You see it regularly now on Facebook in cases of animal abuse – someone will mention the FBI and how all this will be improved when they get involved in animal cruelty as they’re scheduled to, or that abuse is now a federal crime, or isn’t the FBI supposed to be doing something about this?
No, no, and no. So let’s address that.
The FBI recently made a change to the way they collect and report data about crime in a database called the National Incident-Based Reporting System, or NIBRS, that collects and reports data on crime statistics from around the country. Previously, animal cruelty crimes were lumped into an “other” category. It represents a change in attitude for the FBI – they want better tracking of cruelty because they find it is an indicator of violent crime, so in their reporting they are presenting it as equally important to consider and track as many violent crimes.
This has been widely misunderstood, both by the press and the general public. It does not mean that animal cruelty is now a federal crime, it does not mean that people who abuse animals will be prosecuted differently or get stiffer sentences, it does not mean that the FBI intends to get involved or is involved in state or local cruelty cases. It is simply a change in the way they track crime data. And that’s important, and a step forward – it’s a signal that they agree it should be taken seriously. But that’s all it is.
Data collection will begin in 2016.
The waters have been somewhat further muddied, I think, by some activist groups with poor messaging.
This is simply not true. Trust me, cruelty is not always a felony – or don’t trust me, look at the thousands of news stories for misdemeanor animal cruelty. Here in New York State, you can still starve an animal to death and it’s a misdemeanor – there’s a link to the exact text of the current law, take a look. What is true is that all states now have provisions for treating some cruelty as a felony offense, which is a very different statement, and a step forward. But currently, in most states, most cruelty is treated as a misdemeanor – and the definition of “cruelty” can vary widely from state to state.
I think it is important to correct misinformation like this so that animal lovers and activists do not believe that we’ve crossed a goal line that we, in fact, have not. The way cruelty is treated in the United States is changing, and these represent small but very important changes, changes that are worth noting and celebrating but that are not revolutionary – and that tends to be the way things work. Attitudes and laws tend to evolve over time rather than radically changing overnight. But further change is needed, and there is still much to do.
Update 12/2/15: This is a recent and excellent mass media article on the subject.
Update 1/7/16: Here’s another great article in the Washington Post.