Cruelty on the Couch

“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.’ “

Although Armando carries David’s photo in his wallet and insists, “I’m still in love with him, no matter what,” the feeling is not mutual. David has a signed order of protection against his ex-boyfriend, forbidding Armando from coming near him or Wolfie again. He has changed the locks on the apartment they briefly shared. Armando admits only to hitting the dog in the face that day and tying his front legs together with rubber bands. He argues vehemently that the veterinarians who examined the dog exaggerated his condition. From his point of view, the whole incident seems trivial in comparison with the violence he has known all his life.

Dr. LaFarge has built her career exploring the cutting edge of research and therapy. It began with her Ph.D. project in 1973, an unconventional and highly experimental language-acquisition study conducted at Columbia University under the auspices of Professor Herbert Terrace, a protégé of B. F. Skinner. She was selected by Terrace (her undergraduate mentor) to raise a newborn chimpanzee in the bosom of her own family in New York City – a family that, at the time, included seven children, three from her first marriage, to renowned artist-puppeteer Ralph Lee, and the four children of her second husband, the late WER LaFarge, a playwright and poet. The idea behind the experiment was, to put it simply, to convince the animal that he was human. “There was a theoretical contest going on between B. F. Skinner and Noam Chomsky,” LaFarge explains. “If Skinner was right, then every animal with intelligence of a certain level could learn to talk, or use language. If Chomsky was right, then only human beings had the language gene for deep structure, for underlying grammatical word order.”

LaFarge brought a three-day-old chimp, Nim Chimsky, home to live in the family brownstone on West 78th Street. Nim quickly became a celebrity on the Upper West Side, where he was closely watched by the scientific community and the media as he thrived in his human family. The chimp even made it onto the cover of New York on February 24, 1975, with an accompanying article that described this experiment as “revolutionary.” At one point, ABC Television approached the LaFarges about doing a Brady Bunch-plus-chimp pilot based on the family. But nothing ever came of it, possibly because the reality of having a chimpanzee in the home was not sufficiently heartwarming for prime time. Eventually, several books were written about Nim and the meaning of this four-year experiment.

“Whatever the barrier, whether it’s between the therapist and the substance abuser, between the living and the dying, or one species and another – I’m drawn to that.”

Jenny Lee, one of LaFarge’s daughters, was 14 when Nim arrived. “It was like getting a new baby brother – but better! I fell in love with Nim,” she said in a brief interview from her office at the Bronx Zoo, where she recently designed the highly acclaimed Congo Gorilla Forest. But raising Nim was infinitely more complicated than raising a human child. “Baby chimps cling to their mothers for their first year, never letting go,” LaFarge explains. “I had this chimp physically attached to my body, whatever I did, wherever I went, 24 hours a day.” Nim was affixed to her whether she was buying groceries – or making love with her husband. Not surprisingly, there were problems. “Nim’s instinctual feeling toward my stepfather was aggressive,” remembers Lee. “His entrance into the family widened a crack that was already splitting in their marriage.” LaFarge took the chimp’s side, and credits him with helping her end an unsuccessful marriage.

Nim lived with the family for two years. He readily learned sign language, became an active participant in the LaFarge household, and eventually was moved to a mansion in Riverdale, courtesy of Columbia University. Then, suddenly, the grants weren’t renewed. Nim was scheduled to be transferred to a laboratory for the next medical experiment down the line. Thankfully, LaFarge got him accepted by the Black Beauty Ranch, a sanctuary in Texas founded by animal-rights activist Cleveland Amory. Nim remains there today.

The intervention clients are asked to take a hard look at what triggered their violence against animals. Not surprisingly, the therapist soon focuses on the clients’ personal histories. “I’ve learned that I need to address the position of the pet in the family,” LaFarge explains. “That’s where we are going to start.”

Armando can rattle off dark stories that begin with his childhood. He paints a picture of an adolescence rife with physical abuse, family squabbles, and neglect. He claims to have been unwanted because his biological father was white (his mother is Hispanic), and put in foster care in Boston when he was three days old. For years, he was shuttled back and forth between his foster mother and his biological mother, who, he says, eventually kicked him out altogether.

The other big problem was his sexuality. Armando claims he was raped by a male friend of the family when the man discovered Armando was gay. He decided to end his life. “I tried to overdose. Then I tried to cut my wrists, but I didn’t cut deep enough,” he says in a monotone. Some time later, Armando says, “I called my mother up and told her, ‘I’m gay, I’m fruity,’ but she didn’t believe me.” So he came out of the closet on the Ricki Lake show. His mother happened to be watching. “Then she believed me,” he adds. The two are now estranged.

Perhaps most disturbing, Armando describes watching his 16-year-old girlfriend hemorrhage to death in a Boston hospital after giving birth to their daughter. “She started bleeding,” he says. “A nurse tried to stop it. I was just holding her hand and she was shaking and shaking. Then the nurse took the baby and left the room. I was screaming because her hand just got colder and colder. She was calling out my name.” Today, their daughter is 3 years old. According to Armando, she lives with his grandmother – his deceased father’s mother.

LaFarge rarely interrupts, unless Armando comes to an incident particularly fraught with drama, whereupon she asks him to describe his feelings. How did he feel when his foster mother, the only person he feels really cared about him, died? All he will say is “I have no tears left.” Mostly, Armando feels angry and abandoned. Yet he is not without charm, and is so candid about the details of his struggle to survive that it’s difficult to keep in mind that he is potentially violent, unpredictable, and maybe even psychotic. He claims he was diagnosed with a mental-health problem, possibly a multiple-personality disorder, at age 7 and put on Mellaril. Like countless others, Armando got lost in the system.

Asked whether Armando’s stories are true, LaFarge says, “It doesn’t matter. He is telling his truth. He’s come to believe that this is his reality. More important, the gap between what he is able to communicate and what he probably feels is huge. That’s where he’s a time bomb.” She adds, “Armando will abuse people at the drop of a hat. When he 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.”

LaFarge’s interest in troubled or marginalized clients has been one constant in an uncommonly diverse career. “All the threads of my working life have led to the job I have now,” she says. Another psychiatrist once said to her, ” ‘What you like doing is communicating across a barrier,’ ” she remembers. “That really is exactly right. Whatever the barrier, whether it’s between the therapist and the substance abuser, between the living and the dying, or one species and another – I’m drawn to that.”

When Nim was living with her family, one of LaFarge’s children became seriously ill and had to be hospitalized for four months. To this day, LaFarge accuses herself of being so absorbed with Nim that she neglected her daughter. But her intimate experience of the hospital wards, and the families coping with terminal illnesses, led her to a deeper investigation of the process of dying. In 1983, while teaching a class at Brown University called, simply, “Cancer,” she began an experimental therapy workshop for a group of terminally ill children at the Rhode Island Hospital in Providence. She decided to capture the children’s battles with cancer on video. In a series of emotionally wrenching discussions about death, the children conveyed an extraordinary depth of insight into the medical treatment they had received and their own family pathologies. One teenager took over her video, directing a documentary on her own death. The tapes were shown on 60 Minutes that year.

Five years later, LaFarge left Rhode Island and accepted a position running a street-level drug-rehabilitation clinic in downtown Newark. “We got used to hearing gunshots outside,” she recalls. “My clients walked me to my car at night.” While at the clinic, she ran safer-sex workshops for addicts, a radical project then as now. “To change high-risk sexual behaviors, you had to offer something, so I offered them better erections – stiffer penises in exchange for wearing a condom,” she offers by way of explanation.

Asked if any of her clients have the potential to become serial killers, Dr. LaFarge replies, “Many of them do. The scary thing is, you never know which ones.”

An interest in sexual dysfunction eventually led LaFarge to the Park Avenue practice of the prominent sex therapist Dr. Helen Singer Kaplan, where she became an associate in 1990. “That’s where I began to have conscious feelings about the human-animal bond,” she says. “Frequently, these women would come in and say, ‘If I could just kick my husband out of the bed and sleep with the dog, I wouldn’t have a sexual problem.’ They were not talking about genital contact, they were saying that there was a level of intimacy that they were able to reach with their dogs that they could not reach with their husbands. And that’s why they were not orgasmic. I must have heard this from dozens of women.”

When Kaplan died in 1995, LaFarge maintained a private practice for a few years but soon realized that she wanted to work with, or at least around, animals. When she applied for a position as director of counseling services at the ASPCA in 1998, the intervention program was not in the job description. But within a year of her arrival, the agency was on the verge of a transformation under the new leadership of Dr. Larry Hawk, a veterinarian from Michigan who came to the ASPCA from Pet Smart. Hawk’s goal is to modernize the $30 million agency; to that end, he is expanding the humane-law enforcement division, which investigates charges of animal cruelty, seizes injured animals, and is empowered to make arrests throughout the city and New York State. (HLE officers, as they are called, are responsible for 50 percent of the arrests of LaFarge’s intervention clients.) He has opened up the ASPCA’s new Center for Behavioral Therapy, has started a free program to spay and neuter pit bulls and pit-bull mixes, and is working on expanding the ASPCA’s small shelter, currently home to dozens of dogs and cats – all up for adoption. A fortyish executive with a casual, welcoming demeanor, Hawk is enthusiastic about LaFarge’s innovations. “Developing programs around the link is the future for animal welfare,” he says. “Whenever I am around Dr. LaFarge, I learn something new.”

The intervention program is new not only to the ASPCA but to the various agencies that constitute New York’s complex judicial system. The program’s first client was 17-year-old Tommy Dunbar (not his real name), arrested in Brooklyn for allowing two pit bulls to starve – one eventually cannibalized the other – in his backyard. Ironically, he was first sent to the ASPCA to clean kennels in what LaFarge describes as “a totally ineffective community-service program.” She suggested to the district attorney that the ASPCA could do more by actually offering treatment. The idea was immediately embraced. Dunbar was ordered to go through twelve one-on-one sessions with LaFarge, and the program was officially born. There are currently nineteen men and three women who either have passed through or are in treatment. Only two have dropped out of the intervention, one of whom (an alcoholic who beat his pit bull to death with a barbell) was subsequently arrested for drunk driving. The fact that he had not completed the program helped to put him in jail.

Now the city’s social agencies and the judicial system are beginning to work together, cross-referencing victims and offenders. “We had to knock loudly on the doors of the domestic-violence and child-abuse justice systems,” says Dr. Randall Lockwood, vice-president of the Humane Society of the United States and a psychologist who pioneered research into the human-animal bond. “But in the end, we are all dealing with the same perpetrators.”

LaFarge remembers the day she got a particularly chilling call from the Homicide Division of the Domestic Violence Unit in the Bronx. A woman whose husband had attacked her with a machete refused to go to a shelter for protection because she had no place to put her dog, whom her husband, on another occasion, had dipped in bleach, poisoned, and beaten. He had also gone after her children – one of whom had been pushed out a window and was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward. Her husband was back on the street because she had been too frightened to file a police report. The ASPCA agreed to pick up the dog, a tiny teacup Maltese covered with red sores. Only after the owner saw her dog taken to safety was she willing to leave her apartment.

Back at the ASPCA, LaFarge greeted the little white dog, named Precious, when he arrived. The dog took an immediate liking to the therapist. “I said, ‘Well, it’s a shame to make him cope with a cage. I’ll just take him home.’ ” She’s caring for Precious until he can be safely returned to his owner, or placed in a permanent home. The dog practically never leaves LaFarge’s side and is sometimes present during therapy sessions. “I like to see the interaction with an animal when it’s appropriate,” she explains.

A few months into his treatment, Armando is sitting in LaFarge’s office with Arianne Santiago, who he says is his half-sister. In an earlier session, Armando had told LaFarge that he was one of a set of triplets, and that his sister had killed herself (his brother, he claims, is still alive). The therapist was unaware of any other siblings. Today, he announces that he is changing his name to Mitch T. D. Hansen, which he says is the name that his biological father gave him. Arianne, dressed in black with heavy goth makeup, nods her approval of this change while scarfing down chocolates from a bowl on LaFarge’s desk.

They explain to LaFarge that they only recently found each other. “It’s a funny story,” Arianne says with a shrill laugh. “He was a blind date!” Armando seems to be developing an interest in women. “After a while, we were talking and there were all these similarities,” continues Arianne – they were both into vampires and liked the same music and accessories. “Then he mentioned his dad’s name,” Arianne says slyly. “I didn’t know my dad very well. I only met him once or twice. But I said, ‘Wait a minute. That’s my father! If I’m dating my brother, this is going to really suck!’ “

There is a palpable chemistry between the siblings. LaFarge asks if they’ve had sex. “We did when we first met,” says Armando, giggling. “But we don’t anymore. She has a boyfriend. I might kiss her, but I won’t go any further.” Armando is no longer homeless; that’s the good news. He is living with Arianne, her boyfriend, and their cat – named Strife – in exchange for housekeeping services. “We are inseparable,” Armando adds, bubbling over with pleasure at having connected with his sister. That’s also the bad news. LaFarge doubts that Armando and his sister can keep their hands to themselves. Now he has to not only control his rage but worry about the incest taboo, too.

LaFarge has begun to wrestle with the problem that the intervention program is much more ambitious than she initially realized. “The people who can be helped the most are the ones who anchor their lives to the therapist,” she says. “You can’t just drop them.” LaFarge hasn’t terminated anyone who wants to continue, but there are only so many hours in the day. “It was naïve to think we could stop at short-term therapy,” she says. “Look at the kids in Littleton, Colorado. They had broken into a car and subsequently done really well in a juvenile alternative-sentencing program.” Then they blew away their classmates. “If we’re going to help, we have to give ourselves to these clients,” she adds. “I don’t want to read about Armando in the newspaper.”

Unlike Armando, some clients may be beyond the program’s reach. Joey Cohen (not his real name) was perhaps LaFarge’s most frightening client. “He just went through the motions to satisfy the court,” she says. Joey came from a wealthy family and somehow got a mail-order bride from China. She arrived with her daughter and her daughter’s shar-pei. One afternoon, the daughter walked in on Joey sodomizing the dog. She called the police and had him arrested. The wife and daughter fled. The dog was taken to the ASPCA’s clinic, where Dr. Robert Reisman, one of the A’s eleven full-time veterinarians, adapted a human rape kit on the spot in an attempt to collect evidence of human sperm from the dog. Because sexual crimes against dogs are surprisingly common – and illegal in New York – Reisman is now working on creating a canine rape kit, so that forensic evidence of sexual abuse can be collected and standardized.

Joey pleaded guilty to the cruelty charges and was sentenced to the intervention program. But the psychotherapy had little positive effect. “Joey is not sexually attracted to dogs,” LaFarge explains. “He’s sexually out of control. He was so overstimulated by my attention, and the door being closed during the therapy, that he was at risk of being sexually out of control with me.” Before his treatment with LaFarge even began, Joey moved on to humans, masturbating in front of a woman sitting in a parked car. He was arrested, but the woman failed to show up in court. The case was dismissed. Today, Joey is a free man.

LaFarge doesn’t keep track of Joey, in part because she doesn’t think it would do any good. “I called him once and he was convinced that I was calling because I missed him,” she says ruefully. During their conversation, she was aware that he was masturbating. “It’s only a matter of time until something else happens,” says LaFarge. But there’s nothing more she can do.

When asked if she thinks any of her clients have the potential to become serial killers, LaFarge replies, “Many of them do. The scary thing is, you never know which ones.”

In the fall, Armando tells LaFarge that he is planning a move to California. A relative has offered him free room and board. His sister wants to go with him. Armando has finished the intervention program, gone back to court, and done everything required to close this chapter of his life. LaFarge is willing to keep the therapeutic relationship going, and certainly wants to do everything she can to prevent him from slipping through the cracks again. “Armando is not a criminal. He’s not exactly a solid citizen either, but he has a social intelligence,” she says with cautious optimism. “Armando has a chance at a reasonable life.”

Right before the new year, LaFarge gets a call from Armando, who, it seems, has not moved to California. “He sounds terrible,” she says. “He’s very depressed.” She arranges an immediate appointment.

Armando arrives at her office with a buddy, a quiet young man in a duckbill cap and baggy chinos. Armando – who still refers to himself as Mitch – looks tired and different. His hair is a rainbow of colors, crinkled like confetti. “I went to California, to Florida, to Philadelphia, and then to Ireland for Thanksgiving,” he tells LaFarge, who gives him an interested but quizzical look. His travel plans, apparently, were arranged by his grandmother, who still has custody of his daughter. “She lives in Ireland but moved to New York to spend time with me,” he claims. “I still have a long way to go before I can gain custody. But this will be our first Christmas together,” he adds enthusiastically.

When LaFarge asks about his sister, Armando says, “Her boyfriend is my roommate now. We got together and threw her out.” He has a list of complaints against his lost-and-found sister. “She was cheating on her boyfriend anyway, and she maxed out my credit cards,” he says. But Armando kept the cat, briefly. “Strife always slept with me, anyway,” he says (Strife is now at the ASPCA for evaluation). Armando tells LaFarge that he is working three jobs, although he just lost the one he really liked, at La Nouvelle Justine, an S&M dinner club for sexual tourists in the East Village. He becomes most animated when he mentions a girl he just met over the Internet named Cheri. “I really like her. I did the biggest no-no,” he says, implying that they’ve already had sex. Armando, an unreconstructed romantic, imagines making a new family with Cheri and bringing home his daughter to a fantasy house that has painted dolphins frolicking all over the kitchen ceiling. “When I die, I want to be reincarnated as a dolphin,” he says wistfully. In the meantime, he plans to go back to school.

LaFarge inquires about his recent depression. “It began with the death of my foster brother. He came to New York to visit me and died in a car accident, and I drank for a week,” he says matter-of-factly. “Then I called you. I felt better right away. You’re the only counselor I’ve met who listens – who I haven’t thrown a chair at.”

LaFarge ends the session apologizing that she’s late for a meeting. Armando grabs some chocolate for the road, gives her a hug, and says, “I’ll call soon.” LaFarge goes to get Sophie, her new dog, who has been playing in a nearby office. (Precious has recently been adopted into a new home.) A stray transferred from the Center for Animal Care and Control, the city’s municipal pound on East 110th Street, to the ASPCA’s shelter, Sophie is maybe twelve weeks old, a tan-and-white Eskimo-mix pup with a long nose. At first glance, she looks adorable. But Sophie, it turns out, is a biter – a puppy who was so vicious that she was deemed unadoptable and scheduled for euthanasia. “Watch your fingers,” LaFarge warns as she cradles the dog in her arms. Sophie owes her life to the therapist, who, needless to say, is determined to turn the little dog around. “The behaviorists are already amazed,” LaFarge says in a rare moment of immodesty. Sophie looks at LaFarge and snarls.

Cruelty on the Couch