LA cracks down on animal cruelty

By Jack Leonard
Los Angeles Times / February 15, 2009
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LOS ANGELES - Furious that his girlfriend had broken up with him and stopped taking his calls, Steven Butcher decided to take his anger out on the couple's puppy.

"Every time you . . . don't pick up the phone, I am beating the dog," Butcher said in a voice-mail message he left for his former girlfriend. In a later message, as the dog yelped in the background, he said, "You got some more of the dog getting beat."

When police officers arrived at Butcher's suburban Los Angeles home, they found Nelia, the pit bull puppy, shivering in a sink with cold water running over her. The animal's jaw had been broken, her eye sockets had been fractured, and several ribs had been cracked.

Butcher, 23, was charged and convicted last year of animal cruelty - one of a growing number of serious animal abuse cases in Los Angeles, where police and prosecutors say they are taking crimes against animals more seriously than ever.

For four years, the Los Angeles Police Department has devoted five officers and detectives to a task force dedicated to investigating animal abuse and neglect. The Los Angeles County district attorney's office recently began training a select group of prosecutors to handle animal-related cases and is seeking tougher sentences for repeat offenders.

"As a society, we're just less tolerant of unnecessary and unjustified cruelty to animals," said Dale Bartlett, deputy manager of the animal cruelty and fighting campaign at the Humane Society of the United States.

In Los Angeles County, records show that during the 12 months ending in August, the district attorney's office filed animal cruelty charges in 116 cases, nearly 50 percent more than the previous year.

Last year, prosecutors won a rare dog-fighting trial against a 42-year-old nurse, who was sentenced to three years in prison. And in a separate case, the first person they had ever charged with a felony for cockfighting was convicted.

Randall Lockwood, an expert on animal abuse and a senior vice president at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said Los Angeles had adopted one of "the more progressive approaches" in the nation in dealing with crimes against animals.

"It's something that's needed in more major cities," he said.

The Los Angeles City Council created the Animal Cruelty Task Force in 2005, following a proposal by Councilman Tony Cardenas. In backing the measure, Police Department officials cited studies finding that animal abusers were often involved in other crimes such as drug trafficking, child abuse, and domestic violence.

Task force detectives said they have seen the connection for themselves.

In the case of Nelia, the beaten puppy, police said her owner also threatened to kill his girlfriend during some of his phone calls.

He was sentenced last year to 270 days in jail for animal cruelty, placed on five years' probation, and ordered to undergo counseling.

The puppy survived and was adopted when authorities suspected that Butcher's former girlfriend might reconcile with him, police said.

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