Government News
State Addresses Link Between Animal Abuse, Mental Illness
Psychiatric News
Volume 37 Number 9 page 5-5

Recognizing the link between animal abuse and violent behavior, some Ohio legislators want to give courts the authority to order psychiatric evaluations of people arrested for torturing or neglecting household animals and to make offenders pay for their care and treatment at animal shelters.

If the offender is found to suffer from a mental or emotional disorder that contributed to his or her behavior, the court could impose further evaluation or counseling as a community-control sanction or condition of probation.

"How we treat animals says a lot about how we treat each other," State Rep. Tim Grendell (R-Chesterland) and a sponsor of Ohio bill SB 221, told Psychiatric News. The bill would also stiffen criminal penalties for animal cruelty.

All 50 states have legislation relating to animal abuse or cruelty, and most categorize it as a misdemeanor offense. According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, 30 states have also instituted felony-level statutes for certain forms of cruelty to animals. But only eight—Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, and Washington—are listed in "An Overview of State Animal-Cruelty Statutes" (Animal Law, volume 5, number 69) as mandating psychiatric evaluations and counseling. Last year Illinois passed a bill mandating psychiatric evaluations for people convicted of animal cruelty, and a similar bill is pending in Colorado, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

"Animal abuse has received scant attention as an early warning signal," said Charles Chesanow, D.O., a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Ohio State University. He believes that the proposed measure could help identify violence-prone individuals who need counseling, but doubts that it will be a panacea as violence has many dimensions and a multitude of causes. In his experience animal abusers come in three broad categories.

"First are people who are mentally ill, second are those who have serious anger-control issues, and third are those who are either not socialized or believe that animal cruelty is an accepted byproduct of some shady business practice like dogfighting," he told Psychiatric News.

"Mental health evaluation would certainly be good for the first group. And for the other two groups the bill will be helpful in pinpointing them and making them accountable for their actions, and hopefully it will lead to counseling and maybe behavior modification," he said.

Under the bill, officers who investigate cases of animal cruelty would also be required to check for and report any child abuse.

"You have to break the habit," said Dean Speaks, L.A.S.W., executive director of the Lucas County (Ohio) Department of Children’s Services. "If we can catch one, we can catch the other, too."

In Ohio, animal cruelty is now a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail. Under the pending bill, penalties would be increased to as much as a fifth-degree felony for repeated offenses with six months to one year in jail.

Animal-cruelty measures often encounter fierce opposition. Rep. Grendell and State Sen. David Goodman (R-Bexley), sponsor of the bill in Ohio’s Senate, made it clear that animal-rights activists will not be able to use the bill to target farmers, hunters, and medical researchers, as it focuses exclusively on "companion animals," such as dogs, cats, birds, hamsters, and reptiles kept indoors. Resistance from farmers and hunters stymied previous attempts to update Ohio’s 125-year-old animal cruelty law to enact harsher penalties. So far the Ohio Farm Bureau has not decided whether it will back the measure.

The text of SB 221 can be accessed on the Web at www.lsc.state.oh.us/analyses124/s0221-i.pdf.

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