It hasnít been a particularly good year for animals in Fairfax County. During the past six months, charges have been filed in the stabbing of a pit bull in Fairfax, the slashing of three horses in Herndon and the drowning of a wallaby in Reston. Two goats, a calf and a chicken also were slashed at Herndonís Frying Pan Park in May.
Each of these incidents got us thinking about animal cruelty laws in Virginia.
The good news is Virginiaís laws are considered some of the toughest in the nation; the bad is they still are weak.
If an angry neighbor takes a baseball bat to your barking dog this weekend, the maximum penalty he or she can receive is 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine. Thatís the top penalty for a Class 1 misdemeanor in Virginia, and thereís a good chance most of those convicted of misdemeanors wonít serve a full jail term — if they serve any time at all.
For some perspective, any driver stopped for driving 76 mph on Route 7, Braddock Road or the Capital Beltway would face the same penalty.
Going forward, legislators would be wise to toughen Virginiaís cruelty laws while broadening the spectrum of cruelty charges.
Someone who inadvertently leaves their dog in the back yard on a 95-degree day shouldnít face the same charge as a person who stabs two horses and a goat. At the moment, they do.
If legislators need some guidance, they can talk to their counterparts in Oregon, Ohio and Illinois, which treats animal cruelty as a Class 4 felony punishable by as many as three years in jail, a $25,000 fine and a psychiatric evaluation.
Nobody is suggesting tougher sentences will eradicate every act of animal cruelty in Fairfax County, but thereís little doubt the prospect of a three-year jail sentence and $25,000 fine significantly would reduce the number of cruelty incidents while placing the subject in the public consciousness.
Increasingly, social service agencies and mental health professional recognize animal abuse as aggressive and antisocial behavior. Itís also a reliable predictor of violence against people after a young abuser grows up.
A recent study by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Northeastern University found 70 percent of animal abusers had committed at least one other crime. Almost 40 percent had committed violent crimes against people.
Equally troubling is more than 80 percent of family members being treated for child abuse also had abused animals. In two-thirds of those cases, an abusive parent had killed or injured a pet. In one-third, a child victim continued the cycle of violence by abusing a pet.
If stiffer penalties and mental evaluations are introduced in Virginia, legislators will have succeeded in taking potentially dangerous people out of our communities before a single person is hurt.