By Gregory B. Hladky
11:05 AM EDT, July 3, 2013
If you're accused of being a sick bastard who tortures a dog or rapes a horse in Connecticut, your chances of being convicted aren't very high. A legislative study found that only 16 percent of people charged with animal cruelty in this state are ever found guilty.
That depressing statistic may be starting to change. Animal advocates and state officials say police, prosecutors and judges are all beginning to take animal cruelty cases more seriously than they did a decade ago.
One chilling reason for that newfound interest is a growing awareness that animal abusers are often also into abuse of children and wives, and can sometimes end up as mass murderers.
A recent report by the state Office of Legislative Research showed animal cruelty convictions in Connecticut last year totaled 89 — a significant increase over the measly 57 convictions a decade earlier.
The number of animal cruelty cases dismissed outright by the courts has also plunged, down from 255 in 2002 to just 87 last year.
And Connecticut's annual educational seminar for its judges, to update them on new laws and hot issues, will for the first time this year include a session on animal abuse.
Animal rights activists like state Rep. Diana Urban reluctantly concede that Connecticut's criminal justice system has made some limited progress in the past decade. But they say judges are often letting animal abusers off with probation and alternative sentences rather than the jail time they deserve.
"Yeah, we're getting better," Urban says, "but way too many are getting AR'd."
Urban is referring to "accelerated rehabilitation," a program that allows a first-time offender's record to be cleared of all charges if he or she completes probation with no screwups.
In 2011, a dude named Marian Wegiel managed to get accelerated rehabilitation despite being charged with what amounted to horse rape. Wegiel, 63, was charged with repeatedly "fisting" a horse's vagina at a stable in Shelton (which translated into cruelty to animals, fourth-degree sexual assault, third-degree criminal trespass and second-degree breach of the peace).
Wegiel apologized and blamed the incident on being drunk.
"We left the court feeling defeated," says Priscilla Feral, head of the Friends of Animals organization. "This was raping a horse, for goodness sake."
Alex Wullaert, 22, also avoided prison. He admitted to slowly strangling his pet dog to death and then tossing the body in a pond in Madison. An autopsy on the pit bull-boxer named Desmond found evidence of long-term abuse.
Desmond's case triggered demonstrations outside the court and anger from activists that Wullaert's only penalty was having to complete a program for people with psychiatric disabilities.
"He tortured that dog for a year and a half and then strangled it," Urban says with disgust. "And he got AR."
Urban tried and failed to win legislative approval this year for state "animal advocates" who would appear in court on abuse cases to make sure judges are aware of how much an animal has suffered.
"I think we'll get it next year," says Urban, who has been a relentless (some of her legislative colleagues might add "irritating") advocate for animal protection during her time in the General Assembly.
Despite the complaints of people like Urban and Feral, state officials insist they are trying harder on animal abuse cases than in the past.
"I do think people are more aware in law enforcement and in the court system," says state Superior Court Judge Robert Devlin Jr., chief administrative judge for criminal matters. "I think it's an important topic for us to discuss."
It was Devlin who decided to include animal abuse for the first time as part of the state's annual September issues seminar for judges. "That's from me beating on the judiciary," insists Urban.
Ray Connors is head of the state's animal control unit, and he's convinced the state is taking these abuse cases much more seriously these days because of what hurting animals can lead to.
"There are numerous studies of the links between animal abuse and child abuse," he points out. In fact, Connors' Department of Agriculture unit and the state's child welfare agency now routinely exchange information in animal abuse cases.
Connors says the animal cases are cross-checked to see if the state has any of those addresses on file for families with troubled or neglected children.
He also thinks animal control officers around the state — the folks who are usually the frontline responders in animal abuse cases — "are better trained than they were 10 years ago." Connors says that has led to better collection of evidence and statements, which gives prosecutors much more to work with when taking a case to court.
"Society as a whole has changed" when it comes to animal abuse," says Connors. "We're seeing more people calling in with things they're concerned about."
Gordon Willard, executive director of the Connecticut Humane Society, has the same opinion about public attitudes toward abuse of animals.
"In the old days, a kid would set a cat on fire and the family would say, 'Oh, that's just a kid being a kid,'" says Willard. Today, people are far more likely to "realize that's wrong... to realize we need to do something about it."
"We are learning there are connections between animal cruelty and spousal abuse, child abuse, elder abuse," he says. "If someone is doing this to animals, they are just warming up for the big game."
According to the annual rankings of the Humane Society of the United States, Connecticut ranked 12th among all the 50 states for the way it deals with animal abuse. (California, Massachusetts and Illinois were rated highest in 2012, with Mississippi, Idaho and South Dakota at the very bottom.)
Feral doesn't see any of this as terribly encouraging. "There's too much of it," she says of what she believes is an ongoing epidemic of animal abuse. "In most cases it's an act of rage... It's about a society filled with irrationality and anger, and there's no hope that it's getting better."
Willard quickly agrees that Connecticut could do a lot more to stop people who do hateful things to animals, but he believes growing public awareness of the issue is a good sign.
"My gut tells me that we've become more sensitive," he says, "and I hope to heck we're doing less harm to animals."
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