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Last updated: Tue. Sep. 02, 2014 - 09:44 am EDT

Fast action needed to halt abuse

Officials see animal cruelty linked to attacks on humans

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On Feb. 11, a 5-month-old kitten named Pixie May died after she was picked up and thrown violently onto a linoleum floor.

On Feb. 26, a 2-month-old baby suffered a skull fracture. When police saw the infant in the pediatric intensive care unit of Parkview Regional Medical Center, the little girl had a rectangular dent on her head and bruising under both eyes.

Both violent acts resulted in felony charges, to the same person: 22-year-old John A. Meier.

While he has yet to be convicted of the charges against him, the Fort Wayne man did not explicitly deny causing the injuries suffered by both the kitten and the baby, though the explanations seem to stretch credulity.

Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards handles cases of animal abuse and neglect personally, reviewing each case that comes across her desk. She is adamant that the link between the mistreatment of animals and humans is so strong it warrants close scrutiny.

“It's important to catch these people as soon as you can, to try to stop the escalation. It is a strong predictor,” Richards said.

Research shows she is correct. Those who abuse animals with violence are more likely to abuse their partners or children. The connection is so strong that local animal care authorities work hand-in-hand with the police, Department of Child Services and other agencies within the community.

“It happens pretty frequently when there is concurrent abuse happening,” said Molly Jenkins, research analyst and animal-and-human interaction specialist at the American Humane Society.

“If someone has violent tendencies, they are going to want to take it out on every living being,” Jenkins said.

The cases pending against Meier are not the only examples locally.

In July, 26-year-old Austin J. Witek pleaded guilty to domestic violence by animal cruelty and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. He had been charged with that count, as well as cruelty to an animal, interference with the reporting of a crime and being a habitual offender.

Witek was arrested after he grabbed the family's pet rabbit and stomped it to death. He smashed the family's fish tank as well and tried unsuccessfully to kill the fish. When police arrived, according to court documents, a child screamed at them “he killed my bunny.”

Witek had been arguing with his fiancée at the time, according to court documents. He had a prior misdemeanor conviction for domestic battery and was charged a few weeks after the incident with failure to register as a sexual or violent offender.

Foretelling events

Within the criminal justice system, animal abuse is defined as what people would describe as a socially unacceptable behavior that intentionally causes unnecessary pain, suffering, distress or the death of an animal, Richards said.

It's much the same as disciplining children, Richards said.

That which corrects and promotes good behavior in a 6-year-old is probably not going to be acceptable when done to a 6-week old child, she said.

Referencing Witek's case, Richard said it's the obvious lack of empathy and the use of violence to control or intimidate the humans in the equation.

“It's that controlling type of behavior,” she said.

In court documents spelling out the animal cruelty case against Meier, the death of Pixie May came after the mother of Meier's child bathed and changed the baby without him.

“Mr. Meier informed (the mother) that he was upset and proceeded to the bedroom where (she) was dressing their child … Meier explained that he had to get ‘in her face' to prove his point,” court documents read.

He told officers with Fort Wayne Animal Care & Control the argument kept escalating and the kitten jumped up on the bed numerous times and he tossed it outside into the hallway, but must have thrown it down too hard.

His version of events is vastly different from the one shared by the woman. She told officers the kitten was under the bed with the dog when Meier became angry. He reached down and grabbed it, raised it above his head and threw it to the floor. He then picked up its lifeless body and took it outside and threw it in the dumpster, according to court documents.

A necropsy performed by Fort Wayne Animal Care & Control found the kitten died from a bruise to her heart, likely caused by the sudden impact with the floor.

Abuse to animals is a powerful way of reminding partners and children that, if the violent individual is willing to take such actions against a largely defenseless animal, they could take such action against those with whom they live, Jenkins said.

“It is very, very powerful,” she said.

And it can foretell events.

Animal cruelty is a huge predictor of future crime, not just serial killing, Jenkins said. “If a child is abusing an animal then they need help, and they might have witnessed violence within the home,” she said.

Richards said when animal abuse is observed in juveniles, there is still time to intervene with mental health services.

“When people see one of these cases, I'm not sure they understand that these are oftentimes an introduction into the criminal justice system.”

And if it is not dealt with?

“Their behavior is going to escalate,” Richards said.

In court documents outlining the battery charge against Meier, the baby's mother was doing their grocery shopping at a Walmart, leaving the infant in the car with Meier. While she was in the store, she received multiple texts from Meier saying the baby was pooping all over everything and screaming “at the top of her lungs.”

The next text message from Meier claimed the baby smacked her head on the steering wheel of the car. It was noted in court documents that the 2-month-old baby could not lift her head up when lying on her back.

“(The mother) stated that (Meier) got very grumpy and loud with her when she did not believe that the victim could have hurt herself that way,” according to court documents.

‘A red flag’

For Fort Wayne Animal Care & Control officers, domestic violence awareness is something they take very seriously when dealing with animal care.

If a victim of domestic violence is fleeing a bad situation, Animal Care & Control will hold onto their pets for them until the victim only returns to claim them. The animals are kept in an mostly non-public area of the facility and no one at the shelter will confirm the presence of the animal.

No one else can inquire about it. No one else can see it, and no one else can adopt it or claim it, said Amy Jo Sites, deputy director of Fort Wayne Animal Care & Control.

As a public safety agency, Animal Care & Control officers are trained in how to handle crime scenes and evidence, and know how to put the pieces of the puzzle together in interviews and conversations, she said.

She said that when her officers observe cases of animal neglect or abuse, even if they did not respond to the incident alongside the police, they will report that information to the necessary agencies or authorities, such as the Department of Child Services or Neighborhood Code.

And it does not always have to be punitive, Sites said.

Sometimes the reports and the actions taken are to provide help for those who might be overwhelmed, she said.

While she added that just because abuse to animals and abuse to humans are connected, it does not necessarily mean that one always leads to the other, the presence of animal abuse could give a clue to get the needed help.

“It's definitely a red flag,” she said.

rgreen@jg.net


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