A U.S. county has passed a law this week to create the country's first animal abuse registry, requiring people convicted of cruelty to animals to register or face jail time and fines.
The law in Suffolk County, on the eastern half of Long Island east of New York City, was created in the hope of preventing animal abusers from inflicting more cruelty — or moving on to human victims.
"We know there is a very strong correlation between animal abuse and domestic violence," said Suffolk County legislator Jon Cooper, the bill's sponsor. "Almost every serial killer starts out by torturing animals, so in a strange sense we could end up protecting the lives of people."
The online list will be open to the public, so that pet owners or the merely curious can find out whether someone living near them is on it. Some animal abusers have been known to steal their neighbors' pets.
The law was passed unanimously Tuesday in the suburban New York City county of 1.5 million people. A spokesman for county Executive Steve Levy said he intends to sign the legislation. It then requires a 30-day review by state officials before it goes on the books.
Cooper is also pushing legislation that would bar anyone on the registry from buying or adopting a pet from a shelter, pet shop or breeder.
The law was prompted by a number of animal abuse cases in recent months, including that of a local woman accused of forcing her children to watch her torture and kill kittens and dozens of dogs, then burying the pets in her backyard.
More than a dozen states have introduced legislation to establish similar registries, but Suffolk County is the first government entity to pass such a law, said Stephan Otto, director of legislative affairs for the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
The Suffolk County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals will administer the database, to be funded by a $50 fee paid by convicted abusers. All abusers 18 or older must supply authorities with their address, a head-and-shoulders photograph and any aliases. Convicted abusers will remain on the registry for five years. Those failing to register face up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
After the 2009 arrest of Sharon McDonough, accused of burying kittens and as many as 42 dogs in her yard, neighbors whose pets had disappeared feared the worst. But authorities later concluded that McDonough — who is expected in court this month and could get up to two years in prison if convicted — bought the animals or adopted them through shelters or other traditional outlets.
Associated Press researcher Monika Mathur in New York contributed to this report.