NEW YORK (Reuters) - A registry for animal abusers -- the first in the nation according to advocates -- goes live in New York's Suffolk County next week.
Not just an effort to protect animals, the registry is the result of growing awareness that brutality against a dog, cat or even a squirrel is a chief indicator of potential violence against women and children, according to experts and studies.
Already, 19 states allow family pets to get restraining orders. Four states in recent years have included animal cruelty under the criminal definition of domestic abuse.
"Animal abuse is not only the tip of the iceberg of family violence, but it's often the first warning sign and the one a neighbor is most likely to call in," said Phil Arkow, coordinator of the National Link Coalition.
"People assume the kids and the spouse can pick up the phone on their own, but they feel sorry for the animal because it's a silent victim," he said.
The progression from animal to human abuse, known among experts as "the link," is changing the way laws are being written and enforced.
Statistics illustrate the connection. As many as 71 percent of battered women say their pets have been killed, harmed or threatened by their abusers, Arkow said. Batterers who abuse animals use more forms of violence against humans, such as stalking and marital rape, and are more dangerous than batterers who do not, he said.
At the same time, 48 percent of battered women with pets report they delayed entering a shelter over concerns for the safety of an animal left behind, said Frank Ascione, head of the University of Denver's Institute for Human-Animal Connection.
Recognizing animal abuse as a predictor of violence against humans appears to save lives. In Nashville, a domestic violence hotline initiated a triage system which elevated to high risk any reports that the batterer had weapons, threatened suicide or vowed to mutilate or kill an animal.
A year later, although domestic violence cases increased 50 percent, fatalities decreased 80 percent.
Domestic violence shelters are responding too. As recently as 2008, just four shelters allowed pets, advocates say. Today 201 shelters welcome animals or have nearby pet safehouses, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
In recognition of the link, animal protection workers who see something must advise their child protection counterparts -- and vice versa -- under unilateral cross reporting laws that exist in Maine and West Virginia and are under consideration in Connecticut.
Similarly, in Ohio and California, humane society agents and animal control officers have been added to the list of professionals bound by law to report suspected child abuse, according to Scott Heiser, criminal justice director at the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
And next week, for the first time, animal abusers in New York's Suffolk County will be listed on a public registry, modeled after the sex offender registry to protect children, in part "to ward off the dangers of potential future violence against people as well," said legislator Jon Cooper.
A growing number of police, prosecutors and judges are seeking training on the link between animal brutality and child abuse or spouse battering, experts said.
"I typically encourage child abuse investigators to open their child victim interviews with questions about how the family pet is doing," said Heiser.
"Kids are often very reluctant to disclose the abuse they have personally suffered but are more willing to disclose the abuse they've witnessed the suspect inflict on a pet."
By talking about how adults at home treat animals, children can unwittingly reveal child abuse, Arkow said.
"In many cases, they don't know it's animal abuse." he said. "Kids think, 'That's just the way my family treats animals.' They release information about patterns of control at home that you might not get otherwise."
Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Jerry Norton