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Cataloging Cruelty

Alison Gianotto started a one-of-a-kind database that helps animal control officers—and others in the animal welfare community—track offenders and fight cruelty

Alison Gianotto started a one-of-a-kind database that helps animal control officers—and others in the animal welfare community—track offenders and fight cruelty

Alison Gianotto has made her dog, Zoey, the official mascot of PetAbuse.com. Gianotto and her husband adopted Zoey from the Rancho Coastal Humane Society in California. CARLA RIO
Imagine yourself at an animal welfare conference, sipping your coffee in a meeting room and chatting with your fellow attendees. You meet the creator of a website that tracks animal cruelty cases; the founder of a pair of sites that help officers combat animal fighting; and the woman behind a social networking website for the animal care field.

Also in attendance at the workshop are the person who helped relaunch an extensive website for animal control officers; the creator of a website that will match volunteer animal transporters to groups who need them; the individual who helped produce a training video on investigating and prosecuting animal cruelty; and a woman writing a book about her life in the humane field.

Given this impressive list of endeavors (one sentence can’t contain them all), you would imagine you’d met half the people in the room. In fact, you’d only have to meet one: Alison Gianotto, the director and founder of the organization and website Pet-Abuse.Com, is the woman behind all these ventures.

Gianotto started her effort in 2001, when Bert, a friend’s cat, was set on fire and died from his injuries. In the aftermath of Bert’s ordeal, Gianotto found herself on the doorstep of Bert’s alleged abuser to find out whether he had fled the area. “I remember standing there, thinking, ‘What am I going to do if he answers the door?’ Because I am so angry … it took me probably five minutes to ring that doorbell, just because I’m [thinking], ‘I don’t know if I’m going to strangle him; I really don’t know what my reaction is going to be, faced with this guy.’”

WHO SHE IS: Alison Gianotto, self-professed “computer geek”

WHAT SHE DOES: Gianotto uses her technology background to manage a slew of websites for the humane field, including Pet-Abuse.Com, a site she created to track animal cruelty and offer tools for those who fight it.

HOW SHE GOT STARTED: When animal cruelty struck close to home, Gianotto found few resources that could help. She decided to create her own.

HOW SHE DOES IT: According to her friends, she doesn’t sleep!

WHO BENEFITS: The website receives millions of hits each month from humane law enforcement and animal control officers, shelters and rescue groups, and other animal advocates.

She didn’t find out; the person who opened the door was the suspect’s roommate, who denied any knowledge of his existence. Bert’s abuser is still at large.

The work that Gianotto’s organization is doing today is ensuring that other people won’t have to march up to an abuser’s doorstep like she did. But at the time, she found that the Internet offered few resources for people dealing with animal cruelty cases. Her frustration—and her extensive background in technology—led her to tackle the task herself. “This seemed like such a good fit because it was right up my alley,” she says. “This was something that there was a definite need for, and I happened to have the exact skill set that would have been needed to do it.”

Small Organization, Big Impact

Today, Pet-Abuse.Com offers a searchable database containing thousands of cruelty cases and convicted animal abusers, interactive maps showing the location and details of each case, listings of the corresponding court dates, and statistics and charts derived from the cases. “The database is always our first priority, because for all of the other advocacy efforts that we’re doing, there are other organizations that are doing similar things—except this,” says Gianotto. “This is the one thing we do that nobody else does.”

The site helps the field in many ways: shelters and rescue groups can find out whether a potential adopter has an animal cruelty record; agencies can use the information to demonstrate the need for increased funding; animal advocates can send faxed letters to courts regarding certain cruelty cases—and those are just a few of its services. Pet-Abuse.com gets millions of hits each month.

The high level of traffic is not surprising. Tools like Gianotto’s database are rare, says Mark Kumpf, the superintendent of Newport News Animal Services in Virginia. Now a member of the board of directors of Pet-Abuse.Com, Kumpf gave Gianotto feedback as she developed the website.

“There are databases for criminals, there are databases for sex offenders—heck, you can even find out if your car has been in an accident,” says Kumpf. “But tools for animal control officers and humane law enforcement officers are few and far between.” When animal abusers move from place to place after a conviction, the profiles on the site can be a big help in keeping convicted abusers from hurting more animals in a new location. And because the database is searchable by type of offense, agencies in the middle of a tough case can find out how other jurisdictions have fared with similar cases, says Kumpf.

Animal control officer and cruelty investigator Liam Hughes finds the website helpful in his work. “Pet-Abuse.Com helped me face my first animal cruelty case, and win it with the support and advice that Mark and Alison have given,” says the owner of South Jersey Animal Services. “When I have a situation that makes me scratch my head, I look to see how other officers have handled their cases and how they have resolved them.”

Rather than just waiting for animal advocates to come to the site, Pet-Abuse.Com sometimes takes an active role in informing the field. “We can now track and issue action alerts for animal collectors who are hoarders or bunchers working in one state that have been caught, captured, and run out of town—and warn other jurisdictions that the storm is coming and it collects dogs and cats,” says Kumpf.

Given all the resources and information available on the site, you might suspect that a large staff is behind the scenes. But though Pet-Abuse.Com maintains a five-member board of directors, there is no one on the payroll, and the site remains independently operated. If Pet-Abuse.Com were affiliated with a large organization, that relationship might make some government officials think twice about trusting the data. The organization’s independence has lent it credibility, says Kumpf.

Its small size also makes it nimble. “If I have an idea and I run it past the board, I can usually execute it within a week, rather than having to go through all kinds of bureaucratic processes,” says Gianotto. “That means that things can change very, very quickly.”

Kumpf puts it another way: “[Gianotto] gets an idea, and when it starts, you’re on the tracks, you better move, because that locomotive is barreling down on you.”

With so much to accomplish, Pet-Abuse.Com’s budget is sometimes stretched thin. Some donations come in through the website, and Gianotto makes up the difference herself. The financial status of the organization is improving, she says. “I think the last two years, we’ve broken even by about five dollars,” she says. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s tremendous progress.”

Building up the Database

To maintain a website like Pet-Abuse.Com, new data must be reviewed and entered all the time. Volunteers sometimes pitch in, but Gianotto can’t always count on extra help. “At our worst, we have no volunteers, and it’s just me,” she says. “Right now, we have about four or five, which is far more than we usually have.”

Finding and keeping volunteers is a challenge. They must be detail-oriented researchers and writers, and because the software Gianotto uses is specific to Pet-Abuse.Com, volunteers need thorough technical training. They need to be prepared for the emotional side of the job, and they must pass a background check, too.

Some volunteers discover that they can’t handle the work. “You have to be able to divorce your own feelings from what you’re writing,” says Gianotto. “We can’t have ‘Oh, the poor fluffy bunny was hurt,’—it has to be what happened, not a whole bunch of emotional stuff that comes with it.”

With only a bare-bones staff of volunteers, Pet-Abuse.Com relies partly on the public to gather cases of documented animal cruelty. Gianotto also receives e-mail alerts from search engines, data from humane law enforcement and animal control, and information from the media.

Assembling these cases is just the first step. While volunteers help read and enter the incoming cases, Gianotto must approve every case that makes it to the website. “I’m an anal-retentive control freak,” she says with a laugh, “but that’s what makes the project work. If we had all different types of information being added in all kinds of different ways, it wouldn’t be nearly as helpful as it is.”

When Gianotto discovers a media report that creates conflicting information within a certain case, she will often call the officer mentioned in the report. Making this connection helps Gianotto find the facts—and often introduces another officer to Pet-Abuse.Com. “A lot of times, they haven’t heard of us, and I get to explain what we’re doing,” she says, “and then all of a sudden, they’re like, ‘Wow, that’s incredible. How do I get involved in that?’ ”

Putting the Data to Work

The database is a resource for everyone from researchers to district attorneys. Attorneys often find the information helpful when prosecuting their first animal cruelty cases or dealing with types of cases they haven’t faced before, says Gianotto. “All of a sudden they’ve got some case law to look at,” she says, “and they get some idea of how this was handled. And if it was a positive outcome, they can say, ‘Hey, it’s a great approach,’ or if it wasn’t such a positive outcome, they can learn not to do that.”

The interactive tools created using the information in the database add another dimension to the site. The website features maps of animal cruelty cases in the United States and graphical representations of cruelty statistics.

After clicking on “Cruelty Database” and then “Local Maps,” site visitors can select a state map to view. Maps are dotted with yellow and red icons; each yellow icon represents a cruelty case, and red icons indicate an animal cruelty/human violence connection. Moving the cursor over each case, users can read the details.

Gianotto likes that the site lets the public see a visual representation of the problem. A major cruelty case may capture the attention of animal lovers in a community and spur them into letter-writing action, but before long, the case is almost forgotten, says Gianotto. With these maps, the public can see a picture of the long-term problem in their community, she says.

The maps also help agencies in communities where the rise of animal cruelty outpaces their budget increases. “When animal control or humane law enforcement officers are looking for more money, this is a great visual tool for them to say, ‘Look at all these cases,’ ” she says.

The maps can help convince the courts that animal cruelty is something to take seriously, says Kumpf. “Most judicial officials don’t realize the scope and extent that animal cruelty and animal abuse feeds other types of violent crimes,” he says. “So when they comment that, ‘That’s not really happening here,’ it’s really a wonderful tool to be able to print up a map of your city, hand it to your judge and go, ‘Well, judge, it may not be happening in your eyes, but according to the map, it’s all over the place.’ ”

What Keeps Her Going

The homepage of Pet-Abuse.Com has a scrolling display of recent cases. “Dog found dead with bag over its head,” one reads. “Cat loses paw and tail in attack,” says another. Reviewing thousands of cases of animal abuse day after day would be impossible for some, but Gianotto focuses on the big picture. “We deal with so many of these cases that if you obsessed about any of them, it would be over,” she says. “I wouldn’t be able to do this.”

It’s not just the emotional side of the cases that’s difficult; the volume is also a challenge. One day during the first week of May, the number of e-mails containing cases to be reviewed was a staggering 1,016. “Now some of those will be duplicates, and some of those will have multiple cases in each e-mail, so it’s really hard to gauge how many actual cases we have to review yet.” says Gianotto. “But I never like that queue to be over 100, so I’ve been a little stressed out lately.”

With so much to do—from managing the organization and overseeing multiple websites to writing a book about her experiences and holding down a day job—it would be a miracle if Gianotto weren’t stressed out.

Gianotto’s schedule may mean scheduling an interview at 6:30 a.m. with a reporter—or, as Kumpf reports, pulling all-nighters. “She doesn’t sleep,” he says. “The running joke is: Did she run out of oxygen yet? Because there’s a special amount you’re allowed to have, and if you stay up past your allotted time, then you’re taking my oxygen,” he laughs.

Talking to people from the field and getting feedback encourages Gianotto to continue, she says. “I’m really cut off from the rest of the animal welfare world in general, other than by e-mail,” she says. “And so when I get a chance to actually meet people face to face and learn more about what they need and what we’re doing right and what we’re doing almost right ... that is really what keeps me going.”

Another source of motivation for Gianotto is the progress the field has made and the advances it continues to make. From the increasing numbers of kids who say they want to be “animal cops” when they grow up to the young adults who attend law school to learn to prosecute animal abusers, many members of the younger generation are focusing on animals, she says.

Those already in the field have been making great strides, too, she says. “If you doubt for one second that what you’re doing is making a difference, take [a] step back, and look at how much has changed in just 10 years,” she says. “Ten years is not a very long time.”

A WEALTH OF WEB RESOURCES
A partial listing of other sites created or worked on by Alison Gianotto

www.ACOFunStop.com
Joint project of Pet-Abuse.com and the Virginia Animal Control Association; was relaunched in 2005 with Gianotto’s technical help. Contains resources for animal control officers and humane law enforcement: job postings; calendar of events; and public and ACO-only discussion forums, which Gianotto and ACO Mark Kumpf moderate.

www.Dogfighters.org
Offers general dogfighting information; allows individuals who create an account and verify their law enforcement status to access resources advising officers on investigating and prosecuting cases.

www.Cockfighters.org
Coming this fall; those who have special access to Dogfighters.Org can access the non-public information to be posted on this site.

www.CritterCrusaders.com
Networking site for those in the animal care field to make connections with like-minded people. Website offers members the chance to share photos, post classified ads, create blogs, and maybe even find that special someone.

www.RescueTransporters.com
Scheduled for official launch this fall; will provide a way to connect animal transporters and organizations that need them. Already has several hundred volunteers and organizations signed up.

Other websites
www.HumaneKind.com administers the “Compassionate Youth Awards”; www.EveryDayActivist.com (created by Gianotto and her sister) outlines easy ways that anyone can help the environment; www.RealityTraining.com offers free training film for law enforcement on fighting animal cruelty.

 

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