Position Statement on Animal Abuser Registries

Animal abuser registries are intended to alert the public to the presence of animal cruelty offenders in the community and to provide heightened scrutiny of individuals perceived to be at high risk of re-offense to animals or people beyond any period of incarceration, probation, or parole. Although we appreciate that animal abuser registry proposals derive from a genuine motivation to take animal cruelty seriously, the ASPCA believes that this approach does little to protect animals or people and can have unintended consequences. Existing strategies, such as well-enforced no-contact orders, mandated psychological assessment and inclusion of pets in orders of protection, provide a response that is more effective in preventing harm to animals and people.

Interest in animal abuser registries has, in part, been driven by a growing body of research indicating that repeated acts of intentional cruelty to animals can be associated with a greater incidence of a variety of other crimes, including acts of interpersonal violence. Although animal cruelty is strongly associated with a variety of other crimes, including assault and drug crimes, it is not necessarily predictive. The main study often cited is the 1999 Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ survey of prosecuted animal cruelty offenders who had significantly higher incidence of other offenses when compared to matched controls without an animal cruelty background. However, the other offenses were as likely to precede the animal cruelty offense as to follow it – and thus this data was seen as supportive of a “general deviance” model of animal abusers rather than a “progression” model. [1]

Not all acts that could be prosecuted as animal cruelty are equally predictive of future offenses, and the nature of animal cruelty offenses can vary depending on age, gender, culture and the motivation of the offender. The predictive value of past animal offenses associated with future animal offenses is strongest for animal hoarders, who show extremely high recidivism rates.  Hoarding is strongly predictive of future hoarding – however is not necessarily predictive of other offenses in general. This issue is best addressed by community-based long-term monitoring of such cases, rather than by special registration.[2]

Specific Concerns about Animal Abuse Registries
We now have almost a decade of experience with proposed or enacted animal abuse registries. Several concerns have been raised that call into question the effectiveness of these programs and have led us to consider alternative approaches that have been demonstrated to achieve the same goal of responding to animal cruelty offenders in ways that protect animals and people.

Registries are expensive to institute and maintain

Cost estimates for establishing and running an animal abuse registry vary widely.  Several proposed animal abuse registries were dropped following assessments of the costs to establish, update and provide access to the registry information. A fiscal impact statement for a 2011 proposed Virginia registry estimated costs at $1 million. Costs of a proposed California registry were estimated anywhere from $750,000 to $2 million. Costs of a proposed registry in Washington State were estimated to be $468,000 for the initial year and $271,000 in subsequent years. Existing registries require those mandated to register to pay a fee, usually $50-100 annually.  Given the typically low number of individuals that are required to register in jurisdictions with registries, these fees are insufficient to cover the enormous cost of the registries themselves, thereby requiring the diversion of critical resources away from other, more productive means of protecting animals from cruelty.  

Registries have limited reach and are rarely utilized

Most existing registries are limited to a specific city or county, thus they will have no effect on monitoring individuals who leave the jurisdiction covered by the registry.  Furthermore, participation in the existing animal abuse registries has been extremely low. As of this writing (August 2017), the oldest registry, for Suffolk County, New York, which has been in place since 2010, has only 4 entries.  Other registries are similarly sparse.  Rockland County, New York (established 2011) has 3 entries, Albany, New York (2011) has 3, Westchester, New York (2012) has a single entry and New York City (2013), has 20. The sole statewide registry in Tennessee (2015) currently has 8 entries, with 3 offenders from the same animal fighting case.

Registries are limited in scope and do not offer real protections for potential victims of animal cruelty

Registries are generally premised on identifying individuals who have violated their state’s animal cruelty laws.  However, the scope of such cruelty laws varies widely, and certain animals, including livestock and wildlife, are often excluded from their protections.  As such, registries do not usually capture abusers of livestock or wildlife, nor would they prevent offenders from contact with such animals. These limitations make court imposed no-contact orders a far better alternative, because these orders can be tailored to meet the needs of individual offenders, including situations that involve animals other than cats or dogs.    

Registries may actually decrease the prosecution of serious animal cruelty cases

A recognized consequence of sex offender registries has been an increase in plea bargains for serious crimes, e.g., rape being pled down to simple assault, to avoid registration.[3] The existence of an animal abuse registry may likewise have negative effects on the prosecution of serious animal cruelty crimes as it would potentially result in registerable offenses such as felony animal torture being pled down to misdemeanor offenses. In addition to avoiding the registry, a plea to a lesser offense frequently may eliminate the option for long-term probation and psychological assessment and treatment.  As such, the existence of a registry could inadvertently prevent offenders from receiving appropriate supervision and treatment, thus putting additional animals at risk.  

Registries do not remove potential access to pets

While registries are most often designed to prevent offenders from obtaining animals from shelters or pet stores, companion animals are available from many other sources. Fewer than a third of pets in homes come from animal shelters.[4]  In our experience, very few victims of animal cruelty have been acquired through shelters with the intent to be targets of abuse. Thus, registries are targeted at sources that offenders are unlikely to access and fail to cover the majority of sources where pets might be obtained.  

Registries can create a ‘vigilante’ mentality in the public

A frequent criticism of sex-offender registries has been that they potentially target offenders who have completed their sentences for continuing harassment by the public. Animal cruelty cases evoke particularly strong reactions from the public. For this reason, several proposed animal abuse registries included provisions that would provide criminal penalties for those who misused registry data to harass or endanger those on the registry.

Registries can put additional burdens on animal sheltering organizations

Most existing registries require animal shelters, rescue groups and pet stores that supply animals to the public to access the registry for information about any potential purchaser/adopter. Some registry laws have included penalties for pet stores, shelters, rescue groups and others that fail to consult the registry prior to placing an animal with a client. For example, the Albany registry law notes that those who fail to check the registry could be subjected to a fine of up to $5000.  This puts an unfair burden on animal sheltering organizations, particularly in light of the fact that those organizations are not the primary source of abused animals.                 

Other registries (e.g. sex offender registries) have not been shown to reduce recidivism of the registered offense

Statewide studies comparing registered and unregistered sex offenders indicate that the rates of recidivism between the two groups are not statistically significantly different[5] [6] [7] and that the implementation of sex offender registries has had no effect on rates of sexual offenses. Given the limited scope, reach and utilization of animal abuse registries, it is unlikely that they would have any significant impact on the incidence of animal cruelty.

Effective Approaches to Responding to Animal Abusers
It is apparent that animal abuse registries are an ineffective, potentially costly approach to preventing those convicted of animal cruelty from causing future harm to animals or people. Instituting such programs creates a false sense of security that animals and people in the community are gaining protection from possible offenders. However, there are several approaches already widely in place that can achieve these goals:

Strengthen and Broaden Existing Animal Cruelty Laws

Every state currently has provisions allowing some animal cruelty crimes to be considered as felonies. Dogfighting is a felony in every state. Increasing penalties for other animal cruelty offenses to felony levels would increase the potential for monitoring offenders for longer periods of time using existing probation and parole systems. Many states have also recognized the connection between animal cruelty and interpersonal violence by treating certain such crimes as elevated offenses, including animal cruelty committed in the presence of a child or animal cruelty intended to frighten, coerce or intimidate another person. Prosecution for such offenses is likely to more clearly identify those at risk of other crimes against people and animals through more thorough investigation and psychological assessment.

Make Effective Use of Well-Enforced No-Contact Orders

All states should expressly provide judges with the discretion to impose orders prohibiting persons convicted of intentional animal cruelty or serious neglect from having contact with animals as a condition of parole, probation, or for a defined period of time upon release from jail. Such provisions can apply to anyone convicted of animal cruelty and can prevent offenders from contact of any kind with, not just ownership of, any animal, regardless of species or source, rather than just pets adopted from a shelter or bought from a pet dealer.  Many state Departments of Corrections already maintain a publicly searchable database of supervised individuals released from prison. Information that a parolee has a no contact order can be added to this database, rather than creating an expensive registry. No contact orders as a condition of parole/probation remove the costly requirement to construct and maintain a registry while providing for enforceable, effective protections that can result in contempt of court charges and jail time if they are not obeyed.

Make Use of Provisions to Include Animals in Domestic Violence Protective Orders

Currently 33 states and the District of Columbia have existing legislation that allows judges to include provisions pertaining to animals in orders of protection from domestic violence. A number of additional states include provisions for personal property or “other relief” in which animals can be included, and/or include animal cruelty in their definition of domestic violence under certain circumstances. As noted, domestic violence is one of the forms of animal cruelty that is most associated with harm to people and one likely to show recidivism.

The ASPCA supports all efforts to have animal cruelty taken more seriously by law enforcement officials and the general public. However, we believe that registries of animal cruelty offenders do little to advance these efforts and can be counter-productive to them. Fortunately, there are a variety of existing approaches that have already been proven to give communities the ability to monitor the actions of known offenders and increase the safety of people and animals alike.

[1] Arluke, A., Levin, J., Luke, C., & Ascione, F. (1999). The relationship of animal abuse to violence and other forms of antisocial behavior. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 14(9), 963-975.

[2] Arluke, A., G. Patronek, R. Lockwood and A. Cardona. 2017.  Animal Hoarding. in J. Maher, H. Pierpoint and P. Beirn (Eds.) International Handbook on Animal Abuse Studies. London: Palgrave McMillan, 107-129.

[3] Letourneau, E. J., Armstrong, K. S., Bandyopadhyay, D., & Sinha, D. (2013). Sex offender registration and notification policy increases juvenile plea bargains. Sexual Abuse, 25(2), 189-207.

[4] https://www.aspca.org/animal-homelessness/shelter-intake-and-surrender/pet-statistics

[5] Bouffard, J. A., & Askew, L. N. (2017). Time-Series Analyses of the Impact of Sex Offender Registration and Notification Law Implementation and Subsequent Modifications on Rates of Sexual Offenses. Crime & Delinquency, 0011128717722010.

[6] Sandler, J. C., Freeman, N. J., & Socia, K. M. (2008). Does a watched pot boil? A time-series analysis of New York State's sex offender registration and notification law. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 14(4), 284-302. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0013881

[7] Tewksbury, R., Jennings, W. G., & Zgoba, K. M. (2012). A longitudinal examination of sex offender recidivism prior to and following the implementation of SORN. Behavioral sciences & the law, 30(3), 308-328.