On January 1, Tennessee made news by launching the nation's first statewide registry of people who abuse animals. Tennessee. Which ranks 35th in the Humane Society of the United States' annual assessment of animal protection policies. Massachusetts, which ranks third, still does not have such a registry.
Arguably, Tennessee has greater need for one. The Humane Society calls it "one of the worst cockfighting states," and, in 2013, Nashville euthanized 78 percent of the dogs and cats impounded by its animal control department. But as Quincy's infamous Puppy Doe case in 2013 wrenchingly revealed, cruelty can and does happen everywhere.
It's hard to pin down the number of abuse cases in the Commonwealth, since both animal protection laws and their enforcement are fragmented. But in the past two years, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals alone has investigated 3,747 complaints, resulting in 1,269 warnings and 38 prosecutions.
In 2013, state Senator Bruce Tarr of Gloucester drafted a bill in response to the case of Puppy Doe, a pit-bull mix whose real name was Kiya and who was adopted from Craigslist when her owners couldn't find a landlord who would allow the dog. She changed hands two or three more times until, in August of that year, she was found by a passerby. She was extremely malnourished; her limbs had been pulled until the joints came apart; she had broken ribs and vertebrae and crushed cheekbones; her tongue had been split in two and she had been beaten, burned, and stabbed in the eye. Ultimately, she had to be euthanized. It's painful even to recount her story. Her alleged torturer, Radoslaw Czerkawski, recently got three to five years for larceny in Dedham and is scheduled to go to trial on the animal abuse charges on May 3.
The Tarr bill originally proposed including a registry, as well as an animal abuse hot line, but the law that passed did not contain those provisions. The new law does increase penalties, from $2,500 to $5,000 for a first offense and up to $10,000 for subsequent offenses, and it requires veterinarians to report suspected abuse. It also convened a task force that, according to the MSPCA, is "looking at the pros and cons of a state registry vs. a national one" and examining "the feasibility and effectiveness of participating in a national animal abuse registry . . . if created." It has until May to suggest recommendations.
But as the task force considers thinking about pondering some answers, state Representative Steve Howitt of Seekonk isn't waiting around. He has submitted a bill that would not only create a registry but also require all shelters, breeders, and pet stores to consult it before selling any animal. This would give it more bite — pardon the expression — than the Tennessee law, which does not require registry checks.
The bill as currently written isn't perfect. For one thing, an abuser's name would be registered for only five years. Newton's Beth Birnbaum, a founder of the Coalition to Protect and Rescue Pets, points out that the sex offender registry haunts culprits for two decades, and justifiably so. "If an individual reoffends," she says of animal abusers, "it should be lifetime registry."
Advocates and lawmakers also disagree on whether animal hoarders should be included. Hoarding is a mental illness, and some say naming those afflicted would shame people who need treatment. But hoarders have an almost 100 percent recidivism rate, and the animals involved suffer extreme neglect, including living in feces and urine as well as, in 80 percent of cases, the dead bodies of their former compatriots. So whether or not hoarders need help — and they do — monitoring their pet ownership is a necessary step toward protection.
Finally, there is the question of whether the registry should be available to the general public, since some say it will violate the privacy of offenders. But animal abuse is already a felony in Massachusetts, and convictions are public record. Furthermore, Craigslist and other sites unfortunately still allow people to post pets who need "rehoming." These animals often become bait for dogfighting, and small ones like kittens and bunnies are known to be used as snake food by unscrupulous reptile owners.
A completely public registry, with requirements to check it, won't stop abusers from getting animals. But it could stop known abusers from getting them, which is a step in the right direction. As is the FBI's announcement this month that it will begin tracking animal cruelty as a specific offense, rather than lumping it in the "other" category. It is well known that animal abuse is considered the minor league of domestic abuse, rape, and other crimes. But animals must be protected for themselves, not simply because hurting them might lead to crimes against people.
"Someone once told me," says Howitt, "in a movie if someone gets shot no one remembers. But if a dog gets shot everyone remembers." Puppy Doe's short, tortured life was not a movie. Let's make sure we remember it.
Elizabeth Gehrman is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
BY THE NUMBERS
> Up to 70% of animal abusers have records for other crimes
> 65% have been arrested for battery against another person
Sources: American Humane Association; the Humane Society of the United States