Cruelty Investigators: So Badly Needed, So Rarely Available

Most “civilians” assume that when they see animal cruelty or neglect, they can call the local animal control agency, and someone will trot right out, save the animals, and arrest the bad guys. The animals will get nursed back to health and adopted into perfect homes, and the bad guys will go to jail, where they will get exactly what they deserve from angry inmates who save extra special punishments for animal abusers.

Nope. It’s not like that.

Here’s the reality. Most animal control agencies and other types of shelters do NOT get involved in animal cruelty investigations. They can’t afford to. The agencies would have to either add an employee or provide specialized training to an existing employee. They would have to purchase a specially outfitted investigative vehicle. Most agencies don’t have the budget for all the training, equipment, extra office space, and extra insurance. Most animal control agencies and shelters can barely pay the staff they have and keep the animals housed and fed.

That’s not all. Local law enforcement agencies and court systems would have to be willing to work on animal cruelty investigations. In some areas, I’m sorry to say that local judges are not animal friendly. I personally know of cops, prosecutors, and animal control officers who have been told by judges not to waste the court’s time with animal cases.

So let’s say an agency can afford to hire or train an investigator, purchase the equipment, pay the extra operating costs, develop a working relationship with local law enforcement, and have the good fortune to get animal friendly judges and prosecutors. There is still one more major problem.

When an animal control agency partners with law enforcement to prosecute animal cruelty, they usually begin by issuing warnings and citations, with explanations of why the animals’ current condition is unacceptable and of what the owner must do in order to keep their animals. If the owner does not comply within the allotted time, or if the conditions are such that the agency can get a warrant immediately, then the agency will seize the animals and remove them.

Here’s the problem. What does the agency do with them now? The agency is required to house them for the duration of any legal processes, until such time as a judge awards custody of the animals to the agency that seized them. And then the other side could appeal, which means keeping the animals even longer.

If they seized maybe a dozen malnourished dogs and cats, it might not be that big a deal. But what if they seize several hundred animals from a hoarder? I have been present for such a seizure. The sheer manpower it took to handle the animals was overwhelming. And then the animals had to be vetted, housed, and fed for the duration of the legal processes.

Most agencies cannot afford the overtime, don’t have housing space, can’t afford to feed and vet all the extra animals, especially if the trial and appeals process goes on for very long. Imagine your local shelter, already near capacity, suddenly being hit with three or four hundred extra animals to feed and house, all of whom are in bad shape and in need of specialized care. Imagine those shelter employees being told that these extra animals, no matter how sick, feral, aggressive, must be housed for an extended period of time, during which their euthanasia rates will skyrocket as they have to put down animals they might have been able to save because all their resources are being consumed by this group of seized animals.

So most agencies simply do not get into the animal cruelty business.

Now that you know all the reasons an agency might choose not to hire a cruelty investigator, let me tell you why Montgomery County, Texas, needs one.

There is a lot of animal cruelty occurring in this county. Some of it is the result of ignorance, some of it is the result of mental illness, and some of it is the result of outright evil. And right now, it is very, very difficult to prosecute any of it. The county shelter – the logical agency to handle cruelty investigations – does not have a cruelty investigator. No money, no space.

As Montgomery County grows, we have more people, which means more animals, which means more people choosing to neglect or abuse their animals. There are known hoarders holding large numbers of animals in unhealthy conditions. We have dogfighters. We have bad breeders holding animals in cruel conditions (just check out all the creepy puppy sellers lining our roads). And we have the random jerks who mistreat their animals just because they can.

A few sample cases: Molly Reed (the pseudo-rescuer turned hoarder and serial euthanizer). The elderly hoarder in east county who had over 100 dogs held in filthy makeshift cages around her trailer home. The jerk who left his dog chained to a fence until it starved to death. I could go on, but you get the idea. The need is there.

We need someone to deal with those cases that are beyond the scope of our current level of enforcement. We need judges and prosecutors and cops to get on board and help that someone to enforce the laws that protect our animals. We need a trained investigator who knows the laws, who understands forensic and investigative procedure, and who knows how to work with law enforcement and the court system to do what’s right for the animals who can’t protect themselves.

It won’t be quick, cheap, or easy, but it can be done.

Why Is Animal Cruelty Hard to Prosecute?

People ask me regularly why it’s so hard to prosecute animal cruelty.

The simplest answer is that laws to protect animals do not take into account the depths of human cruelty, nor do they completely take into account the change in human attitudes toward animals over the last century. Many laws still treat all animals as property, no different than a car or a piece of furniture, and even those laws that do try to protect animals are often poorly written and/or fail to distinguish between companion animals and livestock.

That said, every year we keep trying to improve the laws that govern the care of our pets. One example would be the law that allows Harris County to prohibit roadside sales of animals. I’m thrilled that Harris County has been able to make this important step forward. I just would like to see Montgomery County (and every other county) do likewise. As it stands, when Harris County ran the roadside puppy sellers out of town, they all came up the road to Montgomery County. And here, it’s unfortunately legal, because our population is less than the number specified in Texas law to enable us to ban them.

We came close last year to updating that law, but Governor Perry vetoed it because it was poorly written and would have been easily interpreted to include ANY roadside vendors, not just puppy selling scum. We’ll try again. And we’ll keep trying till we get there. I would also like to see improvements to the laws that specify minimum standards of care for pets.

Right now, under Texas Health and Safety Code 42.092, nonlivestock (companion) animals must have access to “food, water, care, or shelter provided to the extent required to maintain the animal in a state of good health.” Unfortunately, I can’t find anything that specifies what these adequate provisions would consist of.

Care and shelter would seem to be the grayest areas here. My understanding is that the animal must have access to someplace that will offer protection from the weather. But is the someplace supposed to be an insulated dog house, or a cardboard box? Or a place on the sofa? (Obviously!) I have seen people claim that an abandoned car on blocks in their yard constitutes adequate shelter, and with the way the law is currently written, they may well be able to convince a judge that no law has been broken.

Care is another issue. Those of us who live and breathe animal welfare understand the importance of regular veterinary care, vaccinations, and grooming. But the law does not. Separate laws require rabies vaccinations – for the protection of humans and livestock, not for the protection of the actual dogs and cats. It is, as I understand it, illegal to allow a sick or injured animal to linger on in pain without treatment, but perfectly legal to shoot the animal to end its suffering, even if the ailment or injury could easily be treated, as long as the shooter is the animal’s legal custodian. And that’s just wrong.

We see many animals surrendered to the shelter with untreated illnesses or injuries that have gone on so long that the animal’s condition is now irreparable. If people had treated them promptly, it would have been no big deal. And yet there is rarely a legal penalty for such neglect, because the law does not spell out in detail exactly WHAT constitutes adequate care and shelter.

Another nasty loophole in the law has to do with unowned animals. Judges have on several occasions refused to prosecute cruelty to stray animals because they don’t belong to anyone, which means that no crime against someone’s property has occurred.

The bottom line is that the law does not account for an animal’s feelings or emotional well-being, or for the value that animal has as a member of the family. And we need the law to catch up with the 21st century attitude toward animal welfare, instead of staying rooted in its 18th century agrarian roots, in which all animals were only worth their intrinsic value for meat, milk production, or other concretely measurable markers.

In my next column, we”ll talk about why so few counties and municipalities actually have cruelty investigators. And why I would love to see Montgomery County get one!

My Week in Animal Welfare

I’m always astonished when people comment on “how much” I do for animals. I do what I can, and frankly, in comparison to what some of my friends do, it isn’t very much.

There’s a lot of heartbreak in animal welfare. Just this week, two different friends had to euthanize foster dogs who were ill or injured beyond repair. One of these friends immediately took home a new foster – a cat this time – that no one even knew was pregnant. The cat promptly went into premature labor and delivered 5 nonviable kittens – still more heartbreak. Another friend took home a critically ill puppy, knowing that the little one would probably die, but wanting to give him a chance. I myself had a very bad day after I witnessed a cat’s dying autonomic twitches after being hit by a car.

I have more stories like these than I can count. And these are the stores that make people in the “outside world” ask me and other volunteers how we can do this. Our collective reply: How can we not?

 The beautiful thing about animal welfare is that we get to see a lot of good, too. I had two personal triumphs this week.

First, a woman who lost her home brought her crippled older dog into the shelter and asked them to help. She was in the process of obtaining new housing, but needed a safe place for her old dog in the meanwhile. The shelter put out a plea for a short term foster in which the dog could rest and recover from a knee injury.

All I did was make a phone call to my vet, who immediately offered to board the old fellow for free until his human had a safe place for him again. So Buddy is resting in luxurious safety at the vet’s office, and his person won’t have to lose her best friend along with her home. Such minimal effort for such a great result.

Second, when John and I were at the shelter on Sunday, I was on my way out the door to the exercise area with two dogs when I saw a nice family – 4 little kids and their parents – heading toward the adoption rooms. One of the dogs with me was Tootie, a sweet, quiet, well behaved girl with a big canine smile. And it just struck me that she might be the dog for them. So I stopped and introduced her to them.

They fell in love with her on the spot and went out to the dog park play area with me to get acquainted with her. They put her leash in the hands of a very small girl, and Tootie, bless her, actually slowed her pace to match the child’s. She was so calm and careful not to topple or pull on these little kids. Even their two year old took her leash and walked her, and she walked oh so slowly beside him, instinctively adjusting her stride to the little person’s wobbly steps. The match was made, and Tootie the Babysitter Dog went home with her new family. Made my week.

So if you love animals but don’t think you can “handle” working in animal welfare…yeah, you can. Some things are tough, but the rewards are infinite. You do what you can. You can foster, collect donations of food, towels, and money, bathe dogs at the shelter, walk and photograph dogs at the shelter, do laundry at the shelter (you wouldn’t believe how many loads of towels they go through!), help with adoption events, help educate the public about spaying and neutering…there are so many possibilities, so many ways to help.

Stop making excuses and start making a difference. And when you have your first animal welfare triumph – that first moment when you know you made a difference – email me, and it might even find its way into a blog column.

Foundling 102

Okay, so you’ve brought your foundling home, and you’ve put up Found posters. You’ve checked Craig’s List. You’ve checked all the local vet’s offices and shelters. The dog has no microchip and no identification.

Looks like you’ve got yourself a dog. Now what?

Well, you have two basic choices. A, you keep him. B, you don’t.

If you’re going to keep the dog, you have a number of things to consider.

  • Will he get along with your existing pets (and human family members)?
  • Will your landlord allow you to have him?
  • Is your home suitable for this pet?
  • Can you afford to get him vaccinated, microchipped, and neutered?
  • Can you afford to treat any veterinary problems?
  • Does he have any serious behavioral issues?

If your situation does not allow you to keep the dog, then you have a whole different set of questions to answer.

  • Can you find him a home yourself?
  • Can you foster him until you do?
  • If so, will your local shelter or a rescue group allow you to do a courtesy posting on Petfinder through them?
  • Can you afford to get the dog fully vetted so that potential adopters know what they are getting?
  • If you can’t foster the dog, can you find a rescue group that will take him? Or a foster home?
  • Are you willing or able to make a donation to the rescue group? (It makes it more likely that a group can afford to take him.)

If you can foster the dog while you find him a home, your best bet is to get a courtesy listing through a local shelter or rescue. If you can go through a shelter’s foster program, you can probably take advantage of their foster veterinary services, which may get you reduced cost vaccines and spay/neuter. They can also often microchip the dog for you at reduced cost.

If you foster the dog through a shelter, then you will probably be largely responsible for vetting potential adopters yourself. You’ll be making a commitment to help find the dog a home and to keep him until you do. You may need to participate in adoption events to help make the dog visible to potential adopters.

If you foster through a rescue group, they will probably vet adopters through their application process. Depending on your arrangement with them, you may or may not have much say in who gets the dog. It is less likely that you’ll need to do adoption events, but you may be asked to do meet and greets for potential adopters. Ask up front what the rescue group’s approach to this will be.

Regardless of what path you take, you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you got the animal off the streets and on the road to a loving permanent home.

Foundling 101

People keep calling me about dogs they found. “What should I DO with him?” they ask me. Given that it seems to be raining found puppies, I thought this might be an opportune moment for a Foundling 101 refresher course.

First, are you sure the dog needs help? This sounds silly, but the fact is that many people are careless with their pets and let them run loose. That “lost” dog may know exactly where he is because he wanders this route regularly. Watch his body language. Does he look worried? Is he looking around to see if anyone is coming back for him? Is he running in a panic? Or is he going for a stroll on a route he knows well and handles with confidence?

Once you decide to help, you need to capture the dog without getting either you or the dog hurt in the process. Most of us crazy rescue types carry a couple of slip leashes, some old towels, and some kind of treats in our vehicles. You’ll want those towels to cover your seats, maybe to wrap up a wet dog, to clean up any visible injuries, to protect your clothing…maybe even to cover the face of a panicky dog so he won’t be able to bite.

Okay. Now you’ve got your rescued dog into your vehicle. And as you drive away, it occurs to you that you aren’t sure where to take him. (Here’s a hint. NOT TO MY HOUSE. I find plenty of dogs all by myself.)

Your first stop should be your vet’s office, to get the animal scanned for a microchip. Best case, the dog has a chip, the people get notified, and everyone’s happy. If, however, the dog has no viable identification, then you have to decide where to put him.

Your options:

The local animal shelter: If you take the dog to an animal shelter, he will be held there for at least the minimum legal time. If no one claims him, he may go up for adoption, or he may be euthanized. While he is in the shelter, he will inevitably be very stressed and exposed to a wide range of germs. The shelter is not an ideal solution.

A rescue group: It is difficult to find direct placement into a rescue group, simply because the demand from shelters is so high. If you decide to go this route, please make sure that the group is reputable and can account for every animal in its custody.

Your vet’s office: If you have a good relationship with your veterinarian, he or she may be willing to help you out. I have appeared on my vet’s doorstep with stray dogs and cats more times than I care to remember. He never turns me away, BECAUSE he knows I won’t stick him with the animal forever. I’ll work to place the animal in a permanent home or rescue group. And because I’m a good client and he’s a nice guy, he usually discounts whatever services the stray animal requires.

Your house: Think before you do this. Is this animal one that it will be safe to have around your personal pets? Are you able to separate them? Do you have the experience to handle whatever kind of animal this happens to be?

Let’s say you decide to take the dog home for a few days to see if you can find his family. (Bless you.) Then what? First, put up found posters with your contact info so that anyone looking for a dog can call you. Make them describe the dog and prove that it is their dog before releasing it. Second, check the local paper, local online bulletin boards, Craig’s List, Dog Detective, and area vet offices for listings of missing dogs. You (and the dog) might get lucky.

That gets you through Foundling 101. Next time we’ll talk about what to do if you can’t find the dog’s people.