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A serial sniper who may be at work targeting horses in northern Alberta could be warming up to turn the gun on people, experts say.

Since the fall of 2000, 10 horses have been shot -- six have died -- along a 240-kilometre stretch of highways between Edmonton and Bonnyville in northeastern Alberta. The pace of terror for horse owners has picked up this month with attacks on three farms, all of which allowed their horses to graze in fenced pastures that run along roadways.

"It gives us a lot of concern that someone who is this brutal is a step away from doing it to a person," said Humane Society of Canada executive director Michael O'Sullivan.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation cites animal abuse as one of the leading indicators of future criminal activity, Mr. O'Sullivan said. He does not consider this spate of shootings a mere coincidence and said it is something that is "obviously a danger" to the public.

Last week, Evelyn and Morris Presisniuk's horse was shot through the heart at their farm 20 minutes away from Edmonton along Highway 28A, just south of Gibbons.

Two weeks ago, Tanya Hollasch found two of her horses shot along Highway 28, just outside Bonnyville; one died.

Also this month, Debbie Villeneuve found two of her horses shot and injured at her farm near Gibbons, which is a 15-minute drive from the Presisniuk property.

In November of 2000, Ken and Barbara Nielsen found five of their horses shot in the legs in a leased pasture north of Elk Point on a secondary road off Highway 41, which is short drive south of Bonnyville. Four animals had to be destroyed.

Local RCMP detachments working on the cases are not sure the shootings are related, but they are worried people might get hurt.

Bonnyville RCMP Staff Sergeant Harold Thompson said that around the time Ms. Hollasch's horses were shot with a .22-calibre weapon, bullets from a .22-calibre gun were fired through windows of several local businesses and blew through the window of a house belonging to one of Ms. Hollasch's neighbours. People were in the home at the time.

"We're concerned mainly that someone will be hit with a stray bullet," Staff Sgt. Thompson said. But he is not so sure the shooter is getting ready to set his or her sights on people.

The U.S. Department of Justice cites numerous studies connecting animal abuse to other crimes including spousal abuse, child abuse and murder. In beefing up Canada's legislation against animal cruelty, which has yet to become law, the Justice Department also cited the link between animal abuse and future deviant behaviour.

Marc Lépine, the man responsible for the massacre of women at Montreal's École Polytechnique, killed pigeons for kicks. Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer decapitated dogs and tacked cats to trees. Sex slayer Paul Bernardo is said to have made himself a meal of his pet lizard.

In explaining why people hurt animals, a 1985 study in the journal Human Relations pointed to the need for control, as well as retaliation either against the animal or its owners, hatred of a particular type of animal, desire to shock people for amusement and enjoyment of watching an animal suffer.

A 1997 study on childhood cruelty to animals published in the journal Anthrozoos cited a number of motivations including curiosity, peer pressure and sexual gratification.

Mr. O'Sullivan's organization has offered rewards in the cases of the horse shootings in Alberta and police are working on leads they have about vehicle sightings.

In the meantime, animal-welfare workers are advising horse owners to keep their animals close to barns and away from roads.

Under Canada's new law those convicted of causing "unnecessary pain, suffering or injury to an animal" could wind up with in jail for up to five years. The maximum penalty for animal cruelty is currently six months in jail.

Some American states require mandatory counselling for anyone convicted of animal cruelty.

Ms. Nielsen, who has about 200 horses, many at the family's ranch along Highway 28 just east of St. Paul, Alta., said she is not sure a new law will stop people from abusing animals and it does nothing to ease the heartache.

"You'd like to do the same thing to the culprits they did to the animals," she said.
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