Jailed for Kicking a Cat

Clip_49The video lasts all of 12 seconds: A stray cat — after being lured by a young man’s outstretched hand — is suddenly and violently kicked, its body propelled through the air, clearing a small fence and landing about 20 feet away, to a chorus of cackling laughter.

The man, Andre Robinson, was soon arrested.

Had it been a person he kicked, Mr. Robinson, 22, most likely would have received a quick plea bargain requiring no jail time — if, that is, he had even been arrested.

But now, every time Robinson has appeared in court in Brooklyn, animal-rights activists have surrounded him, attending his hearings and calling for a jail sentence. He has not even received a plea offer from prosecutors, which is extremely rare in misdemeanor cases.

Robinson, who has pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor animal cruelty charge, has admitted to the police that he kicked the cat at the Brevoort Houses in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where he lives, and then posted a video of the kick on Facebook. He has not explained why he kicked the cat.

Robinson is accused of kicking a stray cat named King, seen at left in an image from a video of the attack posted on Facebook.

Motive aside, Robinson has unwittingly placed himself at the center of an impassioned, growing debate.

On one side are the activists. Once dismissed as cat ladies or fringe do-gooders, they have come to wield real power through funding, organization and a focus on legal remedies for animal abuse. They have embraced social-media campaigns; offered rewards to potential witnesses to animal abuse; trained prosecutors; and made inroads in pushing law enforcement across the country to arrest, and seek jail time for, animal abusers.

Yet lawyers defending the accused say that punishment can seem disproportionate to the crime when an animal is the victim. They say that putting people in jail can have serious long-term effects, from starting or strengthening gang affiliations, to taking someone away from school or a job to which they may not return.

“The nature of the crime should not automatically mandate a jail sentence if a person is found guilty,” said acting attorney in charge of the Legal Aid Society’s criminal practice.

At the moment, the activists seem to be winning the fight. The FBI announced that it would track animal abuse as a separate crime, rather than lumping it in the “other” category.

In New York City, the Police Department took over responsibility for animal abuse complaints in January, and created an Animal Cruelty Investigation Squad. Arrests for animal abuse increased about 250 percent through September, compared with the same period last year.

And the Brooklyn district attorney said Robinson’s case, which is scheduled to go to trial on Wednesday, was “indicative of my determination to be strong on folks who think they can just abuse any type of animal.”

“It’s part of the new administration; we’re going to take these cases seriously,” he said.

The view from Brooklyn is widely shared. Houston’s district attorney said this month that she would seek jail time in animal cruelty cases, and Massachusetts passed a bill increasing maximum prison time for animal abuse cases to seven years from five. In Virginia, after a pushfrom People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a man was sentenced in February to a year in jail for starving a pit bull. And in Texas this year, a man received five years after offering to guide a wayward pet donkey home, then dragging the donkey behind his truck. The donkey, which was found in a ditch, survived.

!cid_image010.jpg@01C6F353[1]Robinson’s case drew particular wrath because his actions were captured in a video that went viral. The cat, known as King, a stray who lived in Mr. Robinson’s housing project, was captured by animal activists, cared for by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and was adopted.

Not long ago, animal cruelty was “considered a side issue, relegated to something a few overpassionate people cared about, basically,” said Assemblywoman Linda B. Rosenthal of the Upper West Side, who has backed several bills strengthening animal cruelty laws. “Now, it’s a mainstream concern.”

And it is one that animal groups are trying to make even more central.

In another animal abuse case, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a California-based nonprofit, offered $1,000 for information leading to the arrest of the person who set a cat on fire in a Brooklyn apartment building. The fund posted fliers in the neighborhood where the episode occurred; four witnesses eventually came forward, leading to the arrest and conviction of Denzell Oglesby, who was sentenced in March to a year in jail.

Robinson faces a year in prison on the misdemeanor abuse charge. CreditASPCA

The fund began offering such rewards a few years ago, said Lora Dunn, a staff lawyer, and has put reward offers out for a horse shooting in California and for information about the torture of a coyote pup, also in California.

Meanwhile, the A.S.P.C.A. has been training police officers on how to spot animal abuse. In New York, it has hired an increasing number of forensic veterinarians, who detail animals’ injuries for court cases. In New York City, the group has treated about 300 such animals so far in 2014, up from 100 last year.

In addition to pushing for jail time where appropriate, said Stacy Wolf, who leads the society’s anti-cruelty group, the society has been backing other legal punishments, such as an order that forbids the defendant to have or live with an animal, as a condition of probation.

The groups say they have captured law enforcement’s attention in part by emphasizing that animal cruelty can be a “red flag” for future crimes, particularly domestic violence.

Prosecutions nationwide are becoming much more frequent, said Sherry Ramsey, the director of animal cruelty prosecutions for the Humane Society of the United States, “and a lot of it’s based on what we know now about the link between animal cruelty and human violence.”

Yet defense groups say animal abuse cases like Mr. Robinson’s should be handled individually, and are not necessarily predictive of worse behavior.

“We don’t punish individuals for alleged future misconduct they might at some point in the future engage, but have not,” Theodore Simon, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said in an email. “To do so would be to punish a person for a ‘crime’ that has not occurred and was not committed.”

Defense advocates also say more needs to be done if society wants to tamp down animal abuse.

The lawyer for Mr. Oglesby, the man who set the cat on fire, said that the act was very disturbing. Still, he said, “the district attorney was very strong-minded about it, and what bothers me is that they have a strong prosecutorial bent toward it, yet on the other end they don’t have anything to treat or address the underlying causes as far as programs.”

Animal-rights activists were in full force at a hearing last week for Robinson, who faces up to a year in jail.

Eight activists filled a row and a half. A Facebook page about the case,“Justice for King,” had drawn over 12,000 likes, with people following the case from as far away as Australia.

“We’ve had enough,” said one of the activists. “Momentum is building.”

As for Robinson, he seemed a little befuddled as to why what he had done had drawn so much negative attention.

“People see me in the streets, they frown their face up and everyone’s like I’m this menace person,” Robinson said.

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