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FBI turns animal cruelty into top-tier felony

LOS ANGELES — A new federal category for animal cruelty crimes will help root out animal abusers before their behavior worsens and give a boost to prosecutions, an animal welfare group said.

Young people who torture and kill animals are prone to violence against people later in life if it goes unchecked, studies have shown.

For years, the FBI has filed animal abuse under the label ‘‘other’’ along with a variety of lesser crimes, making cruelty hard to find, hard to count, and hard to track. The bureau announced this month that it would make animal cruelty a Group A felony with its own category — the same way crimes such as homicide, arson, and assault are listed.

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‘‘It will help get better sentences, sway juries, and make for better plea bargains,’’ said Madeline Bernstein, president and chief executive of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles and a former New York prosecutor.

The category also will help identify young offenders, and a defendant might realize ‘‘if he gets help now, he won’t turn into Jeffrey Dahmer,’’ she said.

Police agencies will have to report incidents and arrests in four areas: simple or gross neglect; intentional abuse and torture; organized abuse, including dogfighting and cockfighting; and animal sex abuse, the FBI said in statement.

‘‘The immediate benefit is it will be in front of law enforcement every month when they have to do their crime reports,’’ said John Thompson, interim executive director of the National Sheriffs’ Association who worked to get the new animal cruelty category instituted.

Officers will start to see the data are facts and ‘‘not just somebody saying the ‘Son of Sam’ killed animals before he went to human victims and 70-some percent of the school shooters abused animals prior to doing their acts before people,’’ said Thompson, a retired assistant sheriff from Prince George’s County, Md.

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FBI studies show that serial killers such as Dahmer impaled the heads of dogs, frogs, and cats on sticks; David Berkowitz, known as the ‘‘Son of Sam,’’ poisoned his mother’s parakeet; and Albert DeSalvo, also known as the ‘‘Boston Strangler,’’ trapped cats and dogs in wooden crates and killed them by shooting arrows through the boxes.

Thompson said there won’t be any data collected until January 2016. After that, it will take several months before there are numbers to analyze.