Why Is It So Hard To Prosecute Animal Cruelty?

One of the most frustrating aspects of animal welfare is that prosecuting animal cruelty is incredibly difficult. People walk away free every single day from animals they have abused, neglected, and mistreated, and all too often the law either can’t or won’t do anything about it. WHY?

Let me offer a few reasons:

1. When individuals surrender animals to shelters, even in terrible condition, shelters rarely report the abuse.

Why? If people think they will be prosecuted for surrendering sick, injured, or neglected animals, they won’t turn them in. Instead, they will either let them die, dump them in the woods or on a road somewhere, or let them continue to suffer. The theory is that it’s better for the animals to let the people go. It’s also mostly impossible to prove that the person turning the animal in is responsible for the animal’s poor condition. All the person has to do is claim the animal is a stray.

2. Many law enforcement agencies are reluctant to pursue animal cruelty cases.

Sadly, the fact is that cops arrest thousands of people. If you figure that half of the people arrested each year get prosecuted, the numbers are still huge. To be quite honest, it’s triage. Law enforcement officers know that animal crimes are historically hard to prosecute and rarely carry jail time. From their perspective, that means that in many jurisdictions they are not a high priority in comparison to other types of crimes. I hope to see this change with the new federal classification of animal cruelty as a felony.

3. Animal cruelty laws are often poorly written, hard to enforce, and limited in scope.

The no chain law in Texas is a good example of a law that’s virtually impossible to enforce:
Ҥ 821.077. Unlawful Restraint of Dog
(a) An owner may not leave a dog outside and unattended by use of a restraint that unreasonably limits the dog’s movement:

(1) between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.;

(2) within 500 feet of the premises of a school; or

(3) in the case of extreme weather conditions, including conditions in which:
(A) the actual or effective outdoor temperature is below 32 degrees Fahrenheit;

(B) a heat advisory has been issued by a local or state authority or jurisdiction; or
(C) a hurricane, tropical storm, or tornado warning has been issued for the jurisdiction by the National Weather Service.

(b) In this section, a restraint unreasonably limits a dog’s movement if the restraint:
(1) uses a collar that is pinch-type, prong-type, or choke-type or that is not properly fitted to the dog;

(2) is a length shorter than the greater of:
(A) five times the length of the dog, as measured from the tip of the dog’s nose to the base of the dog’s tail; or

(B) 10 feet;

(3) is in an unsafe condition; or

(4) causes injury to the dog.


Added by Acts 2007, 80th Leg., ch. 674, § 1, eff. Sept. 1, 2007.”


In order to enforce this law, someone would have to physically measure the chain, time the length of confinement, have documentation of the weather conditions, and keep eyes on the animal throughout the entire time the dog is chained. They would also have to find a cop willing to address this offense and a prosecutor willing to proceed under this wobbly law. A first offense is only a class C misdemeanor…ie, not much.

4. Witnesses are often unwilling to speak on record.

Friends, even if the police are willing to act, and the DA is ready to prosecute, THEY HAVE TO HAVE PROOF. Animal cruelty cases usually hinge on two things. First, they depend on veterinary evidence of abuse. Second, since the animals cannot speak for themselves, they need eye witness testimony by people who saw the abuse or neglect with their own eyes.

People complain that the cops won’t take action. Social media is full of folks ranting about the evils of animal cruelty. They talk about their neighbor’s chained dog, the guy down the street who threatened to poison the neighborhood cats, the skinny dogs they see chained up on their way to work. Sometimes they make anonymous phone calls to Animal Control. Sometimes people call the cops, but refuse to identify themselves. They don’t want to get involved. They’re afraid of retaliation, or of upsetting the neighbors, or of having to testify. And if they won’t speak up, on record, the criminals go free.

5. Cruelty in animal shelters is historically the hardest to prove and prosecute.

Shelter animals are an incredibly vulnerable population. No one owns them. No one will ever look for most of them. They are at the mercy of the people charged with their care. Thank God, most of those people genuinely care about the animals and work hard to take care of them to the best of their ability. (They sure don’t do it for the money!)

Texas state laws give tremendous discretion to shelter employees. Their jobs put them in constant contact with stray animals, with the added responsibility of deciding whether those animals will live or die once their stray hold expires. Because animals often come in sick, malnourished, or injured, it’s hard to prove that a particular animal’s injuries happened in the shelter. Because shelters can legally euthanize any animal they choose once the hold time passes, it’s easy to get rid of evidence. Because the law is quite vague about what constitutes proper care of the individual animal, it’s hard to prove that employees are not meeting those standards. And no one wants to talk about it.

That does not make it impossible.

EVERY TIME we witness animal cruelty, regardless of where, regardless of who does it, we have a moral imperative to take action.

On those rare occasions when abusers exploit shelters to get access to animals, when people neglect the animals in their charge, every single employee, volunteer, and adopter has both the right and the obligation to speak up. We all say every single day that we are their voice. We can’t be their voice when it’s comfortable and easy unless we are willing to speak for them when it isn’t.

Friends, if you believe that you have witnessed animal cruelty or neglect, take pictures. Document everything you can without putting yourselves in physical danger. And then file a report with local law enforcement. It’s the right thing to do.

Dear Commissioners, You Voted. We Waited. Now What?

On August 11th, after many, many volunteers put in months of letters, phone calls, emails, meetings, protests, and visits to Commissioners’ Court, the County Commissioners voted unanimously to revoke their contract with Care Corp. Within hours, the community erupted with serious anxiety. What did this mean? Would they be leaving immediately? Who would take over? What form would the new management take? Would the animals be safe?

The commissioners seemed to be quite surprised that the community was asking for more information, and responded with a perfectly reasonable assurance that they were working to find the best solution. They asked for a little time to sort it out. The community thought that it would be over in 30 days or less, because that was the length of time mentioned in the announcement of revocation in Commissioners’ Court.

It’s been 43 days since the commissioners voted to cancel the contract. We still have no answers.

In those 43 days…

1. The commissioners announced that they would open an RFP for bids on the shelter management contract. They specified that the closing date for the bids would be very short, which seemed to be in direct conflict with their stated intention to attract as many bids as possible. (The RFP hasn’t happened. Was originally slated to happen a few days ago.)

2. The commissioners attempted to appease the community by bringing in Target Zero to do an assessment and a community presentation. The presentation was well received. The assessment, however, is not looking promising. The TZ folks were apparently on the ground here for less than two full days, during which they met with a very limited number of people. How thorough could that assessment really be? I have also seen a number of articles discrediting TZ’s work at other shelters.

3. Smart Rescue was banned from pulling animals from MCAS by Care Corp. Why? Because some of their volunteers spoke out in favor of revoking the contract.

4. Staffing at the shelter gets steadily thinner. There have been documented temporary shortages of food and supplies. There have also been occasions when vets were supposed to appear for sick clinic, but no vet showed up. The water system at the shelter went down on a holiday weekend, and employees were apparently unable to reach management. Commissioner Riley stepped in to send county maintenance people to fix the problem, because animals CANNOT go without water.

5. Large contingents of the volunteer community have repeatedly asked the commissioners to cancel or postpone the RFP, and instead to immediately resume direct county management of the shelter’s operations. The thought process is that direct county supervision will stop all the jockeying for position among different groups and factions, and encourage the community to focus on helping the animals. It seems to be the fastest and steadiest path to a new beginning.

6. With management less and less visible at the shelter, the volunteer community – even the banned ones – have been stepping up to fill the gaps in supplies and staffing. Their observations and comments include a serious lack of necessary supplies, and a terrible lack of attention to the medical needs of the resident animals, cats in particular. One volunteer had to call for someone to euthanize a dying kitten within minutes of her arrival. How long had that poor little cat been ill? Another observed that the shelter has NO tests available for feline leukemia or FIV, which means that dozens of untested cats are sitting in small cages instead of being moved to the cat playrooms, where they would have a better chance of adoption.

7. The Commissioners have apparently stopped responding to emails, letters, and phone calls from concerned volunteers, adopters, and voters. I myself have emailed them several times since August11th. I have received a couple of “Thanks for writing” responses from Commissioner Noack’s office. I have received nothing from any of the others, which seems to be the frustrating experience of most of the people in the volunteer and adopter communities. (Given that these are elected officials whose duty is to serve their constituents, I find their lack of response disappointing.)

8. The commissioners still have not taken any visible concrete action to remove Care Corp or establish a plan for new management. The very predictable result is that the community is frustrated, angry, and looking for someone to blame. There is no leadership at the shelter itself. And the animals continue to pay the price.

It’s supposed to be about what’s best for the animals and best for the community. I believe those goals are one and the same. We need a strong shelter lead team, composed of well trained, well qualified, county employees, dedicated to the humane treatment of all animals, and the live release of as many as possible. That team must be willing to respect the priceless lifesaving contributions of the volunteer community, because those volunteers are the backbone of any program with a high live release rate. Customer service and good people skills will be vital to the success of any new management team, and a high degree of transparency will be necessary to earn our trust. And while you’re at it, increase the shelter budget, so that there is enough money to do the job right.

Commissioners, the longer you drag this out, the worse the situation gets. Clearly, the community cannot handle going through a lengthy bid process right now. Just as clearly, it would be ill advised to rush through a bid and end up with the wrong candidate.

Ignoring us won’t work. Pacifying us with rhetoric won’t work. Postponing over and over won’t work.

Stand up for what’s right. Solve the problem. Resume direct county control immediately.

It’s time.

Here’s What I’ve Learned

Most of my readers are probably expecting me to address last night’s presentation by Target Zero. Since I was unable to attend, and I’m currently on a road trip with ninety teenagers, TZ will have to wait until I get a chance to watch the video of their presentation.

Instead, I want to talk about what I’ve learned about the political process over the last several months. Yes, this is about animals, because the political process is how we can effect change in our environment. Whether they do rescue, volunteer for a shelter, work for a shelter, work for a vet clinic, do transport, or any of the other myriad possibilities in our world, most animal welfare people agree that change is needed.

You have to learn everything you can about politics in your place of residence. Who are the leaders? Who actually makes the decisions? What are the appropriate methods of gaining access to those people? What is the scope of their power and influence?

Next, you have to define your mission. I beg you, don’t storm into a politician’s office and weep about the tragedy of homeless animals. Go in with a clearly articulated problem, explain calmly and clearly why it’s a problem, and propose a solution. That solution needs to be one that will benefit the politicians in some way, whether through increased revenue, resolving a controversy, reducing their workload, or generating positive publicity. Maybe I’m a cynic, but politicians always have to keep an eye toward what will get them reelected or booted out of office. And right or wrong, we as constituents have to find a way to use that to our advantage.

Since every town and every county has a different set of issues, there is no one solution. But in any given circumstance, we can create change. It takes persistence, blind determination, and a tremendous level of dedication. It takes a willingness to engage your local politicians, even when they don’t want to hear it. (Make that especially when they don’t want to hear it.) It takes strong communication skills, a solid grasp of the issue, and a lot of repetition.

Animal welfare people seeking change often face two particular obstacles. First, our elected officials are often painfully uninformed about animal welfare. Statistics and animal welfare jargon are especially mind-boggling – the average human has no idea what we mean when we talk about eu rates, live release, pediatric spay, vax, OTI, and so on. They know even less about things like distemper, parvo, URI, and other illnesses that we know all too well.

Second, the utter volatility of the animal welfare world often scares politicians away from wanting to address it. It’s hard for people outside of animal welfare to understand the terrible things we see every day. The sick and neglected animals, the abuse, the casual attitude of so many people toward “getting rid of” their pets because they are “just animals”…it becomes terribly overwhelming to civilians, so they just shut down and dismiss us as crazy dog people or crazy cat people. They just don’t want to believe that it could really be as bad as we say.

Our job, then, is to show them the truth in a way they can handle, along with a concrete, measurable, productive way to help us, help the animals, and help themselves.

It’s not easy. You’ll lose sleep, you may lose friends who have different solutions in mind, and politicians may well hide when they see you on the street. But it can be done.

Keep going. It’s worth it.

RFP: How It Works

Since the county’s recent announcement that they will open an RFP to solicit bids for the shelter management contract, I’ve been hearing a steady stream of questions, misconceptions, and general confusion from the community. I don’t for a moment have all the answers, but I’m going to do my best to explain what I know about the process.


First, the county attorney and the Commissioners’ Court will work together to set up the requirements for bids submitted in response to the RFP. What’s an RFP, you ask? It’s a Request For Proposals, and it comes with a very rigid process that must be followed to the letter. It’s remarkably easy to disqualify a bid for paperwork technicalities or the slightest hint that the bidder did not follow procedure.


When the county officials have established their parameters, they will post the RFP, presumably on the county website. The RFP will open on the date decided and announced by the court, and bids will only be accepted between that date and the specified closing date. During this process, all interested parties are required to avoid even the slightest appearance of impropriety; for example, no one planning to put in a bid should be able to have any conversations with the commissioners or other county officials about the content of their bid proposal. Likewise, no county officials can give any hints about “what they’re really looking for” or make off the record suggestions about what to include. Conflict of interest must be scrupulously avoided.


When the bidding closes, the Commissioners (and probably the county attorney) will analyze each bid. First, they’ll be looking to make sure that each bid actually meets all the specified requirements and is thus eligible for consideration. Then they’ll consider the merits of each bid. They should also do thorough investigations into the background and qualifications of the bidders. While they have not formally disclosed this part of the process, research and logic suggest that the commissioners will discuss their concerns and preferences in one or more closed door executive sessions of Commissioners’ Court. They also have the option to hold a workshop, which is basically a longer executive session on a different day.


Once the Commissioners have reviewed all the bids, they have two choices. They can accept one of the bids. Or they can accept none of the bids and go back to the drawing board to work out plan B. Whichever choice they make should be presented as an agenda item in Commissioners’ Court for a vote. That vote establishes a public record of how each Commissioner votes.


If they choose to accept a bid, the bidder and the county will enter into a contract. Hopefully, any new contract will have MUCH more specific requirements to protect the animals, the employees, and the volunteers. The existing contract is so open ended that it really does nothing to protect any of those groups, especially the animals.


My concern at the moment is that the Commissioners have set an extremely short timeline for this process. I will not be the slightest bit surprised if they postpone the RFP; in fact, I think they should. Commissioners have specifically stated that they want to advertise the RFP to a wide audience. In my opinion, that requires more time than they have allowed. They have also set a very short cut off date from the opening of the RFP to the close of bidding. Given that a bid of this nature necessitates the production of a very detailed and lengthy document, it puts unnecessary pressure on any organizations considering a bid and may discourage good groups from bidding. Even if a given organization has a pre-written bid template that they habitually use, customizing it to meet the requirements of the RFP will be labor intensive and time consuming, since there is no way for any organization to have prior knowledge of the bid requirements. It also effectively precludes any new group from the bidding process, because there is no time for the group to file all the necessary legal documents, open bank accounts, and establish the financing it would take to be ready to assume control of the shelter.


Now, let’s say they reject all bids and decide to go with Plan B. Ideally, the county would resume direct control of the shelter for at least one calendar year. This would stabilize the immediate future of the shelter, its employees, and the animals in county custody. Since the county will no longer be paying a large monthly sum to a management company, they can instead use that money to pay the workers directly as county employees. The county also has contingency funds for emergencies, and the direct care of these animals would certainly qualify.


That delay would also provide adequate time for the county to thoroughly research what requirements they want to put in an RFP, as well as what they want to see in a successful bid. They would have time to make a careful, deliberate choice, instead of a choice driven by lack of options in a crisis situation. Think about it..that’s how we got into this mess.


The community is angry, confused, struggling to piece together what’s really happening. Trust has been shattered. Factions have emerged, leaders have risen and fallen, and friendships have been both formed and destroyed. The commissioners certainly should understand by now that the volunteer community will not meekly accept some poorly thought out and hastily executed plan that is not in the best interest of the animals.


The wisest move the county could make at this moment would be to cancel or at least postpone the RFP, resume direct control, and stabilize the situation. They need to make the volunteer community and rescue community welcome, and hire an experienced new manager with no personal history or emotional baggage attached to any side of this situation. That new manager, as a county employee, cannot be a representative or employee of any outside organization. That new manager should also be directed to be as transparent and responsive as possible.


At this juncture, any other solution is pretty much doomed to fail, which will drive the volunteers right back into Commissioners’ Court to go another round.

MCAS: The Wheels Are Turning

It’s been quite a week for animal welfare in Montgomery County. A contingent of volunteers was in Commissioners’ Court today to address ongoing problems with the current management at MCAS; they were hoping to ask the Commissioners to set an exit date, since there is a vote on record to rescind the contract.


But the Commissioners had a surprise up their sleeves. They announced in court that as of September 19th, the shelter management will go up for bid. To the best of my understanding, that means they will officially open an RFP (Request For Proposals) on that date. I don’t know yet what date they will close the bids, nor do we know what date Care Corp has to vacate the shelter. (I’m told that information may be in the minutes from Commissioners’ Court today, so I’ll be watching for it.)


Under the circumstances, opening it to management bids is not a bad move on the part of the Commissioners. The plus side is that it’s a big step toward removing Care Corp. The down side is that it creates tremendous uncertainty in an already destabilized community. We have so many questions.


Who will put in a bid?

Will any of the organizations submitting bids be qualified to take on and repair this mess?

If none of the bids is strong enough, what will happen?

Will the commissioners limit bids to nonprofit organizations?

Will the volunteers have a voice in the process?

When will Care Corp be required to vacate?

What safeguards, if any, will be put into place to protect the animals during the transition process?

What consequences, if any, will there be if Care Corp does not serve the best interests of the animals during the transition process?


Meanwhile, Care Corp continues to alienate our community. Last week, a long time employee was fired under questionable circumstances. We all know what those circumstances were because other employees posted inappropriate commentary online revealing what should have been confidential information.


This week, Care Corp took the unbelievably stupid step of banning Smart Rescue from pulling animals from the shelter. Smart has been an active part of the MCAS community for ten years or more. They pull many, many animals, both dogs and cats, of a wide range of breeds and sizes. Smart is well loved by the community because they are always willing to take the sick, injured, and old. They do an excellent job of vetting their animals, their foster program is very strong, and they are both thorough and careful about approving applications to adopt animals in their care.


So why ban them? Good question. Smart was informed via text message from an employee that they would no longer be allowed to pull animals from MCAS.


Bear in mind that Smart has pulled literally dozens of sick animals from MCAS in recent months. Smart has spent THOUSANDS in vet bills to heal animals that arrived sick or got sick while in county custody. Their animals are well cared for. Their adoption events are efficient, clean, and well managed. Their reputation is impeccable.


Smart volunteers have also spoken publicly and loudly against Care Corp. Since there is no way to fault their performance as a rescue, the obvious hypothesis is that Care Corp banned Smart in retaliation for speaking out. They would not be the first volunteers or (former) employees “punished” in this way.


It amazes me that neither Care Corp nor the Commissioners seem to appreciate the ramifications of this retaliatory behavior. I have mentioned Section 1983 in a previous column; it’s the federal statute that protects whistleblowers from retaliation. There are precedent-setting cases on record specifically prohibiting animal shelters from banning volunteers who speak out against wrongdoing or bad management practices.


Short of changing the locks and hiring an emergency transition team to run the shelter during a proper search or bidding process, the best thing the Commissioners could do at this point in the process is to install a county employee whose job is to monitor everything that happens in the shelter. Someone with the authority to intervene on behalf of the Commissioners could help protect the animals, ensure volunteer and rescue access, and might even protect the county from additional liability created by this constant campaign to ban, block, and remove anyone who doesn’t sing the praises of Care Corp.


As the situation evolves, we will continue to advocate for the animals of Montgomery County. And we will be heard.


PS: Smart is still paying huge vet bills on the last batch of sick animals they took. Most were from MCAS. If you’d like to help them, you can donate here: