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Kill, Kill Again

For animal-rights advocates, Amsterdam cat-killing case highlights link between animal abuse and the potential for violence against people

The fact that many serial killers are predisposed to torturing and abusing animals is no news to James Conboy.

“People who are serial killers, more often than not, get a start with animals and need to move on to bigger and better things to get their thrills,” said Conboy, Montgomery County district attorney and prosecutor in the felony animal-cruelty cases against two Amsterdam teenagers. Preliminary hearings in the case were held on Tuesday (June 25) in Amsterdam City Court.

Nicholas Brodsky, 18, and Carly Furman, 16, both of Amsterdam, are alleged to have mutilated Brodsky’s sister’s cat and two kittens with knives before chopping them up with an axe on May 2. They are being tried under New York state’s aggravated animal-cruelty law, also known as Buster’s Law.

“The idea behind Buster’s Law is to identify people who fit this trend and be able to track them,” Conboy said.

Buster’s Law was enacted in 1999 after a 17-year-old from Schenectady doused an 18-month-old tabby cat, Buster, in kerosene and set the animal on fire. The law stiffens the penalty for a guilty conviction of aggravated animal cruelty, bumping the offense up from a misdemeanor to a felony with a maximum sentence of two years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

“Buster’s Law has gotten New York state law enforcement to pay more serious attention to animal-cruelty cases,” said Stacy Wolf, director of government affairs and public policy for the Albany chapter of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “At its two-year anniversary, there were a number of convictions under the law.”

Wolf, who cowrote Buster’s law—which has resulted in 87 arrests and 15 convictions from November 1999 to March of this year—believes that stiff prosecution of animal-cruelty cases is important “not only for humane reasons, but for the safety of the community at large.”

“It is important to prosecute animal cruelty cases because as a society we have collectively determined that it is inhumane and morally wrong to commit cruel acts of violence against these innocent creatures,” said Pamela Frank of FIREPAW, an Albany-based nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting animal welfare through research and education. Frank holds a doctoral degree in behavioral science. “In short, we must protect them because we can.”

The Amsterdam case has drawn the attention not just of local animal-rights advocates like Wolf and Frank, but also of more outspoken national organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. According to Martin Mersereau, cruelty caseworker for the organization, “these teens represent tomorrow’s rapists, child molesters and wife beaters.”

“Once someone is killing animals with such cruelty, they have gone down the slippery slope of desensitization, and the whole community is in danger, no longer just animals,” Mersereau said.

Conboy says he is well aware of the documented psychological links between animal and human cruelty (Ted Bundy, for example, was known to have witnessed his father torture animals and continued the family tradition before going on to rape and kill more than 40 women), and plans to try the case accordingly.

Though her family was not willing to comment on the case, Furman’s attorney, Jeffrey Francisco, doesn’t agree with the deduction that human abusers all start out abusing animals.

“I don’t have enough experience to be the judge and say that animal abuse leads to human abuse, but when you look back in certain cases, that is so,” Francisco said.

Mersereau is asking that the alleged cat-killers be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for these offenses and has sent a letter Conboy expressing such on behalf of PETA. “Upon conviction, PETA wants these two prohibited from owning or harboring animals in the future,” Mersereau said. “As far as allowing them counseling to learn how to deal with animals, I don’t know of any sane person who’d want these cowards in the same room with another animal, supervised or unsupervised.”

Frank and FIREPAW completely reject that idea.

“I remain unconvinced that punishment, in and of itself, is an effective way to stop such violence,” Frank said. “A more promising approach is mandatory long-term counseling that focuses on restructuring the abuser’s perceptions, beliefs and attitudes about him/herself and others.”

Since violence is an act through which one vents rage, Frank believes that finding the source of the rage is of utmost importance in removing the need to vent.

Perpetrators must be taught realistic expectations and healthy, nonviolent strategies for coping and reacting to a world that can sometimes be ugly and unfair,” Frank said.

Frank believes Buster’s Law is a significant step in the right direction from preceding animal-cruelty laws, especially in the area of providing counseling for the convicted; but she said the law’s vague and discretionary language is still in need of improvement, a point with which Conboy agrees.

“The way the law is written, the felony charge only applies when the afflicter is seeking stimulation from torturing domestic animals,” Conboy said. “Not to give anybody ideas, but these people can still get their kicks by torturing squirrels.”

—Travis Durfee


John Whipple

Keep the Wheels Turning

A handful of protestors turned out on the Capitol steps Tuesday for a rally, sponsored by Citizens for Transportation, promoting increased state and local spending on public transportation. A central theme of the rally was the call for expanded service from the Capital District Transportation Authority: more buses, more buses running on evenings and weekends, and more frequent buses during the daytime, echoing well-documented national ridership patterns establishing that increased frequency of bus and train trips is one of the most important factors in attracting riders to public transit. The demonstrators also called on the car-driving public to consider riding buses to save money, help the environment and eliminate the stress of searching for a parking spot.

Beneath the damage and the dust: A scene from lower Manhattan in October. Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen.

Urban Rhythms

A Web site spurs dialogue about how New York City should revitalize Ground Zero—and the rest of lower Manhattan

In 1993, Adam Honigman was working at the World Trade Center when a truck packed with explosives exploded in its basement. On Sept. 11, he watched the towers collapse from his office in Greenwich Village. “One job more or less,” he writes, and “it could have been me there this time.” Now, he’d like New York City to memorialize its dead by not rebuilding the towers. He writes of the joke about how the Twin Towers were built of the boxes that the Empire State Building and Chrysler Building came in, and he pleads that we not “dishonor the dead, missing and this city with ugly, rectangular crates.”

His comments can be found, along with hundreds—and potentially thousands—of other, on www.downtownnyc.org, a Web site launched on May 20 to host discussion among the public on the redevelopment not just of Ground Zero and the surrounding areas that were physically damaged, but of all of Lower Manhattan from Houston Street down. Now that the last of the rubble—a 30-foot steel column—has been removed from Ground Zero, the redevelopment game is officially on; the Web site is an effort to assure that the public becomes a player.

To address the expanse of lower Manhattan, the site’s bulletin boards are grouped into 15 topics. Each of these topics is devoted either to a specific place, like the World Trade Center, or to an issue, like the future of arts and culture in lower Manhattan. Within each there are further categories, and as the Web site evolves, there will be more still, but the structure and design of the site remain simple. You click on one of the topics, choose from one of the sub-topics on that page, and then, as the bright red link says, “Read Comments and Add Your Own.”

Appropriately, for a site dedicated to incarnating the will of the public, the ownership of www.downtownnyc.org is unclear. Its main sponsor, the source of its legitimacy, is the Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown Manhattan, the largest of the many nonprofit coalitions and alliances that have formed in the last eight months to influence the course of the redevelopment. The producer and manager of the site is the Project for Public Spaces, a New York-based nonprofit urban-planning firm.

Ownership aside, the purpose of the Web site is clear, and it is driven by a simple philosophy, that the people who live and work in a place—the stakeholders, in urban-design vernacular—are best equipped to manage its development and future. It is these stakeholders, according to PPS’s recent book How to Turn a Place Around, who “know from experience which areas are dangerous and why, which spaces are comfortable, where the traffic moves too fast, and where their children can safely walk or bike or play.” And it is the hope of the project that their Web site can become a place where the public goes to articulate its expertise.

Public participation has been an avowed goal of the parties involved in the redevelopment of lower Manhattan, but the public’s response has proven more passionate than anyone anticipated. When the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), the state-city group chartered to coordinate the rebuilding, held the first of its public hearings on May 23, the crowd was hostile. “We don’t feel the Lower East Side is represented in the process,” said Margaret Hughes. “The LMDC talks about being open but so many decisions have already been made.”

And there were further complaints: Chinatown was being ignored; the issue of affordable housing hadn’t been adequately addressed; no one seemed interested in rebuilding the towers. “It’s absolutely inconceivable to me,” said Louis Epstein, “that they would rebuild without rebuilding the towers. It’s like deserting your dead in the battlefield.”

“The LMDC needs us,” said Harriet Festing, head of Marketing for PPS. “They don’t know any more than we do, than the public does, about how this thing should go, and I think they realize that. I was at the meeting, and I felt badly for them. They don’t really have a mechanism for incorporating public opinion, and there’s no way they can process, in a meeting like that, a thousand people with a thousand different opinions.”

One of the services the Web site can provide, argues Festing, is a structured, continuous source of opinion from the public. Though the site has only about 150 registered users at the moment, they are shooting for 20,000 by the end of the year, and Festing believes if they can attract that many people, then those in charge—the LMDC, the Port Authority, the governor, the mayor, the developers—will have to take notice, and will want to take advantage.

So far, most of discussion on the Web site has been about the future of Ground Zero. Eileen Shay, who lost her younger brother Robert on Sept. 11, writes of taking an out-of-town friend to see the towers on Sept. 7, four days before the attacks. “He looked up in amazement at the Twin Towers,” she writes, “and I looked up with him and simply stated that ‘New York is the greatest city in the world.’” Eileen is pragmatic on the issue of rebuilding: “We should definitely put office buildings on the site,” she writes, but “not as high, because I believe we would have a hard time finding people to occupy the area.”

The challenge for organizers of the project, assuming they are able to solicit comments from thousands of Shays and Honigmans, is how to sell the information, how to package it. When Festing was asked what PPS would do with 20,000 people with 20,000 different opinions, she acknowledged that she didn’t know. “We’ll do an analysis, a report, but I can’t tell you what exactly it might look like.” Nor do the people at PPS know what the site would even look like with that many comments. “Maybe we’ll do it like Amazon does,” said Julie Caniglia, the Web producer, “with a few comments on the main page and a link to the rest. I don’t know yet.”

Some of their uncertainty is a consequence of the speed with which the redevelopment is progressing, a speed they’ve had to match in the construction of the Web site. The rest of the uncertainty, however, is an expected product of their philosophy, that the public should create the narratives that define what a public space—in this case a virtual public space—becomes. The site, therefore, is designed precisely to encourage the formation of these narratives, with maps, suggestions collected from workshops, links to other urban design Web sites and slide shows with images of what other cities have done with similar types of places. “We have already divided the space up into topics and issues,” said Festing, “and within the comments we may begin to see patterns emerge. We may even see people connecting there and then organizing on their own. A body of individuals can cohere, can coalesce into a group that might actually get something done.”

Everyone at PPS was up front about the fact that their motives in developing the site are not disinterested; they, too, are trying to sell something. Though they are not being paid for their work on www.downtownnyc.org, what they learn from this project will help them pitch the service to their paying clients, and the press they get—this article, for instance—won’t hurt either. But nobody in New York is disinterested; it wouldn’t be the city it is if its people were. What gives the Web site its credibility is precisely that the interests of PPS and the Civic Alliance and the public coincide. Information is what they all have to sell; it’s all that they have to sell.

If the LMDC and the Port Authority have political capital, and the survivors of those killed have moral capital, and the private developers have capital, the public has what one might call stakeholder capital. And though the degree of public participation in the redevelopment will not be determined by the success of one Web site, it will be determined by the extent to which someone or something can find a way to channel the city’s millions of voices into a collective voice. The expertise is there; the question is whether the women and men with the money can be made to listen.

Sally Ionidies used to take the A/C train to the Chambers Street stop. From there she would cross over West Street— “awful to cross,” she says—and head to Hudson River Park, often picking up a jug of apple cider at a farmer’s market along the way. The last time she went, the entrance to the park was closed, and she wants to know why there were no signs indicating when or if it would reopen. Jesse Marsh says of Fulton Street, which runs into the former World Trace Center plot, that it should become a pedestrian-only thoroughfare. “Allow street fair vendors,” he writes, and “charge $20 per day or $100/week.” Eric Wallach wonders “about the abandoned theatre that sits unused and falling apart less than a quarter-mile south of Houston Street on the East River?” He would like to see it restored, and asks, into the digital ether, to no one in particular, to everyone: “Can I help?”

—Dan Oppenheimer

Dan Oppenheimer is a freelance writer living in New York City.


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