CINCINNATI -- For the first time in more than 80 years, the federal government has begun tracking animal cruelty crimes as a specific offense, instead of lumping them into a bigger catch-all category.
The move aims to help law enforcement, elected officials and researchers better understand where animal cruelty is happening so they can identify trends and put resources where they're most needed.
"People start out with abusing an animal. Then they escalate and go off to their next victim, who is not able to fend the off -- whether it be a child or spousal abuse," said Harold Dates, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Cincinnati.
The FBI said it would be starting data collection on animal cruelty this month, at the request of the National Sheriffs' Association and the Animal Welfare Institute. Previously, animal cruelty cases were rolled up into an "All Other Offenses" grouping in the agency's Uniform Crime Report, which tracks various crime categories nationwide.
Data on animal cruelty will be available beginning in 2017.
"I think this is a much greater problem than people recognize. Statistically, it's sort of been this gray area that's never really be accounted for," said Lisa Holbrook, a volunteer with Ohio Voters for Companion Animals.
Supporters believe the data also will provide more evidence to push for harder penalties against animal abusers.
The Uniform Crime Report program began in 1930 and collects data from thousands of law enforcement agencies nationwide.