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America’s Unifying Banner: Erasing Animal Cruelty

Animal Law

In this time of political division, it is important to recognize that Americans still have common values that unite us. One such value is that cruelty to animals is unacceptable. Cities, counties, and every state have laws to protect animals against abuse. In 2019, Congress enacted the first law making cruelty to animals a federal crime.

These laws are increasingly supported not just by animal welfare advocates but by law enforcement officers who recognize that cruelty to animals is often a precursor to violence against humans. Animal cruelty cases are now being tracked by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.[1] Like an infectious disease, animal cruelty, if unchecked, can metastasize into cruelty toward vulnerable populations, such as children and the elderly. Our nation is united when it acts to advance our society’s moral quest to end cruelty toward all living beings.

Prosecuting crimes against animals is difficult because animals have no voice. They cannot testify to the crimes committed against them. For this reason, animals, like children, are targeted and victimized because their perpetrators can easily escape discovery. However, in 49 states and the District of Columbia, children may be represented by court-appointed volunteers who serve as independent advocates for their interests in court proceedings. In 2016, Connecticut enacted “Desmond’s Law.”[2] Adopted from a model used to protect abused and neglected children, Desmond’s Law allows lawyers and law students to provide pro bono services as court monitors in cases involving animal cruelty. The purpose of this article is to encourage Florida legislators to adopt a similar, expanded version of Desmond’s Law that can serve as a model for other states.

In 2019, Cruelty Against Animals Became a Federal Crime

On November 25, 2019, President Trump signed into law the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act (PACT).[3] The bill was proposed by two Florida congressmen, Vern Buchanan, a Republican, and Ted Deutch, a Democrat. That bill, which made making cruelty to animals a federal offense, was unanimously approved in both chambers. Representative Deutch said: “This bill sends a clear message that our society does not accept cruelty against animals…. We’ve received support from so many Americans from across the country and across the political spectrum…. Animal rights activists have stood up for living things that do not have a voice.” He continued: “Law Enforcement officers have sought a federal overlay to help them stop animal abusers who are likely to commit acts of violence against people. And animal lovers everywhere know this is simply the right thing to do.” Rep. Buchanan said, “This is a landmark bill that establishes for the first time a federal offense against the malicious torturing of animals.”[4]

At the signing ceremony, President Trump declared: “It is important that we combat these heinous and sadistic acts of cruelty, which are totally unacceptable in a civilized society.”[5] PACT, which criminalized animal abuse on the federal level, was declared a “watershed” moment by the Humane Society of the United States. Additional supporters of PACT were the National Sheriffs Association, the Fraternal Order of the Police, the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, the National Children’s Advocacy Center, and Domestic Violence Intervention Services.[6] With PACT, the U.S. took a huge step to protect animals, but there is more to do.

Connecticut, the First State to Pass “Court-Appointed Animal Advocates” Legislation

Three years prior to the passage of PACT, Desmond’s Law was enacted. The law allows judges to appoint qualified pro bono animal advocates to assist overburdened prosecutors with large animal cruelty caseloads. “The court-appointed advocate does not directly represent the animal, but rather the interests of justice.”[7] Spurred by the vicious torture of a dog in New Haven, Connecticut, the law assigns advocates to animal cruelty cases with the aim of increasing conviction rates in animal cruelty cases. Statistics show that in a 10-year period between 2007 to 2017, of the 3,480 animal cruelty cases initiated, 35% were dismissed; and 45% were never prosecuted.[8] Desmond’s story is not unlike other cases nationwide.

In 2011, a New Haven mother left an abusive home with her children and her dog, Desmond. The abuser, Alex Wullaert, was legally barred from any contact with her. At that time she was unable to keep Desmond in her safe haven[9] so she brought him to a local animal shelter hoping he would be adopted by a loving family. Domestic violence abusers are known to manipulate their victims by exploiting victims’ bonds with their beloved pets.[10] When Wullaert learned Desmond had been surrendered, he went to the shelter and “adopted” the dog. For 11 months, Desmond was starved, beaten, tortured, and ultimately killed. When the tortured animal was discovered, the community was appalled.[11]

Wullaert confessed and the prosecutor recommended jail time.[12] However, the only punishment imposed for Wullaert’s acts of prolonged cruelty[13] was accelerated rehabilitation, “a diversionary program intended for non-serious offenders or first-time-offenders.[14] Once Wullaert completed the program, the court would allow for his conviction to be expunged.[15] The community was outraged when it learned that Wullaert’s conviction would be expunged.[16] Sealing or expunging animal cruelty convictions allows abusers to repeat the violence toward animals and, potentially, to people because without a criminal record, suspects who have already abused animals are treated as first-time offenders.[17]

After another horrendous incident in 2015, in which Veronica Reyes of Bristol, Connecticut, hanged two dogs in her back yard, members of the community who had previously expressed outrage over the torture and killing of Desmond were prompted to regroup. They called themselves “Desmond’s Army” and renewed their battle for stricter animal cruelty legislation, partnering with social media outlets and legislators. On October 1, 2016, Desmond’s Law was enacted, in hopes of setting “a standard of advocates for animal cruelty law throughout the country.”[18]

The Idea of Court Advocates Began in 1977 for Abused Children

Connecticut citizens who wanted to ensure that animal abusers would be held accountable for their actions adopted the idea of “court advocates” from a program called CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates). CASA is a long-established national association in the U.S. that promotes court-appointed advocates who serve as the voice for abused and neglected children.[19] Florida has a similar statewide child advocate program known as Guardian Ad Litem (GAL). According to the National CASA Association, nationwide there are more than 93,000 volunteers who serve in 49 states and the District of Columbia.[20] CASA advocates are community volunteers who complete training provided by the state or local CASA office.[21] The National CASA agency relies on pass-through grants from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, as well as partnerships with non-profit organizations, philanthropic corporations, and community action groups.[22]

The CASA/GAL concept originated in 1977 by Seattle Superior Court Judge David Soukup.[23] Judge Soukup formulated the idea that “volunteers could be dedicated to a case.”[24] Advocates blossomed in the U.S., starting “a movement to provide better representation for abused and neglected children.”[25] By 2007, the National CASA Association had served 2 million children nationwide.[26] “More than 400,000 children are in foster care on any given day, and every year more than 260,000 abused children are served by CASA volunteers.”[27]

Like CASA/GAL advocates, Desmond’s Law created “animal advocates” using volunteer lawyers and law students to serve.[28] These volunteers monitor animal cruelty cases and are legally permitted to assist and ensure that crimes against animals do not fall through the cracks. The goal is to prosecute and deter animal cruelty.

Animal Cruelty Linked to Violence Toward Humans: Domestic Violence

The link between violence toward humans and animal cruelty is well documented.[29] A 2017 study found that 89% of women who had companion animals during an abusive relationship reported their animals were threatened, harmed, or killed by their abusive partner.[30] About 1 million animals per year are abused because of domestic violence that occurs in the home in which they live. “Dogs are most common victims of animal abuse, accounting for 64.5% of all documented cruelty cases reported.”[31] Abusers take advantage of the bond between people and their animals, using it to exert control over their victims, often threatening harm to the family pet if the victim dares to leave.[32] Sadly, this tactic often works. Across various surveys, between 18% and 47% of battered women delay leaving a dangerous situation due to their concern for their pet’s safety.[33]

On July 1, 2020, Florida added family pets to our existing domestic violence protection laws so that victims and their pets may stay together.[34] “Many domestic violence shelters are now being built so that pets may be housed with their families.”[35] The Florida Bar’s Animal Law Section successfully lobbied Florida legislators to enact this new law, which has been embraced by more than 30 states.[36] The bill received strong support from state law enforcement agencies, including Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey, who appeared in a video[37] in support of the bill alongside his dog, Junny. Bradenton Police Chief Melanie Bevan and retired Police Chief Frank Fabrizio also joined Florida legislator Sam Killebrew in a video endorsing the bill.[38] All Florida domestic violence injunctions now include the victim’s pet in its “no contact provision.”[39]

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was commended by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) for signing this bill.[40] “A Mason-Dixon poll showed 83% support for the measure from registered Florida voters.”[41]

Mass Shootings, Serial Killers, and Animal Cruelty

A history of violence against animals is a red flag to law enforcement agencies when individuals register to purchase firearms.[42] “While the issues of gun control and mental health rage on, one simple way to prevent future acts of violence is for local law-enforcement officials to pursue the strongest penalties possible in cruelty-to-animals cases — for everyone’s sake — and for those who hear about or witness animal abuse to report it.”[43] Wendy Rhodes interviewed experts in her February 26, 2018, opinion article, “Police Often Miss Link Between Animal Abuse and Mass Shootings.” John Thompson, deputy director of the National Sheriff’s Association and the highest-ranking law-enforcement official fighting animal abuse, founded the National Law Enforcement Center on Animal Abuse (NLECAA) in 2014 “to educate law enforcement officials about the link between animal abuse and other violent crimes.”[44]

The link between animal cruelty and serial and spree killers is also telling. Numerous serial killers, including Albert DeSalvo (the Boston Strangler), Dennis Rader (the BTK killer), Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and even David Berkowitz a/k/a the “Son of Sam” tortured and/or killed animals before moving on to humans. Thus, animal cruelty offenses must be taken seriously not only to protect the lives and welfare of animals, but also to protect people. As Natasha Dolezal, director of the Animal Law Program in the Center for Animal Law Studies at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, notes: “[R]egardless of whether people care about how animals are treated…legislators and judges care about humans, and they can’t deny the data.”[45] Legislation like Desmond’s Law can be an effective tool to preserve that data — identifying perpetrators and reducing violence towards human beings.

Desmond’s Law for Florida

While an excellent beginning point for holding animal abusers accountable, Desmond’s Law has three significant limitations: 1) advocates must be pro bono lawyers and law students; 2) the law only applies to crimes that are committed against dogs and cats, and 3) the law does not prohibit expungement of convictions for these crimes. These limitations preclude Desmond’s Law from meeting its stated goal of setting a standard for advocates to prevent animal cruelty in this country. This is why Florida should build upon the foundation laid by Desmond’s Law to fulfill that goal. In fact, Florida is uniquely suited to do so.

Focus on the Nature of the Crime — Not the Species

As noted, Desmond’s Law only provides advocates for dogs and cats, but animal cruelty is not limited to these species. Take for instance, the cruelty exhibited by a landscape worker in 2015 in South Florida. A Wellington family daily fed 11 Muscovy ducklings outside their home, a pastime they routinely enjoyed. On May 15, 2015, after feeding the ducklings, Laura Gontchar saw landscape worker Jason Falbo heading toward the ducklings on his riding lawnmower.[46] “She ran outside to flag Falbo down as he approached the ducklings, followed by her 7-year-old son yelling for him to stop.”[47] Falbo ignored the family and purposely plowed into the ducklings, then backed up to complete the slaughter while the family watched in horror. Seven ducklings were killed by the lawnmower blades and two others drowned.[48] Falbo’s cruelty made national headlines. Under Connecticut’s law, and despite the obvious cruelty of Falbo’s actions, the ducklings would not have received an advocate.

Florida residents keep many different species of animals as pets. Florida is “the third largest equine state in the United States.” Horse ownership, equine associations, and profit-making organizations, plus tourism spending by riders and spectators, combine for a $11.7 billion annual economic impact. The Ocala Breeders Sales recorded over $1 billion in Thoroughbred horse sales from 2010 to 2018.[49]

Historically, Florida has received numerous reports of neglect and cruelty to horses. In 1987, horse professional Morgan Silver discovered 15 starving horses in Miami-Dade County. “With the help of the Hialeah Police, the horses were seized and the facility was shut down. Morgan cared for eight of the horses pending the outcome of the case, when the horses were adopted to new homes.”[50] After the experience, Morgan felt that a proactive horse welfare agency was needed in Florida. Thus, in April 1990, the Horse Protection Association of Florida was incorporated.[51] In 2001, through the generosity of a very special person, the association moved to a farm in Marion County, Florida’s Horse Capital.[52] The association has a long-term lease on 150 acres of high-quality grazing land. Morgan saw a need for providing assistance to law enforcement and animal agencies with cruelty investigations. She now presents equine cruelty investigations training throughout Florida to entities such as the Florida Agricultural Crimes Intelligence Unit, the Southern States Livestock and Rural Enforcement Association, the Levy County Sheriff’s Office, the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office and to over 160 officers in conjunction with the Florida Department of Agriculture. At the North American Veterinary Conference in January 2009, Morgan presented and published, “Equine Neglect and Abuse: When is it Cruelty?”[53]

Appointing advocates in an animal cruelty case helps convey the seriousness of the crime. For this reason, Florida should not limit the law to one species over another. Convicted serial killers, spree killers, and murderers who abused animals in their youth did not limit their abuse to certain kinds of animals. Some targeted wild animals around their neighborhoods. To erase animal cruelty, we must focus on the nature of the crime, not the nature of the animal.

Prevent Expungement of Records

One of the main drivers behind Desmond’s Law was to stop expunging animal cruelty convictions because it allows abusers to repeat violence toward animals and people. “Without a record, suspects who have already abused animals are treated as first-time offenders.”[54] To expunge animal abuse convictions defeats law enforcement’s goal to identify persons who commit violent crimes when they register to purchase guns.

In Florida, our state has experienced many ups and downs with respect to the enactment of animal welfare legislation. This fluctuation created significant gaps in protection and abuse prevention, allowing animal abusers to slip by without detection. For example, Florida senators have thrice attempted to create a statewide Animal Abuser Registry. The proposed registry would have placed convicted offenders on regularly updated lists accessible to the public, animal shelters, animal rescues, and veterinary practices. The list could be reviewed prior to the adoption or purchase of a domesticated animal to prevent it from falling into an abuser’s hands.[55] All three proposed bills failed during the 2012 and 2017 legislative sessions, respectively. Although some Florida counties and cities, including Hillsborough County and the City of Tallahassee, maintain local animal abuser registries, the lack of a statewide system allows offenders to step over city and county lines to obtain animals and continue the cycle of abuse. We have seen strides in stricter sentencing requirements and post-conviction restrictions on pet ownership, but blurred lines created by registry gaps create ample opportunities for animals to be released to abusers, even when those abusers have been previously convicted on charges of animal cruelty.[56]

While a statewide Animal Abuser Registry remains the “gold standard” in protection and abuse prevention, we must take the first step to ensure that the records of those convicted of crimes against animals are not expunged. Expunging records not only deletes the data important to law enforcement, but it also prevents the community from being informed.

Florida’s Great Volunteer Resource

Advocates are limited under Desmond’s Law to lawyers or law students. Like the failure to prohibit expungement of abuse records, this aspect of the law is puzzling because it is based on the CASA model. If volunteers from all walks of life and professions can be trained to advocate for children, surely they can be trained to advocate for animals. Florida is uniquely situated to provide such volunteers. It has the “people” resources to take Desmond’s Law to a higher bar.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Florida’s population is six times greater than Connecticut, and one fourth of Floridians are over age 60 and have flocked to the state to retire.[57] Florida’s abundance of retirees is a huge, untapped resource of potential volunteers to monitor animal cruelty cases. Currently, the 15th Judicial Circuit Court in Palm Beach County accepts volunteers who provide many hours of service for the Guardian ad Litem Program, Juvenile Court, and Domestic Violence Court — many of whom are retirees.


The time is ripe for the Florida Legislature to advance Connecticut’s courageous step in the battle against animal cruelty that began with Desmond’s Army. Florida should embrace and expand Desmond’s Law by increasing who is eligible to serve as advocates; by allowing the judge discretion to appoint advocates by the “nature of the crime,” not the species of the pet; by prohibiting expungement of animal abuse convictions; and by including a statewide registry for animal cruelty cases, along with a county list of certified volunteer advocates (as is done for Florida mediators). Florida’s Crown Jewel for Animal Protection would not only be a novel law, but it also can be a “model” for other states and perhaps other countries. Like Congress’ unanimous passage of PACT in 2019, the Florida House and Senate should likewise join forces, adopting an all-inclusive animal welfare law. Quoting U.S. Rep. Deutch: “Animal lovers everywhere know this is simply the right thing to do.”[58] As polled, 83% of Floridians are unified in laws that protect animals.[59]

As a nation, we are unified in our abhorrence to violence and animal cruelty. Eradicating animal cruelty is a universal American value. Therefore, it is time for Florida to take the next step, creating broader legislation to assist prosecutors, the front-line warriors of this battle. By using Florida’s greatest resource, its citizens, our state can expand Desmond’s Law by training thousands of volunteer advocates to aid in the successful prosecution of animal cruelty crimes. Should Florida embrace and expand Desmond’s Law, it will further advance the goal of creating a model law for the U.S. to follow in the quest to eliminate the scourge of animal cruelty. Such a novel law protecting our beloved pets would traverse our country like a banner.

[1] FBI, Tracking Animal Cruelty: FBI Collecting Data on Crimes Against Animals (Feb. 1, 2016).

[2] Conn. Gen. Stat. Ann. §54-86n (2016).

[3] Courtney G. Lee, The PACT Act: A Step in the Right Direction on the Path to Animal Welfare, Jurist (Dec. 1, 2019).

[4] Neil Vigdor, House Unanimously Approves Bill to Make Animal Cruelty a Federal Offense, N.Y. Times, Oct. 23, 2019.

[5] Miri Zaveri, President Trump Signs Federal Animal Cruelty Bill Into Law, N.Y. Times (Nov. 25, 2019).

[6] Id.

[7] University of Connecticut School of Law, Thomas J. Meskill Law Library, What Is Desmond’s Law?,

[8] Michelle Kirby, Conn. Gen. Assemb. Office Legis. Research, 2018 R-111, Animal Cruelty Cases in Conn. 1 (2007-2017) (Apr. 19, 2019).

[9] Jessica Rubin, Desmond’s Law: A Novel Approach to Animal Advocacy, 24 Animal L. 243, 276 (Univ. of Connecticut 2018).

[10] Jeff Fink, The Link: Domestic Violence and Animal Abuse, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women’s Health (Nov. 7, 2017),

[11] See note 7.

[12] Desmond’s Army, The Origin of Desmond’s Army, See Rubin, Desmond’s Law: A Novel Approach to Animal Advocacy at 276.

[13] Desmond’s Army, The Origin of Desmond’s Army,

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Court Appointed Special Advocates,

[20] National CASA/GAL Association for Children, Programs,

[21] National CASA/GAL Association for Children, CASA/GAL Model,

[22] Id.; National CASA/GAL Association for Children, Impact Partners,

[23] CASA’s WHY!, CASA Began Because of One Judge! (Sept. 21, 2018),

[24] National CASA/GAL Association for Children, History. See note 19.

[25] Id. Ohio CASA History,

[26] Id. National CASA/GAL Association for Children, Impact Partners,

[27] CASA, Frequently Asked Questions,,are%20served%20by%20CASA%2.

[28] Betty Jo Barrett, et al., Animal Maltreatment as a Risk of More Frequent and Severe Forms of Intimate Partner Violence, 26-1 J. of Interpersonal Violence 1 (2017).

[29] Id.

[30] Brandon Gaille, 25 Fascinating Dog Abuse Facts and Statistics, May 19, 2017,

[31] Id.

[32] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women’s Health, by Jeff Fink, Founder, Go Fetch Wellness (Nov 7, 2017).

[33] Barrett, et al., Animal Maltreatment at 1.

[34] Fla. Stat. §741.30 (2020).

[35] Amy Carotenuto, New Law Helps Protect Pets from Domestic Violence, The Daytona Beach News-Journal, July 8, 2020, available at

[36] ASPCA Commends Florida Gov. DeSantis for Signing Bill to Protect Domestic Violence Survivors and their Pets, ASPCA Press Release (June 19, 2020), available at

[37] Brevard County Sheriff’s Office, Facebook video, Domestic Violence Hurts Everyone…,

[38] ASPCA YouTube, Protect #Florida Pets from Domestic Violence,

[39] See note 34.

[40] See note 36.

[41] James Call, Florida Lawmakers Want to Protect the Family Pet When Domestic Violence Occurs, Tallahassee Democrat (Jan. 20, 2020).

[42] Animal Abusers Shouldn’t Own Guns, Boston Globe (July 18, 2018), available at

[43] Id.

[44] Wendy Rhodes, Police Often Miss Link Between Animal Abuse and Mass Shootings, Sun Sentinel (Feb. 26, 2018), available at

[45] Sue Manning, FBI Gets Serious About Animal Cruelty, Associated Press (Oct. 1, 2014).

[46] Abby Ohlheiser, Florida Man Ran over a Family of Ducklings as a Human Family Watched in Horror, Washington Post, May 15, 2015.

[47] Id.

[48] Id.

[49] Florida Dep’t of Agriculture, Florida’s Horse Industry,,state%20in%20the%20United%20States.

[50] Horse Protection Association of Florida,

[51] Id.

[52] Id.

[53] Id.

[54] Desmond’s Army, The Origin of Desmond’s Army.

[55] Chip Fletcher and DeBora Cromartie-Mincey, The Growing Trend of Animal-Abuser Registries, 91 Fla. B. J. 36 (Dec. 2017).

[56] The 15th Judicial Circuit, Volunteers,

[57] News Service of Florida, How Florida’s Population Stacks Up in the 2020 Census,

[58] Jacob Ogles, House Passes Vern Buchanan, Ted Deutch Bill to Stop Animal Cruelty, Florida Politics, Oct. 23, 2019,

[59] See note 36.

Sherry AndrewsSherry Andrews recently retired from the University of Central Florida after spending the past 18 years there as associate general counsel and associate provost. Her practice areas included labor, employment, and education law. A life-long animal lover, she lives with her cat, Emily, in Winter Park.



Margherita DowneyMargherita Downey of Delray Beach is a member of The Florida Bar.

The authors were assisted by FSU Law student Alexia Vranick.

This column is submitted on behalf of the Animal Law Section, S. Brent Spain, chair, Ralph A. DeMeo, editor, and Gregg R. Morton and Michelle Ballard, special editors.

Animal Law