By Claire Walla
First it was the seagull found in Sag Harbor in April pierced in the head by a blowdart. Then it was the box turtle discovered July 5 in a Sag Harbor backyard impaled by a rusty nail. A couple weeks ago, it was a swan spotted by a kayaker in Riverhead with an arrow shot right through the center of its torso. And most recently, it was a seagull in Montauk stoned to death, allegedly by a man and his two children.
These incidents of animal cruelty have caught the community off guard, causing many to wonder: Who would do such a thing? And why?
“I don’t know what’s happening,” said Roy Gross, executive director of the Suffolk County SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). “I find this very disturbing.”
Gross said his office has seen about a 20 percent increase in calls reporting cases of animal abuse in Suffolk County in the last year, but he attributes some of this to cases of animal abandonment related to the down turn in the economy.
“Sometimes people can’t afford to take care of their animals anymore,” he said. However, he doesn’t believe the economy is to blame for this recent surge in incidents of animal cruelty. “I don’t believe the economy would make someone go out of their way to torture an animal,” he continued. “It’s [the result of] a demented individual, in my opinion.”
While the incidents themselves are enough cause for alarm, Gross emphasized the broader implications of such crimes.
“It’s a fact that people who hurt animals hurt people,” said Gross, who used to work as a child abuse investigator. Citing serial killers Albert DeSalvo, “The Boston Strangler,” and Jeffrey Dahmer, he said “all of these people began by torturing and mutilating animals before they started torturing people.”
While it’s too early to say whether or not these patterns of abuse will extend beyond the animal kingdom, Gross said recent events here on the East End are certainly cause for alarm.
“When someone goes out of his [or her] way to put a nail through a turtle, that’s premeditated,” he continued. “And in the case with the swan, to take a bow-and-arrow and shoot an innocent animal like that: somebody wanted to hurt that animal.”
In the course of his professional career, Robbie Stein, a child psychologist based in Sag Harbor, said he has worked with children who have tortured animals.
“Generally, what we’re really talking about is the development of a sense of compassion, or empathy,” he said. Or, he added, it’s the manifestation of a feeling that’s been displaced, like an abusive relationship or an imbalance at home. “[These patients] project that onto the animal,” Stein continued.
But, this isn’t necessarily indicative of psychopathic behavior—however cruel it might be.
“I remember a patient saying once that they shot a BB gun [pellet] through a squirrel, and when the squirrel died they were very, very sad.”
In this sense, he said cruelty toward animals can be a way some children “find out about others’ pain.” Although, “there’s also a much more pathological kind of cruelty.”
With so few details, Stein said it’s impossible at this point to tell what we’re dealing with here on the East End. For one thing, no one knows whether any of these incidents are connected or are isolated acts of cruelty. But, “if you see a kid torturing animals, it’s certainly a warning sign,” he said.
As the result of public outcry in the wake of these reported cases of animal abuse, the SPCA has announced an $11,000 reward for anyone with information on the person (or persons) responsible for hammering the nail into the turtle, and an additional $12,500 for anyone with information on the person (or persons) responsible for shooting the arrow into the swan.
The two animals are currently recovering at the Wildlife Rescue Center of the Hamptons. (The two gulls have since perished.) According to Virginia “Ginnie” Frati, executive director of the Wildlife Rescue Center, “the turtle’s doing really good.” The Center will soon take the terrestrial reptile back to Dr. Jonathan Turetsky of the Veterinary Clinic of East Hampton, who removed the nail two weeks ago, to make sure there’s no infection, Frati said, adding “we think we’ll be able to release him soon.”
The swan, however, “isn’t looking too good,” she said. Doctors don’t believe the arrow punctured any vital organs and said its digestive system is working; but the animal is having a hard time eating (it is currently receiving nutrients via IV) and cannot walk.
“We’re not sure what the outcome will be [with the swan],” said executive director Mark Lembo on Wednesday. “But we’re hopeful.”
While the SPCA has yet to receive any information on the box turtle, Gross said he has received some calls related to the swan and he has several leads on the Montauk gull. (According to those at the Wildlife Rescue Center of the Hamptons, a woman in Montauk actually took photographs of a man and his two children throwing the stones.) Gross added that he’s “hoping for an arrest in the very near future.”
“Since 1984, we’ve not only been investigating cases of animal abuse, but we’ve been giving presentations to people [at schools and other organizations] about animals’ feelings,” he continued. “And what we say all the time is: if you suspect something, call us. An animal can’t pick up a phone, obviously. We need the public to step-up to the plate.”
In the grand scheme of things, Stein added there are a number of possible hypotheses as to why these incidents have seen a surge in recent weeks. The violence could stem from economic deprivation, or the rise of violent video games; or, it could be that these incidents are just being more frequently reported here on the East End.
“What’s key here is whether [the increase in animal cruelty reports] is because the animals are more visible, or because awareness of animal cruelty is more prevalent in this area because we care about nature,” Stein continued. And in the case of the latter, he added, at least “that would be a good thing.”
Anyone with information regarding any acts of animal cruelty, or details about those responsible for the incidents involving the turtle, swan or seagull mentioned above are encouraged to call the Suffolk County SPCA at 382-7722. All calls will be kept confidential.