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Website Born of Feline's Plight Keeps Track of Animal Abusers

July 09, 2006|Vincent J. Schodolski | Chicago Tribune

LONG BEACH — It all began with a cat-napper.

Five years ago, Alison Gianotto was appalled when someone stole a neighborhood cat in Del Mar and set it afire.

So she started raising money for veterinarian bills that soon amounted to $5,000. The cat, named Bert, died of burns and kidney failure, but Gianotto was so impressed with the outpouring of generosity that she decided to use her computer skills to set up a website devoted to tracking people who abuse animals.

Thus was www.pet-abuse.com born. The site helps people to notify others of animal abusers by posting information gathered from law enforcement officers, shelters and news accounts of acts perpetrated against pets.

On one recent day, a visitor to the site would have found such disturbing news as: "Dog locked in hot car, paralyzed," in Salt Lake City; "12 cows neglected, 8 dead" in Frewsburg, N.Y.; "Dog shot to death during burglary" in Tangerine, Fla.; "1,000 pigs neglected during transport, 130 die" in Brownsville, Texas; and "Puppy thrown from second-story balcony" in Fort Myers, Fla.

In one well-known case, the site helped track Shon Rahrig, convicted of poking out the eyes of a cat and several dogs in Ohio, to his new home in Long Beach.

It posted details of Rahrig's Ohio conviction: His girlfriend had returned from an outing one day and found a cat, its eyes gouged out and its paws cut off, in a laundry basket. She told authorities that Rahrig told her to take it to a shelter and say she found it by the side of the road.

Rahrig was convicted of animal abuse, jailed for 45 days and ordered to undergo counseling.

But after his release Rahrig moved away, and pet-abuse.com got involved.

The site alerted people in Rahrig's new neighborhood about his Ohio deeds, which led to fliers with his name and photo being posted in the area. Rahrig has since vanished.

"There's no forgetting that case," Gianotto said.

"We have used him ... in our brochures and presentations ... because he has constantly moved around ... and he has actively attended adoption events trying to acquire more animals."

Rahrig's case, she said, is a good illustration of what www.pet-abuse.comdoes.

It "really helps demonstrate exactly why a database like ours is so important and why shelters, rescues and even breeders should be using it."

In fact, one of the most important animal protection organizations in America uses the site regularly.

It is "a fantastic resource," said Peter Wood, a deputy manager at the Humane Society of the United States. "I use it on a daily basis."

Wood's duties include tracking incidents of animal cruelty, something he said was difficult because of the lack of a centralized source on information.

"There [are] an incredible number of cases every day, and not every case makes it to the media, or police blotters," Wood said.

Gianotto, a software designer, developed the site in her off-hours. She maintains it with the help of volunteers.

At the start, the site was almost exclusively composed of incidents culled from newspapers and online reports. But as it has developed, so have relationships with law enforcement agencies and others familiar with the site's work.

"We have a network of contacts with shelters and police and sheriffs," she said.

Despite her efforts, Gianotto said the database contained only a small fraction of the animal-abuse cases in the country each year. For 2005, the last complete year in the database, she and her sources were able to document about 2,000 cases.

"As we grow, our resources grow," she said.

Ultimately, this is personal for Gianotto and other pet lovers who visit the site -- an outgrowth of the assistance she received from strangers during her efforts to raise money for Bert's medical care.

"Bert's story touched so many people that we decided that we should put our heads together and come up with a resource for other people who have found themselves in this exceptionally tragic situation," Gianotto says in a part of the website called "Our story."

The website gets about 3 million hits a month and is used by law enforcement and animal-rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Humane Society to zero in on animal abusers.

"Animal cruelty is a crime," Gianotto said. "You can report it."

She said that law enforcement officers also paid attention to the site for indications of animal abuse by teenagers and children because such early behavior could indicate a tendency toward violence that could worsen with age.

As for the cat-napper who started it all, Gianotto writes on her website that he "is believed to have fled back to Brazil, where he is undoubtedly torturing and killing people's cats there."

"We're doing all that we can, pursuing our own independent investigation and trying to make the public aware so that they can protect themselves, but the end result right now is that Bert was tortured to death and no arrests have been made," she wrote.

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