The Roadmap to Stopping Animal Cruelty

Originally published at

Most of us find animal abuse so shocking and horrific that the thought alone makes us wince. But most is not all, and judging by recent acts of deliberate, depraved cruelty in our own backyard, we're disturbingly far from all.

2014-07-02-king.jpgIn May, King, a one-year-old male cat, was lured over by a young Brooklyn man and then brutally kicked twenty feet into the air as he and his friends laughed. We know this because one of those friends recorded the moment in a video that was posted on Facebook on May 5, prompting a strong and justified public outcry. With help from the North Shore Animal League and other rescuers, King was soon located, and the New York Police Department brought him to the ASPCA Animal Hospital on May 6. He was immediately given medical and behavioral care and made a full recovery.

Another cat, Quattro, was much less fortunate. On May 7, in Paterson, N.J., Quattro was allegedly tortured by three children, all under 12. According to news reports, the kids threw bricks, stones, and sticks at the cat. After older children rescued Quattro from the abuse, he was cared for at Chance at Life Cat Rescue, a local animal rescue group. Suffering from broken legs, a broken jaw, a fractured eye socket and head trauma, Quattro was euthanized on May 15 to end his suffering.

These are not isolated acts of cruelty. Just look at each of the previous three months.

• In April, Roxie, a young Rottweiler was brought to the ASPCA after being slashed and stabbed, and dumped in a trash can. Roxie is receiving medical treatment at the ASPCA.

• In March, Otis, a young pit bull mix, was brought to our animal hospital by the NYPD after he was abandoned in upper Manhattan. A veterinary examination determined that the dog had multiple blunt force trauma injuries and multiple fractures. Otis is continuing to undergo daily rehabilitation exercises.

• And in February, a 13-week-old golden doodle puppy named Miley was seized by the NYPD and brought to the ASPCA Animal Hospital. Although the dog's caretaker claimed she fell down stairs, a veterinarian who examined the puppy observed a number of injuries more consistent with being kicked or thrown. Miley was fortunately able to make a full recovery in our care. She was adopted shortly thereafter.

Sometimes, acts of cruelty stir such attention and outrage that positive change results. I think of Justin, a cat who was lit on fire just over a year ago in Philadelphia. Though he lost his ears, Justin recovered and is now a symbol for the horrors of animal cruelty, but also for the perseverance of animals and humans to overcome it. Justin has over 135,000 fans on his Facebook page and frequently makes public appearances to bring attention to pet welfare issues.

I also think of Patrick, a pit bull who was found near death at the bottom of a Newark apartment building's trash chute in 2011. Weighing less than 20 pounds when he was found, Patrick recovered and is the inspiration for New Jersey's "Patrick's Law," signed last year by Gov. Chris Christie. The law increases penalties for animal cruelty offenses in the state.

Both Patrick and Justin were inducted into the 2014 New Jersey Veterinary Medical Association's "Animal Hall of Fame," and I was honored to meet them and their caretakers at the Animal Welfare Federation of New Jersey's annual conference back in March.

But to truly end animal cruelty, we need to look beyond institutional remedies in our government and courts. The truth is, longer prison terms and stiffer penalties -- while absolutely necessary as law enforcement tools -- are less effective when it comes to stopping suffering as it happens or even earlier.

To make necessary and meaningful change, we can look to the histories of other social causes.

Drunk driving laws have been on the books since the early 1900s, but without a reliable way to measure sobriety and -- more importantly -- a public outcry for such laws to be strongly enforced, there was no momentum to abide by or to enforce them. Just consider the phrase "one for the road." But in the early 1980s, Candy Lightner and her organization, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, put intense public pressure on state and local governments to effect change, which shifted attitudes. As a result, arrests went up more than 220 percent from 1970-1986, and the number of drunk driving deaths in America has been cut in half since Mothers Against Drunk Driving was founded in 1980.

Now consider domestic violence, which, for decades, was seen as a family matter, and at worst, a man's prerogative. Things only started changing toward the end of the 20th century, when the women's movement and domestic violence victim advocates exposed the pressing need for life-saving laws and dedicated law enforcement. By 2005 non-fatal domestic violence incidents were reduced by nearly 50 percent. There was also a 51 percent increase in the reporting of domestic violence. It all started with people -- regular people, like me and you -- to put these issues on the forefront of our national consciousness.

I believe these two examples and others illustrate a roadmap for us who care about animal welfare. At the end of that road, animal cruelty will not be the problem just for people who care about animals, but a problem for everyone who believes a civilized society has inherent and necessary standards of humanity. Basically, if we can evolve societal attitudes about drunk driving and domestic violence, why can't we spark a continual evolution of thoughts and values on animal cruelty?

So how do we get there?

One step we must take is to strongly encourage the public to report animal cruelty, just like we encourage them to report suspicious packages or people. Having accessible, visible avenues to report animal abuse -- strongly supported and promoted by the media, community, law enforcement, and within the family -- not only saves lives but reinforces the message that animals deserve our concern and protection.

If the older neighborhood kids who intervened in the torture of Quattro knew enough to step in, then anyone can do the same, regardless of age or background. You don't need a degree in veterinary science or animal welfare experience to spot and stop animal cruelty -- for most of us, that sensitivity is built into our internal values.

Here in New York City, thanks to our in-depth partnership with the NYPD, anyone can dial 311 to report suspected animal abuse (or 911 to report crimes in progress). The NYPD is trained to respond and investigate. Here are more ways to report animal abuse where you live.

The next step is to share these stories. We know pets have a unique ability to move all kinds of people. I believe King, Quattro, Roxie, Otis, Miley, Patrick, Justin, and the thousands more victimized animals they represent across the country can still make a deep impact on a closed mind or a callous attitude. And one open mind leads to another, and another.

We may never live in a world where every animal is treated humanely, compassionately, and respectfully, but that doesn't mean we should ease up on our vigilance. If anything, we need to double down on our efforts -- in legislation, in our courts, and in law enforcement -- but even more so in our social circles, which are becoming wider and wider by the minute.

Our animals deserve it, and our humanity demands it.

Matthew Bershadker is President & CEO of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Learn more about the ASPCA's mission and programs at