animal-rights advocates, Amsterdam cat-killing case highlights
link between animal abuse and the potential for violence against
fact that many serial killers are predisposed to torturing
and abusing animals is no news to James Conboy.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
the Wheels Turning
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.
the damage and the dust: A scene from lower Manhattan
in October. Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen.
Web site spurs dialogue about how New York City should revitalize
Ground Zero—and the rest of lower Manhattan
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.”
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 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?”
Oppenheimer is a freelance writer living in New York City.