On August 14, 2012, Suzanne Hollifield—a 22-year-veteran of the Houston Police Department—watched a video she would remember for the rest of her professional life. An animal cruelty investigator at PETA, tipped off by a concerned member of the public, uploaded the material to a secure YouTube account for Hollfield to view. Nothing in Hollifield's two decades of service with the HPD prepared her for what she saw next.
In the footage, a woman stands in a kitchen, torturing a pit bull mix puppy to death. She strikes the dog repeatedly with a meat cleaver, severs a paw, and hacks at its head and neck. After 13 minutes of senseless torture, she decapitates the puppy. Finally, she urinates over its lifeless body.
Hollified watched several more videos on her work computer that day, with titles like: "puppy1," "puppy2," "whitechick1," "whitechick2," "whitechick3," "blackluvsample," "adammeetseve" and "adammeetseve2." The file names may sound innocuous, but their contents were anything but. In all of them, a woman—sometimes clad in lingerie and a Mardi Gras mask—commits depraved acts of animal cruelty on small and defenceless animals, with the man behind the camera urging her on.
"I cannot forget the pain and agony each animal lived through during the making of the senseless videos," Hollifield writes in an email to Broadly. "The sounds or the suffering... [they're] burned in my mind and on my heart for a lifetime."
The videos Hollifield watched belonged to an extreme genre of porn called animal crush. Typically, animal crush videos depict small vertebrate animals being tortured to death, usually for the sexual gratification of the viewer. Less extreme permutations might feature insects or inanimate objects being crushed. Almost always—like the woman in the mask seen in Hollifield's videos—it's a woman doing the crushing.
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Creating and distributing animal crush videos is specifically outlawed under legislation—the Animal Crush Video Prohibition Act—introduced by President Obama in 2010. Greece is the only other country with a specific law prohibiting animal crush; in most other nations, it is covered under existing animal cruelty laws. A bill is currently before Congress which would further clamp down on the animal crush industry. The bipartisan Prevent Animal Cruelty and Torture (PACT) Act would make the distribution of animal crush videos a federal crime. Right now, it's generally only punishable under state law, which can make it difficult for prosecutors as they need to determine under what jurisdiction the videos were made.
It's almost impossible to quantify the size and scale of the animal crush industry. This is an industry that operates outside of the law, often on the dark web, and across countries and continents. And very often, the burden of finding and identifying the individuals responsible falls to animal rights activists—the same people who spend their personal and professional careers advocating for the rights of these same animals. The mental toll of such work can be enormous.
"Probably the worst thing I've seen is animals burned alive," says Mike Butcher, chief inspector of the RSPCA Special Operations Unit. Butcher leads the British animal welfare charity's efforts to stymie the explosion of animal cruelty videos in the last decade. "Or animals microwaved to death. Sometimes they're boiled alive. There was one with a child burning a kitten with a blowtorch, laughing and looking at the camera. I think it was filmed somewhere in East Asia."
While individuals the world over torture defenseless animals to death, and might even film themselves doing so, animal crush videos have an additional, disturbing characteristic: They've all designed to elicit sexual gratification from their viewers.
"There's very little research on crush fetishes in particular," confirms Dr. Mark Griffiths, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University and one of few experts in the area of extreme animal cruelty. "I've called it zoosadism by proxy, meaning that it's human-on-animal sadism. My understanding is that it's mainly men being sexually aroused by watching women crushing animals. The women aren't sexually attracted to the fetish but do it for financial gain."
Problem is, it's not normal to want to burn a cat alive.
Not everyone filmed abusing animals online is a monster. Some are forced to commit heinous acts of violence because of desperate poverty or physical coercion. Filipino couple Dorma and Vicente Ridon were sentenced to life imprisonment in 2014 for forcing young girls—some trafficked—to torture and kill animals in footage sold online. They butchered dogs, stabbed monkeys in the eye with stilettos, and stretched apart snakes. One girl was just 12 years old.
Identifying the woman in the mask and her male accomplice became Hollifield's first priority in the days following August 14. PETA provided her with a valuable lead: a telephone number believed to be associated with the two subjects. It was linked to two people who were, according to phone records, heavily connected to each other. Hollifield searched for photographs of the individuals. "The photograph of the female I obtained from the database was clearly the female who was in the crush videos," she explains. The investigation moved fast. Just 27 hours after viewing the footage, two individuals were arrested.
Houston native Ashley Richards, then aged 24, pled guilty to all charges producing and distributing animal crush videos and was sentenced to a decade in prison. Her co-conspirator, Brent Wayne Justice, took the remarkably dumb step of representing himself during his criminal trial. As the Houston Press put it, Justice is "granted the ability to dig his own grave."
During the trial, Justice alleged that the pit bull mutilated on video was killed in accordance with kosher methods (an incredulous rabbi testified in court that "there is no Jewish ritual slaughter of dogs"). The judge was unimpressed and sentenced Justice to 50 years in prison.
"The Houston case proves that violent offenders who make animals pay with their lives can expect to pay with their liberty," comments Stephanie Bell, an animal cruelty investigator with PETA. Of course, not everyone abusing animals will get 50 years in prison—had Justice not rejected legal counsel, it's possible he'd have served a ten-year sentence like his co-conspirator, rather than facing down the prospect of a half-century in jail.
Animal crush isn't found on mainstream porn sites, and I'm intrigued to learn how animal rights activists track down this content. In reality, large organizations like PETA rely on smaller initiatives like the Animal Beta Project, which first brought the Houston case to the attention of its inspectors.
Once the videos are located, they need to be studied for clues as to the perpetrators. Understandably, Bell is reluctant to give away her secrets. "Often there is enough information in the videos to locate the whereabouts of the suspects," she concedes. Bell explains that a partly visible newspaper was a valuable clue in the Houston case, or they might look at the architecture of the building.
"We have to watch the videos to try and find clues as to who's doing it," Butcher adds. "Obviously, we don't want to watch them."
I know one officer who walked out because he didn't want to see a video—it was essentially an animal being disemboweled alive.
I ask what sort of clues he's looking for when he watches the films. "Problem is, it's not normal to want to burn a cat alive," Butcher says obtusely. "No normal person would ever do anything like that, and the people who do this aren't normal. So we have to work extra hard to try and guess what they're doing."
"But," he adds, "It does make you want to catch these people even more. You look at the images and think, 'How can I build up a case and catch this person?' It's about building up a case against them without bringing your emotions into it."
The internet—and the dark web in particular—is rich pickings for animal-abusing narcissists and sadists. "It's like a happy hunting ground for trolls and attention seekers and cruel extremists," Butcher says. And often investigators can waste their time on hoaxes.
On a recent case, Butcher says, they tracked a "young lad" down who had bragged online about committing extreme acts of animal abuse—but the boy hadn't actually carried out the crimes. "He ends up crying his eyes out. He just wanted to attention-seek and make himself a little bigger than he really was. But if you take that a little further—at the extreme end of the attention seeking—there are these people that are very, very cruel and put the videos on the web."
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While the internet can't be blamed for the explosion in extreme animal abuse material—sick fucks will always find a way to do what sick fucks do—the online world can have a legitimating and facilitating effect. "I think the internet brings more like-minded people together," says Dr. Griffiths. "It doesn't matter what you're into, the internet can help to bring those kind of niche fetishists together." That said, given the rarity of animal crush fetishes, these videos have proliferated for commercial, rather than sexual, reasons.
In the process of researching this article, I stumbled across easily available screengrabs from the videos in the Houston and Filipino cases on Google. They were harrowing—unwatchable, really. I tell Butcher that the psychological burden on the animal cruelty investigators charged with trawling the videos for clues must be unimaginable.
Matter-of-factly, he agrees some people aren't cut out for this line of work. "I know one officer who walked out because he didn't want to see a video—it was essentially an animal being disemboweled alive," he says. "You do end up getting a bit desensitized," he adds with characteristic British understatement. "You end up bantering among yourselves a little bit about what you've seen.
"Otherwise, you go a bit mad."