NEW YORK (AP) -- Three cats mutilated with knives, then chopped up with an ax. A pet llama beaten to death with a golf club. A stray dog dismembered. Three raccoons fatally bludgeoned with a baseball bat.

In each of these recent cases, those charged with the grisly, unprovoked crimes were teenagers.

Animal cruelty committed by young people is not a new phenomenon, but it is attracting more serious attention than ever, from police, prosecutors, psychologists and animal welfare groups.

"Animal cruelty may be one of the first signals you're going to see as a warning of future aggressive behavior and violence," said psychologist Mary Lou Randour. "Until recently, it's been below the radar screen -- teachers and mental health professionals haven't been attuned to it."

Among the developments that have pushed the topic onto the radar screen:

The Humane Society of the United States highlighted the problem of youth animal abuse in its annual report on animal cruelty, released in April. Of more than 1,000 cruelty cases examined for 2001, 20 percent of the intentionally malicious acts were committed by teens, 95 percent of them males, the society said.

Maryland-based Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is unveiling a new treatment program designed specifically for young people who abuse animals. One of the aims is to enable a young abuser to empathize with animals, said Randour, the group's director of programs.

The federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention released a report in September on animal abuse by young people. Its author, Utah State University psychologist Frank Ascione, said the problem has been "underreported and understudied," and suggested that greater scrutiny "may add one more piece to the puzzle of understanding and preventing youth violence."

Some of the recent incidents have stunned authorities with their seemingly senseless barbarity. Thomas Doetsch, a juvenile court referee in Michigan's Wayne County, said he lost sleep thinking about the case of the 16-year-old boy who dismembered a stray dog and took the body parts to his school.

In Colorado, the case of two boys who set a cat afire prompted the legislature to consider toughening animal-cruelty penalties. Many lawmakers shared public outrage that the boys, 16 and 17, spent only two days in jail after last year's assault, but a bill to make a repeat animal-cruelty offense a felony died in committee in April.

The mixed-breed cat, Westy, was adopted by a veterinary hospital worker after undergoing three major surgeries for skin grafts and amputations and painful rehabilitation to regain mobility. A prosecutor said the two teens were curious what would happen if the cat's tail was set afire "like the cartoons."

With 35 states now classifying some forms of animal abuse as a felony, some young abusers do face tough penalties.

In Florida's Pinellas County, Robert Pettyjohn received a five-year prison sentence in April for killing one llama and partially blinding a second in a February 2001 attack when he was 18. Pettyjohn was convicted earlier of shooting bulls with arrows.

In Amsterdam, New York, Nicholas Brodsky, 18, and Carly Furman, 16, face up to two years in jail and $5,000 fines if convicted in the mutilation and killing of three cats. The teens, jailed while awaiting trial, are among the first people charged under New York's so-called Buster's Law, which toughens punishment for animal cruelty and was named after a kitten burned to death in 1997.

Teenagers have become a priority of the First Strike Campaign, a Humane Society initiative seeking to raise awareness of the link between animal cruelty and human violence. The campaign's literature includes background on serial killers and mass murderers who in their youth tormented animals.

Virginia Prevas, manager of the First Strike Campaign, says mandatory counseling is probably the best initial option in cases where a youth is arrested for animal cruelty.

"Often these kids have experienced violence themselves, or witnessed violence, and they're dealing with a lot of emotional problems," she said.

However, Prevas believes incarceration can be warranted in serious cases.

"You have to look on a case-by-case basis," she said. "Was this a calculated act of animal cruelty as opposed to something where there's an anger management problem?"

Ascione, in his report for the Justice Department, said several studies have found that animal abuse is more likely among children who have been physically or sexually abused.

"Even if the adult family members do not abuse animals, some children may express the pain of their own victimization by abusing vulnerable family pets," he wrote.

Randour, noting that even preschoolers can engage in animal abuse, says younger children are more likely than teenagers to benefit from abuse prevention programs.

However, Nancy Katz, who works with juvenile offenders in Virginia's Fairfax County, believes the right kind of program can work well with teens. She is director of the Shiloh Project, which pairs troubled youths with dogs from local animal shelters.

"The kids don't realize that animals can feel -- they don't understand that you don't have to be physically abusive to an animal in order to train it," she said.

Many of the youths Katz deals with were themselves mistreated during childhood, and she sees some analogies between them and the dogs.

"You can use a two-by-four to get a dog to obey you, but what are you creating?" she asked., Inc. is not responsible for content or opinions of contributing writers

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