuse. According to American, animal abuse is a felony in 46 states. The exceptions are Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota and Mississippi.

While this epidemic may seem overwhelming, one person can make a difference. People are doing great things every day. Casey Anderson through his non-profit organization Montana Grizzly Encounter educates and cares for abused Grizzly Bears in his Bozeman Montana sanctuary. His public awareness programs include the sanctuary itself to public service announcements that educate people how to stay safe in bear country - including not feeding any wildlife. We've all heard of John Walsh, creator and host of America's Most Wanted who rose to the challenge to take violent criminals off the streets after the murder of his son Adam. The good that these people do every day started out from the same issue: people abusing animals. On one end of the spectrum is the animal abuse issue and someone having the courage to step up to care for these animals, the other end is the torture and taking of a human life that begins with the torture of animals.

My heart goes out to those who have the courage and strength to help these animals that find themselves in their care after the fact. I applaud any parent who takes this issue seriously and gets their child to a mental health professional before the abuse escalates. What people like John Walsh do to take people off the streets in the wake of his own pain is unfathomable. As a community we can solve or abate some of these problems. First we need the help of our teachers, neighbors, fellow parents, our own kids who report to us when something is wrong. It takes an extraordinary individual to dedicate their lives to facing the consequences of evil head on. Most of us may not have the stomach to do what these heroes do, though we can ALL do a little more than we may realize.

We can report abuse to organizations who are trained to help.

Visit web-based resources like PAWS that offer step-by-step instructions on how to report abuse.

Offer your support by donating time, money, supplies - if you can't give that way you can offer positive feedback by sending letters of moral support offering love, hope, prayer and thanks for those who take on these challenges on behalf of us all.

As an animal lover you can share this information with your friends and link it to blogs that discuss solutions.

This is a wake up call for all of us, a call to action for every human being who loves animals and cares about the kind of planet we're leaving for future generations of people. Every change starts with one person. What can you do?

~ LG

Agencies for reporting and learning about animal abuse:
First Strike - HSUS Task Force - Animal cruelty and human violence connection
American Humane - Animal protection & summary of animal cruelty laws
Humane Society - What you can do about animal cruelty
Animal Shelters - Listed by state or zip code
Wildlife Rehabbers - From how to get help to becoming a rehabber
Animal Legal Defense Fund - What to do when animal cruelty laws are broken
PAWS - How to report animal cruelty

Sources mentioned in this article:
Casey Anderson, Montana Grizzly Encounter
John Walsh, America's Most Wanted

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