The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is set to begin tracking animal abuse the way it tracks homicides, a "huge policy shift" that nonetheless exposes the disparities in how crimes against household animals and farm animals are treated, activists said.
Scott Heiser, an attorney with the Animal Defense League, told the Washington Post on Friday the news was a "huge policy shift and significant step forward."
"I think there is truth to the notion they will be a lot more interested when they recognize how much volume there really is," Heiser said.
The FBI will track four categories of crimes, including simple or gross neglect; intentional abuse and torture; organized abuse, such as dog-fighting; and animal sexual abuse. The agency defines cruelty to animals as "Intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly taking an action that mistreats or kills any animal without just cause, such as torturing, tormenting, mutilation, maiming, poisoning, or abandonment."
The move also comes as states around the country enact controversial laws, often referred to as "ag-gag," that prohibit undercover investigations and recordings of animals at factory farms. That includes North Carolina, which on January 1 implemented the so-called "Property Protection Act," a bill that allows businesses to sue employees who secretly document their workplace, after several undercover activists released footage of a Purdue poultry company worker kicking, stomping, and throwing chickens at a Richmond County farm.
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"As practical matter, it’s heartening that the FBI is beginning to understand the seriousness of animal cruelty," Vandhana Bala, an attorney for Mercy for Animals, a group that advocates for human treatment of farm animals, told the Post on Friday.
But Bala noted that the new system reveals "inequity" in how crimes against cats and dogs are punished compared to animals like pigs, cows, and chickens.
Another catch in the program: it's voluntary. The FBI will only collect statistics that are reported by local law enforcement. For one advocate, Mary Lou Randor, who helped organize the charge to reform the agency's former animal abuse tracking system, the next challenge is getting police departments to comply.
"There is overwhelming evidence that [animal abuse] is linked to crimes against people, including violent crimes and domestic violence," she told the Post. "It’s not about protecting people or animals, it’s protecting them both."