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Compassion for animals, but none for humans?

Rolande Daniels has left jail. A well-behaved inmate, he had 221 days lopped off his one-year sentence.

Name doesn't ring a bell? He was the one who beat his puppy senseless with a baseball bat. How could you forget him?

When the St. Petersburg man went to trial, 57,000 people signed petitions asking for a harsh sentence; hundreds wrote letters.

Public outcry over Daniels and Baby, the 5-month-old pit bull, dwarfed even the scorn for Oba Chandler, Pinellas County's most notorious murderer. He drew no more than 20 letters. Then again, Chandler's three victims were only people.

As a society, we are so saturated with violence against humans that we reserve our greatest passion for the four-legged and cuddly.

Three years ago, a cougar attacked and killed a California woman who was jogging through a park. The cougar, later destroyed, left behind a cub. Barbara Schoener left two young children. A trust fund was set up to help her kids; another fund went for a zoo habitat for the cub. Guess which received the most public donations?

About the same time, a circus train derailed in Lakeland, killing a clown and an elephant trainer. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey headquarters was deluged with worried calls. Were the 60 animals all right? Few callers inquired about the 150 human passengers.

In the movie Independence Day, the audience cheers wildly when a family dog escapes a fiery death. In the background, aliens are destroying Los Angeles. In Braveheart, peasant soldiers lose their heads and guts to swords and spears. Few moviegoers close their eyes or bow their heads. But when a hunter prepares to shoot a deer, the audience howls in protest.

"Noooooo. Don't shoot the deer."

Nowhere does concern for animals stand out so sharply as the court system, where allegations of cruelty inevitably bring demands for retribution.

In Dade County, reporters from around the country recently covered the trial of a man who smashed his girlfriend's mutt because it whined while he wanted to sleep.

"The Los Angeles Times sent a reporter out," said Circuit Judge Stan Blake. "I said, "Weren't the Simpson case and Menendez brothers exciting enough?' She said, "There's nothing like a dog-abuse case.' "

Blake, owner of two cats and a Cairn terrier, sentenced the defendant to five years in prison because he was a habitual criminal.

"Last month, I had a first-degree murder case and a child's throat was cut. I had very little media coverage," Blake said. On the cruelty case, "I had Court TV coverage over the death of a puppy.

"I wish we could get the same public outcry over child abuse or elderly abuse," the judge lamented.

Putting away animal abusers makes sense, countered Pinellas County Judge Paul Levine, who recently gave a man a year in jail for killing his girlfriend's dog while stalking her.

"It's a complete disrespect for life. The people who are child abusers and serial killers started off as people who abused animals," said Levine, who once represented the SPCA for free and owns three goats, three cats, two dogs and a horse.

"Ted Bundy started out dissecting live animals. It's extremely important to stop it at the first stage."

But what makes young Teddy a monster in the making, while the angler who hooks and releases the biggest tarpon wins a trophy? And don't most of us go out of our way to step on cockroaches?

Florida law punishes anyone who "unnecessarily" harms any "dumb animal." Theoretically, bugs and fish enjoy the same protection as the most adorable tabby. Enforcement is a different story.

"The bottom line is that people feel warm and fuzzy over household pets," said Levine. "Fish have been caught for years. It's socially acceptable."

And cockroaches? "I'm not sure they are even animals," said Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, a dog owner who recently called a pest-control company and sought the death penalty for mice in his attic.

Concern for animals extends well beyond cats and dogs, McCabe said. The most irate letters his office ever received involved a man who took his boa constrictor to a St. Petersburg park every week to feed it a Muscovy duck. A newspaper photograph of webbed feet disappearing down the snake's throat outraged the community.

Differing emotions about different animals trace back to prehistoric survival instincts, said St. Petersburg psychologist William Hafling.

"Deep down in the brain we have an instinct for which creatures are our friends, which are predators. That is the very root of our emotions," Hafling said. "We are anxious over snakes, over cockroaches and rats, but we have no anxiety over lighting up cigarettes and whipping through traffic at 80 miles per hour, because we didn't evolve that way."

When more people lived on farms and took a commercial view toward animals, bonds with pets were not as strong as they are now, said C. Guy Hancock, director of veterinarian technology at St. Petersburg Junior College.

"Animals are now living indoors, we have more personal interaction. We see and appreciate their personalities and differences," said Hancock, owner of three dogs and one cat. "With indoor cats we see their personality. Outdoor cats are just cats."

Advances in veterinary medicine now keep pets alive much longer. People form the same long-term bonds with pets as they do with children, Hancock writes in Geriatrics & Gerontology of the Dog and Cat.

"Animals are kind of like perpetual infants. They never really grow up and we never expect them to behave like adults," said Hancock. "People start out as infants. They are innocent and we don't have any expectations of them. But they continue to acquire expectations as they mature. Relationships with humans become much more complicated."

Animals also give us unconditional love, he said. "They don't judge whether we got got fat this year or didn't get fat. . . . Whereas our family and friends love us as long as we continue to meet their needs."

Daniels' beating of his pit bull was the worst abuse case that Elizabeth Lockwood, executive director of the SPCA, had ever seen. The puppy's teeth were knocked out; blood was splattered everywhere. Daniels said he acted in self-defense, after the dog growled at him. "But I never heard that dog growl, ever," said Lockwood. "She doesn't have a nasty bone in her body."

The shelter cared for Baby for three months before she was adopted. As with other celebrated abuse cases, dozens of people called wanting the dog, although the outpouring of support did not extend to other stray animals needing homes, she said.

The SPCA coordinated the petition drive that urged Circuit Judge Nelly Khouzam to throw the book at Daniels. Workers at big businesses such as GTE and the St. Petersburg Times handed petitions around to co-workers and then faxed them to the shelter, Lockwood said. "People just told people and it went on and on."

The hubbub just showed how "our priorities are out of whack," said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Robert Dillinger, owner of two cats. Third- and fourth-time drug offenders rarely get a year in jail, he said. "Meanwhile, there were people who'd love to have (Daniels) spending more quality time at the taxpayer's expense."

To some extent, animal cruelty stirs us to heights of passion because we've become numb to violence against humans, said psychologist Hafling, who owns a cat and "several trained lizards."

"We are constantly getting news about people getting beaten and battered and cop shows," he said. "We don't see movies about puppies getting beaten or animal slaughter.

"You can walk around any given block of any city on any given night and nothing's going to happen. But that's not news. But if somebody in the world does something rare, like getting caught mutilating rabbits in China, the whole world is horrified."