Maricopa regional officials look at the link between animal abuse and domestic violence

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(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)

Officials from the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) and the City of Phoenix held a press conference Friday morning examining the link between animal abuse and domestic violence.

The press conference comes as Maricopa county prepares for October's Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

[RAW VIDEO: Maricopa County officials' press conference on link between animal abuse and domestic violence]

According to MAG, 71 percent of domestic violence victims report that their abuser targeted their pet. That link has captured the attention of local law enforcement, prosecutors and domestic violence experts. 

"The link is very real," said Buckeye Mayor Jackie Meck, who is also chair of MAG. "Eighty percent of homes where abused or neglected pets were found also had previous investigations by child welfare agencies of physical abuse and neglect. Animals and children are easy targets since they cannot pick up a phone and dial 911," Meck said.

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Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton said animals can be a source of love and support for domestic violence victims which can make them an easy target for abuse. 

"Domestic violence and animal abuse share disturbing links. People need to recognize the signs that lead to abusive behavior so that every person can do their part in ending it," Stanton said. 

The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office investigates animal abuse cases. The victim animals are placed in the MCSO Animal Safe Haven unit where they are cared for and often serve as evidence. 

[RELATED: Phoenix man arrested for animal cruelty after decapitating his puppy]

"Our investigators witness heartbreaking stories in which animals were threatened or tortured to keep the victim from leaving the situation, and studies bear that out," said Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone.

"As many as half of victims delay leaving an abusive situation for fear of what will happen to the pets left behind," Penzone said. "We are finally seeing renewed attention to this issue and we hope it leads to policies that better protect both humans and animals."

Victims of domestic violence have some help with orders of protection which grant victims custody of their animals and include an order for the abuser to stay away from the animals.

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Prosecutors will often request that animals abuse defendants participate in domestic violence counseling when making a plea bargain. 

"Animal abuse should be seen as a red flag for family violence, including domestic violence, elder abuse and child abuse," said Mesa Assistant City Prosecutor Alison Ferrante. "It is one reason that the FBI now mandates that animal cruelty be reported as a separate violent offense. Animal cruelty is a violent act that can lead to greater violence," Ferrante said.

Ferrante is calling on law enforcement, prosecutors and judges to implement these standard operating procedures in dealing with animal abuse.

If you or a loved one are experiencing domestic violence, call 911 or call 1-800-799-SAFE.

To report animal cruelty, contact the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office at 602-876-TIPS. For emergency animal rescue assistance, contact the Arizona Humane Society at 602-997-7585 ext. 2073.

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