Convicted sex offenders in Connecticut must be registered with the state and have their names and addresses listed for the public. Some activists want to require a similar system for people who abuse animals.
The idea is to stop the kind of gruesome animal torture that made headlines recently in the infamous "Puppy Doe" case in Massachusetts. A man living in this state has been charged with 11 counts of animal cruelty.
Several Connecticut lawmakers say they plan to revive their efforts to create a state animal abusers registry. An animal rights group based in California is also working on a national database that would give shelters and pet stores a way to check the backgrounds of potential pet owners.
"To be able to screen out potential abusers is really worthwhile," says state Rep. Mary Mushinsky, a Wallingford Democrat.
The Puppy Doe case involved a young female pit bull found in Quincy, Mass., in August of this year. Experts said the puppy had been tortured for weeks. She had been beaten, burned, stabbed in the eye, suffered multiple vertebrae fractures, dislocated joints, and was too weak to walk. Officials said they'd never seen anything like it, and ended up reluctantly euthanizing the poor animal.
The story triggered a huge outcry and demands for action. A Facebook page titled "Justice for Puppy Doe" got nearly 60,000 likes. In late October, a man named Radoslaw Czerkawski was arrested in New Britain.
The 32-year-old Czerkawski, a Polish national, was being held on $500,000 bail and could face up to two-and-a-half years in jail and deportation if convicted.
Criminal justice officials across the nation have been paying lots more attention to animal abuse in recent years.
Research has shown that people who inflict abuse on animals often end up abusing children and spouses as well. Many serial killers often began their grisly careers by torturing and killing animals.
Chris Green is legislative director for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a group that has been pushing states to create their own animal abuser registries. So far, only a few counties across the nation (three of them in New York) have approved these sorts of registries.
"None have really been successful at the state level," Green says, "primarily because of cost."
In Michigan, Green says state officials this year warned it could cost taxpayers $140,000 to create a database of convicted animal abusers. According to some supporters, the actual expense would be closer to $10,000, but any added state spending in these fiscal hard times is often enough to derail proposed bills.
Several Connecticut lawmakers offered animal abuser registry bills in 2011 and another was submitted in this year's General Assembly. None even made it as far as a public hearing.
"People don't want to put any more costs on an already strained budget," says state Rep. Christopher Davis, a Republican who represents East Windsor and Ellington. He was the sponsor of the registry bill that died without a vote in the 2013 legislature.
Davis said he and his wife got interested in the issue of animal abuse while looking to adopt a dog of their own. "We became aware of the abuse that's happening not just in Connecticut but across the country," he says.
(Davis and his wife are now the proud owners of a young terrier mix named Oliver, who arrived from a Tennessee adoption agency when he was only eight weeks old. "His litter had been left in a garbage bag on the side of the road," says Davis. "Luckily, someone found them.")
Davis doesn't believe a Connecticut abuser registry would cost all that much because relatively few people are convicted of animal abuse in this state each year.
A study by state legislative researchers published earlier this year found that just 594 people were found guilty of animal abuse in Connecticut during the 2002-2012 decade. That number represented just 16 percent of those charged with animal cruelty. In more than half those instances where someone was charged with animal abuse, criminal justice officials decided not to prosecute.
Connecticut's penalties for abusing animals include fines ranging from $1,000 to $10,000, and prison sentences in extreme cases of up to 10 years.
The Humane Society of the United States has in the past opposed calls for animal abuser registries that mimic state registries for sex offenders. The society's officials warn that publishing animal abuser's names and addresses could lead to the public shaming of people who are mentally ill or elderly when those folks may be getting therapy and pose no further risk.
Mushinsky and other activists say the sort of abusers the Humane Society is worried about are usually referred to as "hoarders." They are often elderly and try to collect and care for more animals than they have room or money to support.
"It's tough to deal with them," Mushinsky says of these aged hoarders. "They think they're doing the right thing."
She cites one Wallingford example from several years ago of a woman in her 80s who was trying to live with 25 dogs and more than 50 cats "on a very tiny income." All the animals were eventually removed, Mushinsky says.
Green's group has changed its approach and is now working to create its own national online database of abusers. The catch is that the system won't work unless states agree to electronically send lists of convicted animal abusers to the site and require that pet shelters, local pounds, and animal adoption agencies check all prospective pet owners for past conviction.
"We don't want to shame anybody," says Green. Unlike sex offender registries, the addresses and photos of the convicted animal abusers wouldn't be available on the Animal Legal Defense Fund's site.
A Massachusetts legislative plan, which would restrict abuser registry access to shelters, local pounds, pet breeders and pet stores, doesn't go far enough, Green says. The problem is that it wouldn't stop the kind of transfer of pets that led to the Puppy Doe case.
Puppy Doe was ended up with her last owner through a Craigslist advertisement, says Green.
Mushinsky says Internet ads have also "been used to abuse people as well as pets" and that no system will be able to stop all pet cruelty.
Despite the difficulties, Davis and Mushinsky say they plan to push for bipartisan legislative action on the animal cruelty issue in 2014.
"Currently," Green warns, "there is no mechanism to stop a convicted animal abuser from getting out of jail, walking across the street to a shelter to get another animal."
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