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Cruelty on the Couch

When an animal is abused, most people see an act of petty violence. Dr. Stephanie LaFarge sees a warm-up crime -- and an offender who may soon move on to a human victim.


"Animals will change your life," says Armando Laboy, age 19, describing the series of events that ended with his incarceration on Rikers Island. It's a rainy afternoon, and Armando is sitting in the office of Dr. Stephanie LaFarge, a psychologist on staff at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He wears baggy pants, a large ankh around his neck, and big black boots that lace up the front like a corset. Splashes of girlish pink run through his brown hair. Armando looks more like a club kid than like an inner-city animal abuser, if that's what he is.

"It all started when we got the dog." The "we" refers to Armando and his lover, David (not his real name), a veterinary technician in a small Bronx practice. The dog in question is a wolf hybrid named Wolfgang, Wolfie to his friends. Wolfie was a hit-and-run found on the FDR Drive who was about to be euthanized for want of an owner. Instead, Armando and David adopted him. "The dog was kind of gray, and he looked like David's dad, who was very homophobic and never knew about us," recalls Armando, a look of disgust passing over his face like a shadow. "Wolfie reminded David of his old dog, who had died, so I said, 'Okay. We'll take him. I do love animals.' "

Apparently not enough. According to the court record, on December 12, 1998, Armando bound Wolfie's legs, beat him, and stabbed him with a sharp object. David rushed the dog to a hospital and had Armando arrested for animal cruelty. Which is what landed him in the office of Dr. LaFarge, a tall, handsome woman in her early sixties who is wearing a vintage suit and a look of intense concentration.

LaFarge's office is a small, windowless room filled with a friendly clutter -- books, dog paraphernalia, video equipment, a fish tank, and piles of papers -- that leaves barely enough room for visitors to enter and sit. It is on the third floor of the ASPCA, or the "A," as it is called by the humane community, an imposing five-story brick building on East 92nd Street that is New York's corporate headquarters for animal advocates. LaFarge has been on staff at the ASPCA for almost three years, working with a variety of clients. She regularly treats people grieving for a recently lost family member -- a dog or cat -- but she also works with a steady flow of criminals and sociopaths, many of them teenagers, who have been convicted of animal abuse in New York City. Her clients commit the kinds of crimes that sell tabloid newspapers and send chills up readers' spines. LaFarge, it can be argued, is the person who stands between them and their next victim, or victims.

"When Armando harmed the dog, it wasn't because the dog didn't count. It was because his rage entitles him to do whatever violent thing he feels he can get away with."

Armando is one of the first to go through a new intervention program that has been set up by LaFarge for people who have been convicted of animal cruelty, the first program of its kind in the country. Until recently, crimes against animals were ignored or considered nuisance misdemeanors, meriting a slap on the wrist from an apathetic judge. Most cases never made it into court. "The courts are beginning to take animal cruelty seriously now that it is more widely understood as a rehearsal crime," LaFarge explains. By "rehearsal crime," she means that people, frequently children and teenagers, experiment with violence against animals before moving on to humans.

In a landmark FBI study of 36 incarcerated multiple murderers, conducted from 1977 to 1983, investigators found that cruelty to animals popped up in the personal histories of a large percentage of serial killers. The first police report against David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam, was filed after he shot his neighbor's dog. As a child, Jeffrey Dahmer practiced surgery on dogs and cats in preparation for what his parents thought would be a medical career. Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler, trapped pets in crates and then shot them with a bow and arrow. The list goes on. Today, at the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime in Quantico, Virginia (the profiling unit used as the model for The Silence of the Lambs), two special agents, Jim Fitzgerald and Alan Brantley, have become experts in animal cruelty. It isn't because they love animals but because animal abuse is a key factor in the psychology of violent killers.

Experts outside law enforcement also consider animal abuse an indication of future anti-social behavior. LaFarge notes that animal cruelty has been a factor in the recent wave of teenage crimes across the country. In 1997, 16-year-old Luke Woodham stabbed his mother to death in Pearl, Mississippi, then went off to school, where he killed two classmates and injured seven others. Earlier, Woodham had beaten, burned, and tortured Sparkle, the family dog, to death. In Jonesboro, Arkansas, 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson and 11-year-old Andrew Golden shot and killed four students and a teacher during a faked fire drill. A school friend reported that Golden practiced on dogs with a .22. There are so many similar cases that "the link" has become vernacular in animal-welfare circles for the relationship between animal and human abuse. In LaFarge's view, "anyone who hurts animals has the potential to move on to people." Her goal, clearly ambitious, is to develop the baseline protocol for a preventive treatment program.

Armando LaBoy seems to enjoy the spotlight, but he does not always perform well. Right away, he got off on the wrong foot with the criminal-justice system. He missed his court date ("I didn't have the subway fare to get there," he claims) and showed up a week later dressed as a woman, which he explains away by saying, "I was doing a drag show, and I had an audition." Armando's lawyer failed to recognize him, and they argued. By that time, Armando was sporadically homeless, living off and on with a high-school teacher and making a meager living selling sexual favors on the street. Whatever else Armando did that afternoon to anger the court, suffice it to say that his behavior was outrageous enough to get him locked up. He spent a week on suicide watch in Rikers.

This is Armando's fourth session with LaFarge, but when he walks in, he gives her a big hug, as if they've been working together for years. The first time she met him, she thought he might have a gender-identity disorder. Armando describes himself as bisexual and bipolar. Today he is going to talk about his relationship with David and Wolfie. "I've had dogs before that I never mistreated, but this dog was different," he says. "I don't know what his problem was, but he had seizures, and he would bite me. One time, he was so hyper he bit me and then he bounced into the wall. David was more concerned about the dog than he was about me." Once, when Wolfie got into a fight with a pit bull, Armando got hurt separating the dogs. "I came home with blood on my shirt and a busted lip, and David didn't even look at me. He just bandaged the dog's paw. He had a tiny cut. I told him, 'I want the dog out of here. I don't care if he's killed.' "

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