In late December 2015, Hawaii conservation officers found a dead bird the size of a small child buried in a nest on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, and a stick next to the nest. Sadly, that marker was a faint indicator of a crime committed by a group of young men. Officers would later determine that several alleged perpetrators battered and even dismembered at least 15 Laysan albatrosses with a bat, a machete, and a pellet gun. They also smashed the eggs of the large, rare, and federally protected birds. The scene of the crime was the Ka‘ena Point Natural Area Reserve, the site of a 26-year-long conservation effort to protect the birds. In one violent spree, the perpetrators had unwound the work of government agency staff and volunteers to restore these birds to an extraordinarily beautiful and fragile ecosystem, and turned a refuge for these wild animals into a killing ground.
The investigative trail led authorities to six students who attended a prestigious Honolulu prep school, three of whom were eventually charged – one as an adult. The conservation officers report that the boys severed the birds’ feet to collect their I.D. bands as souvenirs, and posted the photos of the mutilated birds on social media, according to reporting by the Washington Post.
While leaders of the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources are calling for stiff penalties, including jail time, for the perpetrators, there is a brouhaha brewing now because the slowly churning justice system may instead give the boys just a slap on the wrist, reducing the number of charges and offering them leniency as first offenders. That’s deeply distressing, given the heinous, premeditated nature of the crimes, and also knowing that this sort of behavior is often predictive of other extreme anti-social behavior and violent conduct.
There’s a body of evidence to show that people who do this sort of thing in childhood often repeat that behavior later in life. Our justice system has been properly recalibrated to mete out meaningful penalties so that perpetrators learn never to behave in this manner again toward animals. Many state anti-cruelty laws also have provisions that call for counseling of young people who demonstrate malice toward animals, since there’s an obvious mental pathology at work.
Hawaii has taken important steps to protect wildlife as a matter of policy. Last year Hawaii enacted one of the nation’s most comprehensive laws to protect imperiled wild animals, such as elephants and rhinos, from the illegal trade in their parts. The law took effect just a few days ago – on June 30th. This law will deal a heavy blow to unscrupulous wildlife dealers, considering that previous surveys found 89 percent of elephant ivory items for sale in the state were from illegal or unknown origins and that Hawaii was the nation’s third largest ivory market.
Clearly, these young men were not involved in wildlife trafficking. But they were involved in cruelty to wildlife, and the law must speak when it comes to their behavior. It was not that long ago that The HSUS launched a national campaign to strengthen all of our nation’s anti-cruelty laws. In the mid-1980s, malicious cruelty was a felony in only four states. In 2014, we completed the effort to make animal cruelty a felony in every state, and just last week, Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf held a signing ceremony, the likes of which we rarely see, for legislation that makes extreme cruelty a first-offense felony (only two other states, Mississippi and Iowa, allow felony penalties for a second or subsequent offense only).
A bill introduced in the Hawaii legislature this year seeks to make the torture, mutilation, or poisoning of Hawaii’s indigenous birds a felony. The legislature should take up the bill when its biennial session resumes in 2018, and pass it into law.
But there must be a closely correlated campaign to help strengthen state laws to protect wildlife from poaching and extreme acts of cruelty. Our anti-cruelty policy work will be closer to completion when that happens.
While the correlation between animal cruelty and other extreme and violent behavior may seem self-evident to those of us steeped in this cause, many law enforcement agents are still learning about the predictive aspect of violence against animals. Through our Law Enforcement Training Center, we partner with enforcement agencies, prosecutors’ associations, and domestic violence groups nationwide to address this relationship and how a multidisciplinary approach to animal abuse and domestic violence keeps our communities safer. Cases like the one in Hawaii remind us what’s at stake and how leniency is not warranted when people do really awful things to animals.