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Dog Burning Case Spurred Greater Awareness

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BALTIMORE (AP) — Animal abuse has long been a fact of life in many parts of Baltimore, but the sadistic torching of a young pit bull in 2009 shook the city into action. The dog, dubbed Phoenix by rescue workers, was later euthanized when veterinarians determined her injuries were much too severe to survive.

Now, advocates say they’re seeing greater awareness and reporting of abuse, which can lead to an increase in prosecutions.

“I think Phoenix galvanized our city that had become very complacent about animal abuse. That is her legacy,” said Caroline Griffin, chairwoman of the mayor’s Anti-Animal Abuse Advisory Committee. “She really was a turning point for this city. I think there was a lot of misunderstanding about what animal cruelty was.”

The permanent committee grew from a yearlong task force formed in response to the Phoenix case. Now, Griffin said other cities are contacting the committee to learn about the city’s multidisciplinary approach to animal cruelty.

“We’re seeing a shift, just as we did in the domestic violence arena years ago,” Griffin said. “I think we’ll be seeing even more prosecution in the future.”

Baltimore’s police department now trains officers to recognize abuse, and an officer has been trained to investigate these cases. The state’s attorney’s office has two prosecutors who focus on adult and juvenile defendants in such cases. The city’s animal control division has launched a campaign to teach residents about the responsibilities of pet ownership and how to spot and report abuse with targeted outreach and enforcement in zip codes that see the most calls for service.

Animal Enforcement Officer Ricky Martin said the increased awareness has meant responding to more calls. Sometimes people even stop him in the street.

“People know that they can come forward and say, `I know where a dog is being mistreated,”‘ he said. “Now they know what we do.”

Prosecuting crimes that directly affect humans, such as murders and rapes, are the priority for State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein. But it’s important to pursue animal cruelty cases, particularly those involving juveniles, because the perpetrators can go on to commit crimes against humans later, Bernstein said.

“The reason is that data shows that there is a greater likelihood that a juvenile will commit other crimes,” he said.

Between May 2010 and November 2011, the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office charged defendants with more than 150 counts of animal cruelty and mutilation counts.

“Before Phoenix, people didn’t appreciate the significance of these cases,” he said.

Nearly three years later, a retrial for the now-20-year-old twins charged in the Phoenix case began last week in Baltimore Circuit Court. Prosecutors hope to convince jurors that the brothers set the dog on fire, then left her to die. Defense attorneys told the jury that Tremayne and Travers Johnson didn’t commit the crime. It was just convenient for authorities to charge them to silence public outcry.

Jurors heard from Detective Syreeta Teel, who described noticing a puff of smoke before she saw the burning dog and extinguishing the flames on the screaming pit bull with her sweater. Jurors also watched police surveillance video that shows the panting dog, limping painfully around in the street with her tail down while people tried to get her to drink water and stay still until animal control arrived.

Across the country, prosecutors are overwhelmed and overloaded, and their automatic response is often that these are “just” animal cases, said Randall Lockwood, senior vice president of forensic sciences and anti-cruelty projects at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He works with the National Center for Prosecution of Animal Abuse on a training program for prosecutors. It emphasizes the connection between animal cruelty and other crimes, giving them reasons to justify their involvement in animal cases.

“That certainly resonates with the experiences of most district attorneys,” he said. “Also, it’s important to give them ammunition to show just how strongly the public wants to see these cases move forward. If you have an elected prosecutor, that’s something they can’t ignore.”

One of the questions he hears most often from prosecutors is about why they hear so much from the public on these cases, even as they hear so little about others.

“It’s not just that we are somehow inappropriately overly concerned about animals,” Lockwood said. “I think it’s a legitimate concern. People show a lot of empathy for animal victims of crime and a lot of concern about the perpetrators of those crimes.”

Prosecutors are helped by the public’s increased awareness and willingness to come forward to report cruelty. And as people see prosecutors aggressively pursuing animal cruelty cases, they’re more likely to report them, Griffin said.

The commission has focused attention on effective prosecution, but now it will turn its focus to outreach and prevention.

Similarly, the city of Baltimore launched an ad campaign last year featuring local sports figures. It’s aimed at boys and young men who are so often the perpetrators of animal abuse. The message, “Only a punk would hurt a cat or dog,” is paired with images of mixed martial arts fighter John Rallo, Ravens linebacker Jarrett Johnson and Oriole Adam Jones cuddling with their pets is meant to teach young people that abusing an animal is not a sign of strength.

“We’re hopeful that this campaign will change the mindset of juveniles,” Griffin said. “We want to show them you can be a man and still be compassionate to animals.”

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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