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Domestic Violence: Is animal abuse a gateway offense?
Kimball Lewis

Is there a link between violence against women and animals? The answers will surprise you.

The author is the founder of the Domestic Violence Assistance Program and one of the nation’s leading authorities on animal abuse as a gateway offense to violence against people.

Maggie Cothern and her husband Jimmy lived in Durango Colorado. Durango is a small community of ranchers, whitewater rafting and some of the best snow skiing and mountain biking in the United States. It is also a place where substance abuse and domestic violence are prolific. While experts argue why family violence has escalated in small town America, one investigator knows that there is another side to this equation, even a precursor if you will. As a nationally recognized animal abuse expert, I know that violence against animals is often a barometer of future abhorrent behavior against people. Often, the people who are the focus of this violence are within the family unit.

In 1993, I was a commissioned officer through the Colorado Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Animal Protection. In a separate but parallel role, I was also the director of animal enforcement and protection in La Plata County Colorado. My officers handled animal control as well as neglect and abuse investigations in an area considered paradise to many. But paradise always has an unseen element. Durango was no exception. It was here that I began to see an increasingly obvious pattern as animal violence and crimes against people became more and more intertwined.

It was a snowy March in Durango and the winter tourist season was in full swing. I was head of the regions animal enforcement and protection program and was seated in my office filling out paperwork when the intercom buzzed. There was a woman in the lobby who was visibly distraught and requesting to see me. Although I had a pile of paperwork in front of me I could hear the urgency in the receptionist’s voice and so I asked for her to escort the visitor in. There, seated across from me was a small woman, no more than 21, a frail, scared, unsure figure stood there shuddering in front of me. Her name was Maggie Cothern and as I asked her to sit down, she burst into tears. Maggie related that she had been married to Jimmy Cothern for a short while when the abuse first started. It was verbal in the beginning as he launched into the typical pattern of demeaning Magie and then slowly isolating her from friends and family. It took an act so cowardly as to sicken even the most seasoned investigator for Maggie to finally break ranks with her husband and seek help. Ironically, he had not yet physically abused Maggie. In her eyes that would have been bearable. No, what her husband did was to take her tiny American Eskimo dog and bash its helpless body against the cement crushing the little dog’s hips. Jimmy had struck out at Maggie through an area more vulnerable to many women than themselves. He had attacked her pet. Since Maggie and Jimmy had no children yet, Jimmy did what more and more perpetrators of domestic violence do every day, he brutalized her tiny dog as a leverage mechanism to gain silence and compliance in an ongoing cycle of violence.

Maggie did something that Jimmy hadn’t counted on, something that most abusers don’t count on, she got mad and fought back. Maggie sat there across from my desk, her nearly lifeless dog in her arms, asking what could she do. The rage I felt come over me as her story was related and as she took the blanket away to reveal the shaking body of her little dog was overwhelming. I gained my composure and with a few telephone calls, made arrangements for the doctors at the Durango Animal Hospital to take the dog in for emergency surgery. Like so many women seeking refuge from violence, Maggie had left with only the clothes on her back. A costly vet bill was out of the question. Fortunately, the doctors at Durango Animal Hospital are part of a very compassionate community and they donated the surgery. While Maggie’s little dog had pins drilled into her hip, I directed Maggie toward the police for a protective order.

Several days later, I was in my office late. The snow was piling up and living on a ranch at nearly 2000 feet higher in elevation than the town of Durango, I knew I needed to get going or I###d wind up spending the night at my office as had already been the case several times that year. With more than 300 inches of total snowfall that year at home, the weather was a formidable adversary and throw in 110 horses to feed and you get my point. Just as I was preparing to leave, a vehicle with two figures in it pulled up the long road to the office with their headlights off. Norma, my office manager was still out front shutting down the computer. "Kimball, Norma called, there is a man here who wants to see you". I told Norma to send him in and as I looked across from my desk I was a little more than shocked to see Jimmy Cothern standing there. A second man was standing guard at the front door and I realized they meant trouble. What Jimmy Cothern said next totally floored me. "Where’s my dog!" He cursed and sputtered at me and I realized that this was an abuser who was willing to go one step further than most. As professional as I have tried to remain over the years, something in me triggered an angry response. Here I sat, being threatened in my own office by the very man who had brutally attacked his wife’s dog. I leapt from my chair and catapulted myself over the desk in one effortless motion landing directly in front of Jimmy. "You don’t own any dogs" was my reply and I directed him toward the door. The man at the door stepped forward to block my way causing me to find physical strength I didn’t know existed as I swiftly ejected them both in a heap into the night and the falling snow.

I never saw Jimmy again. He moved over the Mountain to Mesa County where he was later shot six times by a Mesa County Sheriff’s Deputy when he exited a stolen car with a gun in his hand. Maggie and her dog now live out their life in relative piece. That very same year I saw another case in Durango one evening when a man named Mike Willimans went into the Sundowner Saloon on North Main to find his estranged partner, Rene Preston dancing with another man. Mike Williams promptly left the tavern and drove to the La Plata County Fairgrounds some six blocks south of the tavern on Main Street. There, Williams methodically went from one stall to the next, stabbing to death all four of Prestons horses. When Patrol Sargent Mike Weaver arrived on the scene, Williams assaulted the officer by punching him in the face. He was later taken into custody.

But the Cothern and Williams story are only the tiny tip of a very large iceberg. Court records are overflowing with examples such as these. In 1996, 97 and 98 I handled four of the worst cases of animal torture, abuse and violence I had seen in nearly seventeen years and each case was an internal portion of some ongoing domestic violence case.

Eugene Oregon, 1997. Leslie Lunsford Traeweek, a 35-year-old white male is dating and living with a local grade school teacher. Traeweek becomes abusive toward his domestic partner and when she ejects him from the home, his very first response is to target her dog, which she had adopted from the local humane society. The teacher was a decent, hard working woman and she was genuinely frightened by Traeweeks threats and actions. We encouraged her to place her dog in a "safe house" and to be wary of Traeweek. One week later, she came home to find Traeweek standing in her living room. Having already trashed her house, Traeweek then walked over to an aquarium