Diana Urban (Courtesy of Diana Urban)

Opinion: A Legal Movement to Address Animal Cruelty and Prevent Mass Shootings

in Opinion

He dragged the screaming dog down the trailer park road beating him around the head and neck while repeatedly slamming him to the ground. It was 2014 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Eyewitnesses called the police and he was arrested. He claimed he was breaking up a non-existent dog fight and he was let go after paying a fine. His name is Devlin Kelly.

Three years later Mr. Kelly showed up at a Baptist church in Texas with a gun and killed 26 people — half of whom were children — and wounded 20.

In the wake of such mass shootings, one question always surfaces. Were there warning signs?

Ample psychological studies have indicated a strong link between animal abuse and future violent behavior. When the abuse is “up close and personal” — hands-on violence toward animals — the link is practically irrefutable. Our country is faced with a rash of mass shootings from venues that range from schools to churches to malls and concerts. And they are accelerating. No one apparently is safe. We wring our collective hands and send thoughts and prayers.

Depending on how you parse the data anywhere from 43% to 80% of school shooters started with animal cruelty. In fact, between 1997 and 2001, of the seven school shootings that took place across the country, all involved boys who had previously committed acts of direct animal cruelty. The Pearl High School shooter, Luke Woodham, tortured his own dog to death by beating him, placing him in a plastic bag and setting him on fire. There were no repercussions and Luke went on to kill his Mom, two classmates and injuring seven other kids. The list goes on and on.

Dedicated advocates and some brave legislators in the State of Connecticut decided to try something out of the ordinary and introduce legislation that recognized and took seriously the link between animal cruelty and future violent behavior. PA 16 -30 known as “Desmond’s Law” was enacted in Oct of 2016. The first law of its kind in the nation. This law puts a pro-bono lawyer or a law student under the supervision of a law professor in court to advocate for justice for the dog or cat victim of egregious abuse. Recently the courts themselves extended the role of an advocate to a case involving terrible cruelty to rabbits.

Overworked prosecutors now have an additional resource to track down all the relevant information in these cruelty cases. This is at no extra cost to the state. In the past, only 18% of cruelty cases were judged guilty with consequences. The rest were dismissed, or in a particularly disturbing scenario, given a diversionary program known as Accelerated rehabilitation (AR).

This involves a slap on the wrist with mild probation and your record is ERASED after completing the probationary period. That is correct. You torture and strangle a dog to death — this is what happened in Desmond’s case — you receive AR and your record is erased. So if I am looking to hire a homesitter, for example, and Alex Wullaert, Desmond’s killer is in that business, I have no way of knowing that he has this extremely violent background.

To date, Desmond’s Law has put animal advocates in court in over 60 cases. Preliminary empirical evidence is very clear. The courts are taking animal cruelty much more seriously. There is no ‘get out of jail free’ card anymore.

The dedicated group that advocated tirelessly for the law has formed a nonprofit 501(c)3 called “Desmond’s Army” — Animal Law Advocates and they follow every court case. The judges are welcoming the advocates, the District Attorneys are using the data collected by the advocates to bring justice to these egregious cruelty cases, and the nation is taking notice

I recently presented at the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s Conference on Animal Law. Over 400 lawyers, advocates, lobbyist and law students were there to learn more about defending animals and the links that animal cruelty reveals. My presentation resulted in 8 additional states asking for help to introduce Desmond’s Law.

The state of Maine’s legislature has already passed “Franky’s Law” and the bill awaits the Governor’s signature. Illinois has introduced “Braveheart’s Law.”  New York, New Jersey and Michigan have introduced versions of the law. California, Oregon, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Washington and Nevada have all asked for help introducing versions of Desmond’s Law.

Now the Animal Legal Defense Fund is putting its national heft and expertise behind the effort to get Desmond’s Law in every state. It is my honor to be able to work with them under my own organization “Protecting Kids and Pets Partnership”

The police were called many times on complaints that Nikolas Cruz was trying to kill his neighbor’s potbelly pig babies and was torturing small animals. No one took it seriously. In 2018 he went to Parkland School and killed 26 innocent children and adults.

God bless the Parkland students who are fighting back. You are not alone. The Animal Legal Defense Fund is fighting back, Desmond’s Army is fighting back. The Protecting Kids and Pets Partnership is fighting back. It all started right here in Connecticut . Think about joining us and instead of thoughts and prayers. Fight Back!


Diana Urban served 18 years in the Connecticut General Assembly, where she chaired the Committee on Children. With Jessica Rubin, Clinical Professor of Law and Director, Legal Practice Program at UConn Law School, Urban authored “Desmond’s Law.” Currently she serves as founder and President of the Protecting Kids and Pets Partnership