FBI puts new spotlight on animal cruelty

2-year-old Ziggy is both blind and deaf. He had been living in Tennessee with a dozen other dogs. He was locked in a basement and severely neglected.

SCARBOROUGH (WGME) -- The FBI is putting a new spotlight on animal cruelty. The bureau is now collecting data on certain crimes against animals. Authorities hope the data will back up a suspected link that people who commit crimes against animals are more likely to commit crimes against people.

It's a change that's being welcomed by many animal lovers, including Matt and Laura Hearst of Scarborough. Their 2-year-old dog Ziggy is both blind and deaf.

"It's hard to adopt a dog that has disabilities and bad history, especially a history you don't understand," Hearst said.

The Hearsts adopted him about a year ago through the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland. He had been living in Tennessee with a dozen other dogs. He was locked in a basement and severely neglected.

"None of them ever saw the light of day. They were never let out. They were found just surrounded by feces and urine and to the point where we were told that the floor had caved in," Hearst said.

They suspect the harsh conditions may have contributed to his disabilities.

"Being exposed to the urine and the ammonia burned his eyes and, so they never really actually got a chance to develop, it was too acidic of an environment," Hearst said.

It is cases of animal cruelty like this that are catching the eyes of law enforcement across the country.

"If someone is that cruel and has that much evil to do something to an animal, then there's no limits to what they could do to the people," John Thompson, National Sheriffs' Association, said.

Thompson says there's strong evidence that shows cruelty to animals can lead to crimes against people, but the data hasn't been collected to prove it.

"So I think if, if law enforcement doesn't look at that and doesn't see that is a serious connection, then we're really missing something that's going to help us to solve crimes, that's going to help us to make our community safer," Thompson said.

Since January 1, acts of cruelty against animals are now counted alongside felony crimes like arson, burglary, assault and homicide in the FBI's expansive criminal database.

The bureau is collecting detailed data on gross neglect, torture, organized abuse and sexual abuse against animals.

"I think that by collecting this data we're now going to be able to analyze more of what, what's really going on," Thompson said.

The Hearsts hope this will help authorities learn more about people like those who neglected Ziggy.

"To think if somebody found him earlier maybe he'd have his eyes," Hearst said. "You know, maybe he'd be a completely different dog."

While he's come a long way, he'll always need help doing everyday things. "It's fun to watch him grow and explore and get more confident," Hearst said.

But the Hearsts say he's done just as much for them as they have for him. "He really has taught us a lot and brought us a lot of joy. He's a really amazing dog," Hearst said.

According to the FBI, a first look at the animal cruelty statistics collected will be available next year, but it will take three to five years for data to begin showing helpful patterns.

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