Searching for those who commit acts of animal cruelty can be difficult, police and experts say, in part because it's hard to profile offenders.
But a number of studies -- including research by the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit -- have pointed to a link between acts of animal cruelty and more violent crimes. Simply put, those who harm animals could be more likely to harm people later in life, experts say.
In adolescents, animal cruelty is cause for concern but not necessarily uncommon, said Richard Ortega, the chief of policy and clinical affairs for the Maryland Mental Hygiene Administration's office of forensic services. Growing up in rural Virginia in the 1950s, he remembered a group of "tough kids" in his hometown catching pigeons, dousing them in liquor and setting them on fire.
But adults who commit acts of animal cruelty, Ortega said, are generally "more disturbed."
"When people take big, expensive animals and mutilate them, this is a person who's got tremendous rage against people," he said. "And they're just managing to divert it to animals."
In cases of extreme animal cruelty, Ortega said, some judges will recommend that offenders receive psychiatric help as a condition of their release. Virginia's animal cruelty laws allow judges to order offenders into anger management classes or counseling, although significant jail time for animal cruelty offenses tends to be rare. Sean Deltonay Branch, who was arrested in the killing of a 6-month-old puppy, is facing five years in prison if convicted. Adam Parascandola, the director of animal cruelty investigations at the U.S. Humane Society, said that potential sentence is in line with animal cruelty penalties across the country.
"Penalties are getting stronger as time goes by," Parascandola said. "People are becoming aware of the need for stronger animal cruelty penalties."
-- Aubrey Whelan