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Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs Laurie Robinson at the Animal Welfare Institute Albert Schweitzer Awards Ceremony


Washington, DC
United States

Thank you, Cathy. I’m so pleased to be here – and delighted to help honor these three extraordinary individuals.

In a few minutes, I’ll have the opportunity to present their awards, but let me be the first to offer my congratulations. The Albert Schweitzer Awards are given in honor of one of the world’s great humanitarians, a man who defined “good” as the preservation and enhancement of life in all its forms. The work that these recipients have done embodies the soul of Schweitzer’s philosophy.

I’ll also add that they’re in excellent company. Rachel Carson, Jane Goodall, Abe Fortas, Robert Dole, Hubert Humphrey – you might have heard of them – all are past winners of this award. It’s a terrific – and well-deserved – honor.

I want to thank Cathy and her staff, and the Board of the Animal Welfare Institute for their leadership in ending cruelty to animals and addressing the link between animal cruelty and interpersonal violence. This is an issue that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, at least in the criminal and juvenile justice fields. With a few very notable exceptions – including our terrific partners at AWI, the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, the Humane Society of the United States, and the National Crime Prevention Council – we haven’t done enough in the justice system to explore this connection.

This is unfortunate because the co-occurrence of animal abuse and some forms of criminal behavior demands that we make understanding this link part of our approach to fighting crime in our society.

And in moral terms, beyond the association with interpersonal violence, our actions to condemn and end violence towards animals serve as a kind of barometer of how far we’re willing to go to bring an end to suffering in this world.

Investigations of animal fighting, hoarding, puppy mills, and other cases of animal abuse unveil instances of the most shocking brutality. The length and extent of the torture these animals endure is difficult to imagine. If it wasn’t for the evidence that many of you have uncovered in your work, it would be hard to believe that human beings are capable of such cruelty.

Thankfully, there are people like our award recipients who show us every day that we’re also capable of great compassion, and that it’s that compassion that can bring an end to cruelty and injustice.

These acts of violence and abuse against animals are unconscionable in and of themselves. But they’re also disturbing because they open other doors to violence and abuse.

A good deal of work – though not enough – has been done to decipher the link between animal cruelty and interpersonal crime.

One study in 2009 found that witnessing animal cruelty was the largest predictor of future violence. The connection goes the other way, too. We know that children who witness violence in the home are more likely to be violent toward animals. These are among the many sad consequences of childhood exposure to violence.

We also know – sadly – that animal abuse frequently happens in conjunction with family violence. Animal abuse is more prevalent in homes where children are abused and where domestic violence occurs. In surveys of domestic violence victims, up to 48 percent of battered women say they’ve delayed their decision to leave their batterer or have returned out of fear for the welfare of their pets.

The evidence continues to mount that animal cruelty doesn’t happen in isolation, yet we still don’t know enough about how it relates to interpersonal crime.

We’ve all heard the spectacular cases of serial rapists and mass murderers who tortured animals in their youth. In truth, more research is needed to fully grasp the complexities of animal abuse as it relates to violence between people. Although we have a developing sense of correlations, we need a better sense of how to more effectively prevent and intervene in cases involving animal abuse.

I’ve established an animal cruelty working group at the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs to explore how we can build our knowledge in this area. We’re looking into how we can achieve a better understanding of the predictive link between animal cruelty and interpersonal violence.

Much of what we know comes from small or retrospective studies or from self-reports that may not be completely reliable. And we have very little information on animal cruelty as a form of crime in itself. We need more research that targets specific links between animal abuse and interpersonal crime. That’s one of the things we’re hoping to accomplish.

More immediately, we need to instill in practitioners – law enforcement officers, victim advocates, animal control officers – a heightened sense of urgency about violence against animals. We need to make sure first responders are trained to ask about pets and that they appreciate the challenges of having pets present in an abusive home. I know that some law enforcement agencies have begun to incorporate animal-related questions in their risk assessment protocols for child abuse and domestic violence, and I think this is commendable.

Investigators and prosecutors should understand, too, that talking to kids about their pets can help elicit information about family violence that they might not get otherwise. Our Bureau of Justice Assistance has a partnership with the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys to provide prosecutors and allied professionals with training and other resources to improve the response to criminal justice matters where animals are involved.

Last year, we held a national conference in Denver that brought together prosecutors, animal control officers, and non-profit groups from around the country to learn about innovative practices in animal cruelty cases. AWI – particularly, Nancy Blaney – was intimately involved in that, as was one of our honorees today, Michelle Welch.

We’re also working with APA to cross-train law enforcement with animal behavioralists to reduce pet shootings and improve officer safety, and we’re developing an awareness campaign to highlight connections between domestic violence, child abuse, and elder abuse on the one hand, and animal abuse, on the other.

Let me also put in a plug for the quarterly newsletter – Lex Canis – that Dave LeBahn and his staff put together. This is an excellent resource, with information on promising practices, new legislation, case law, and compelling stories related to animal abuse. It’s available on APA’s Web site.

So we’re making good progress, but this is a complicated issue, as most of you know, one that will require greater sophistication on the part of practitioners and policymakers, and a greater awareness among the public. Simply put, we need to do more, and there’s no better place to begin than right here.

With the example of these three outstanding individuals before us, and with the talent and commitment assembled in this room, we have the potential to make our justice system an enlightened instrument of compassion. I applaud your efforts, and I really look forward to our work together.

Updated September 17, 2014