In September, the longest sentence ever in Canada for animal abuse was handed down in a Calgary courtroom.
On the receiving end of the 6.5-year prison term was a 26-year-old woman named Aleeta Raugust, a diagnosed psychopath who tortured nine cats, killed seven of them, and admitted to having thoughts of harming humans.
She pled guilty to nine counts of animal cruelty.
Calgary Police Sgt. Dennis Smithson says the case is the perfect example of why violence link training is so important and warrants investment by police forces and governments.
Humane Canada CEO Barb Cartwright says it demonstrates what can be done when agencies and properly trained experts work together, and why it’s worth replicating across the country.
Between 2018 and 2023, Raugust bought cats online with the intention of doing them harm. She recorded videos of herself torturing “two or three” to rewatch – something that gave her pleasure.
She left the cats’ bodies in public places so she could observe people’s reactions upon finding them.
A psychological assessment found she had little remorse for what she’d done.
Raugust also admitted to having violent fantasies about hurting people when angered and told police she intended to burn down her former apartment building.
A Case Study of the Violence Link
Animal abuse often directly correlates to interpersonal violence. Research shows that violence towards people and violence towards animals are part of a larger pattern of crimes that co-exist, known as the violence link.
With Raugust, a team of Calgary Police and Calgary Humane Society officers, crown prosecutors and a forensic veterinarian – all trained to recognize the violence link – worked together to investigate and build the case.
Although it’s not a formalized team, they work closely and regularly communicate, which has kept concerning patterns of behaviour and cases from falling through the cracks. The trust and rapport they’ve built has bypassed the hesitancy police agencies often have around sharing information.
Their efforts saw Raugust receive the stiffest penalty on record for an animal abuse case in this country – doubling the previous sentencing threshold.
Smithson says since the team formed a decade ago, there have been more charges and convictions, and they’ve repeatedly set and broken the Canadian record for the length of sentences.
“We’re putting people away for a number of years now as opposed to just fines and warnings not to do it again,” he says of past sentencing practices.
Brad Nichols, the Calgary Humane Society’s director of operations and enforcement, says although the pace of change hasn’t been as fast as many would like, it wasn’t long ago that a lifetime prohibition on owning animals was unheard of.
“Seeing punitive and preventative measures put in place more often, and judges viewing animals as victims that can suffer, it’s very satisfying,” he says.
Smithson and the team created a violence link training program that more than 1,000 people across Alberta have gone through – everyone from police and peace officers to dispatchers, analysts, record keepers, veterinarians, and women’s shelters staff.
About half of them are in Calgary, including nearly 400 police officers, and the force’s domestic conflict and domestic violence risk assessment teams.
The lead investigator in Raugust received the training the same month she was put on the case. Bylaw officers had been collecting dead cats in the same lane for several weeks, the assumption being they’d been hit by cars. But when Sgt. Alanna Sherwood started investigating, she felt there were too many in the same area for that to be the case.
“She knew right away there was a lot more to this and started digging,” Smithson says.
Sherwood involved Dr. Margaret Doyle, a forensic veterinarian, to conduct necropsies on the cats to determine what happened to them. Coupled with the Humane Society’s resources, the team assembled a comprehensive file for the Crown prosecutor, who was also well-versed in the violence link and able to explain it to the court.
“When you put all those pieces together, it’s hard to say no to putting somebody in jail,” Smithson says.
“Like any other file that takes multiple units and multiple agencies, these cases are no different.”
However, police agencies have long viewed animal abuse files as a bylaw matter for humane societies to handle.
“What’s changing is that we’ve recognized that we need everybody involved to do these things correctly,” Smithson says.
“If we didn’t have access to the police and they didn’t have access to us, we’d both have incomplete toolkits,” he says.
“We wouldn’t know what we don’t know, which is always a problem.”
However, aside from the Edmonton Police’s animal cruelty unit, few police agencies or academies provide training on the violence link. Smithson says there’s a lack of recognition of how intertwined it is in daily life.
And yet, it’s very clear in the data. Smithson said he was “quite shocked” when the team looked at individuals charged with intentional animal abuse over an 18-month period. They found 93% of them had been charged or investigated for domestic violence, and within that group, 85% were involved in an average of four other criminal code offenses.
Nichols says they didn’t realize how unique their team was until they started presenting at conferences and through the National Centre for the Prosecution of Animal Cruelty.
“It became pretty evident not a lot of jurisdictions were collaborating like this.”
Their unit has shown what can be accomplished and enhanced awareness of the fact animal abuse files often have human victims as well.
Smithson wants to see formalized violence link training in every police agency and academy.
“Every time I present to members across Canada, there’s always an officer who comes to me after and says I wish I hadn’t known this, that somebody had taught me this right from day one,” he says.
National Strategy Needed
Humane Canada and its Canadian Violence Link Coalition partners are working to increase the focus on and recognition of the connection in legislation and policy, and operationally across law enforcement and the criminal and social justice systems.
Cartwright advocates for a national strategy to ensure police and animal protection officers are trained to recognize the link, as well as judges, and prosecutors. There’s also a need for meaningful rehabilitation so offenders don’t escalate upon release. In the Raugust case, even the judge expressed concerns about the day she gets out of jail.
Ideally, Cartwright says Canada would have a government-funded violence link centre to foster a unified effort across sectors and agencies, to provide training, as well as education on collecting animal abuse crime data across the country.
In its final report1, the Mass Casualty Commission into Canada’s worst mass shooting recommended “all individuals and entities engaged in data-collection research and policy development, including law enforcement agencies and other authorities, collect data on…whether the perpetrator had a history of harming or killing pets or animals, or threatening to do so.”
The federal government has yet to act on the recommendations.
Cartwright says while Raugust is a landmark case, it’s just the latest wake-up call to governments to invest in violence link training.
“We can’t keep dealing with this in a piecemeal way,” she says.
“We’ve had some successes here, so how do we expand this across the country?”
Smithson hopes statistics showing the scope of the problem and the team’s impact help reinforce why recognition of the link is so important.
“Data drives budgets, data drives the use of resources,” he says.
1 The Mass Casualty Commission’s Final Report, 2023 – Turning the Tide Together: https://masscasualtycommission.ca/final-report/https://ec.europa.eu/environment/chemicals/reach/animal_en.htm#:~:text=Under%20REACH%2C%20animal%20testing%20is,current%20Framework%20Programme%20for%20Research.