LEESBURG, Va. — As the U.S. struggles with mass shootings that seem to occur with frightening frequency, experts are urging us to pay closer attention to what they’re calling the reddest of red flags: animal cruelty.
In Buffalo, Payton Gendron is accused of killing 10 people in a supermarket. Acquaintances say he’d stabbed and decapitated a feral cat with a hunting knife beforehand and posted a picture on social media.
Salvador Ramos was shot and killed by police in Uvalde after allegedly killing19 schoolchildren and two teachers. Classmates say he loved hurting animals, beat a little dog senseless, and posted videos of dead cats on a social media platform.
In Parkland, Nikolas Cruz was convicted of murdering 14 high school students and three adults. Neighbors say he first shot squirrels, then chickens, and stabbed rabbits with long sticks.
So if authorities paid closer attention to animal cruelty, could it save lives?
"Absolutely," said Chris Brosan, chief of humane law enforcement at Loudoun County Animal Services.
Brosan points to Michael Bowles, 24, of Lucketts, Virginia, who admitted to attacking his family dog long before he murdered his dad in 2017.
“Two years prior to killing his father and setting his house on fire, he stabbed his family dog in the throat,” Brosan said.
Brosan spent years traveling the country for the Humane Society of the United States, teaching officers about the link between animal abuse and violence against humans.
"We know everybody who abuses animals does not go on to perpetrate horrible crimes," he said. "But there’s enough of a correlation that we have to pay attention to it."
Randall Lockwood, a consultant for the American Society for the Prevention of
Cruelty to Animals who lives in Falls Church, literally wrote the book on the link nearly a quarter century ago. He said serial killer Keith Jesperson, who murdered at least eight women on the West Coast in the early 1990s, personally warned him that he’d started his violent spree by attacking animals.
"He had nailed animals to trees," Lockwood said. "He’d killed cats and dogs."
The greater the torture, the more intimate the violence, the more alarmed you should be, Lockwood warns.
"Stealing the neighbor’s dog, wiring its mouth shut, and setting it on fire," are examples of what Lockwood said would be the kind of violence against animals that would be most closely tied to violence against people. He says the correlation is highest among young, white perpetrators of mass violence.
“About 35% of them have a documented history of prior animal cruelty,” he said.
But he suspects that figure might be low because he thinks a lot of animal abuse still goes unreported.
Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who was convicted of the murders and dismemberment of 17 men and boys between 1978 and 1991, cut apart animals as a child.
“All I know is I wanted to see what the insides of these animals looked like,” Dahmer told an interviewer before he was killed in prison.
Johns Hopkins University psychiatrist Fred Berlin interviewed Dahmer before his death.
"I remember I shook his hand, and this is a guy who took a number of lives by strangling them to death," Berlin said.
But Berlin cautions against drawing a straight line between what he calls Dahmer’s fascination with anatomy and dissecting animals, and his compulsion to murder humans, which he says was driven by something very different: necrophilia.
"Mr. Dahmer had a preoccupation with the anatomy of both animals and human beings," Berlin said. "But the sexual activity was confined to human beings who had passed away, or whose life he had taken."
Experts say the judicial system is starting to pay attention. Animal abuse is now a felony across the country. The FBI is collecting data, and judges and prosecutors are seeking punishment and treatment for abusers.
Animal welfare groups say the public can make a difference too. If people see anything that might be animal cruelty, advocates urge them to call and report it. They say they'd rather look into a report that turns out to be false than let real abuse go unchecked.