A teenage boy from Sudden Valley caught on camera beating and sexually abusing a household cat has been convicted of felony animal cruelty.
The boy’s father had set up three security cameras in the living room at their home because the boy, then 16, had a history of misbehaving when out of sight of adults: stealing, starting fires, and general “boundary issues,” his father said outside the courtroom this week.
He must have known, his parents said, that the cameras were there: More than once before he’d gotten in trouble for incidents that had been caught on camera, but never for abusing one of the family cats.
The week of Sept. 1, Deputy Prosecutor Evan Jones played two videos in juvenile court for Superior Court Commissioner Martha Gross, showing the boy, clothed, as he thrust his groin against the cat’s rump on the living room couch, while the television droned in the background. The abuse continued over the course of the 19-minute video, which was time-stamped 10:45 a.m. July 28, as the cat made frightened squeaking sounds, as though its airway was constricted.
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Footage from two hours later showed the boy slamming one of the family cats into the couch and smacking its head against the wall. In the courtroom, the boy shielded his eyes and tugged at his bangs when the video grew more violent. The Bellingham Herald doesn’t name minors charged in juvenile court with crimes that don’t result in a death.
A veterinarian from the Whatcom Humane Society, Dr. Karen Rounds, said the cat acted “strangely passive” in the footage — a sign, she suggested, that past abuse might have conditioned the cat to not resist or else face a worse beating.
“There’s a point in animals where they’re so afraid, so distressed, that they essentially freeze up,” Rounds testified. “Basically, they’ve lost all hope at that point.”
Jones asked Dr. Rounds to interpret each of the cat’s yowls and screeches.
“Now, Doctor,” Jones said, after playing a clip, “did you hear the cat make a sound in that video?”
“That would be severe pain and fear,” Rounds said. “I’ve heard that sound made by cats in severe medical pain, especially with a blocked urethra. Or, say, a hit-by-car cat.”
The boy’s public defenders, Mamie Lackie and Jane Boman, argued that the longest and most intense cry of pain, a five-second scream like a “mountain lion,” hadn’t come from the cat, but from the boy, who recorded it on his phone and played it back twice. (Commissioner Gross spent hours reviewing the videos that afternoon, and the next morning she said she believed the scream came from the cat.)
His lawyers emphasized that neither of the two family cats — a female and a male, littermates with rhyming names — suffered noticeable bruising or broken skin. Several times the deputy public defenders referred to the boy as “pestering” and “rough-housing” with the cats, but argued it didn’t amount to felony animal cruelty.
“Nearly every hit,” Boman said, “was into a pillow.”
After a two-day bench trial, Gross found the boy guilty of animal cruelty in the first degree. For an hour Thursday, Sept. 4, the commissioner gave a minute-by-minute review of what she’d seen in the videos: “hitting, slamming, choking, smothering, swinging a body by the neck.”
“This cat’s the size of an infant. You don’t pick up a cat like this,” Gross said, miming a haymaker motion across her body, “and slam it against the side of a couch, and call that ‘rough-housing.’”
On Friday, at a sentencing hearing, she added, “He tortured that cat, for an extended period of time.”
For a first-time offender, the maximum sentence for a class C felony is 30 days. The boy spent a month and four days in juvenile detention awaiting his trial and judgment. Gross ordered 12 months of probation, a ban on owning pets, and thorough evaluations for psychological problems and sexual deviancy. The boy, a Bellingham High School student, was released this week to an at-risk youth center.
He lived in 14 foster homes before being adopted in 2009. Until now he had never been charged with a serious crime. His parents said past mistakes — like playing with matches; burning scraps of paper that would be found later in his backpack; rummaging through drawers to steal valuables and, sometimes, things with little to no value — had been dealt with in the home, to keep him from having a juvenile record. But harming a defenseless animal, they said, crossed the line.
Two days after the beatings, the boy dialed 911 from a bowling alley on North State Street in Bellingham. He wanted to turn himself in for abusing a family cat, according to charging papers. At first a sheriff’s deputy couldn’t figure out what he was talking about. So he drove the boy to his home in Sudden Valley, where his father had just made CD copies of the footage for police.
“Devastating,” the boy’s father told a reporter, before a long pause. “Nauseating.”
His mother said, “To try to get him to understand empathy — it’s not there.”