In mid-August 2012, the story of Missy, a German Shepherd-mix dog, captured the news and highlighted the issues of animal cruelty and the role of law enforcement in animal protection cases.
According to news reports, Missy was hiking with her owner in Clear Creek County, Colorado, when an approaching storm caused her owner to leave her on the mountain after she became unable to walk on her own. Missy was rescued several days later by other hikers and brought to safety.
Her owner was charged with animal cruelty for abandoning the dog. In Colorado, a charge of animal cruelty includes intentional abandonment of a dog or cat and is a Class 1 misdemeanor for a first offense.
Upon conviction, psychological evaluation and anger management counseling or other appropriate treatment at the offender’s expense are required.
Animal Cruelty as a Sign of Other Cruelty
Pets are more common than children in American households today. According to a 2011-12 pet ownership survey, there are more than 78 million owned dogs and more than 86 million owned cats in the U.S. Thirty-nine percent of households own at least one dog.
The benefits of pet ownership are many: companionship, reduced stress, improved mood, lowered blood pressure, increased exercise, and unconditional love. The human-animal bond can be incredibly strong.
Animal advocacy organizations work tirelessly on behalf of animals, including low-cost spay and neuter, disaster response, animal-assisted therapy, legislative and lobbying efforts, foster and shelter care, and more.
The first animal abuse laws in the United States were passed in New York with the establishment of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals by Henry Bergh in 1866.
Although the initial focus was on protecting horses and livestock, over time the ASPCA began working more on behalf of cats and dogs to prevent dog fighting and animal cruelty.
Today all states have anti-cruelty laws, including felony-level penalties in nearly all states. Some states, like Colorado, have recognized pets as “protected animals” (since 2008) in civil and criminal protection orders, which authorizes judges to restrain parties from threatening, harming, or molesting them (see C.R.S. Sections 13-14-101, 102; 18-6-803.5).
Peace officers in some states may also take and impound animals that are victims of cruelty, aggravated cruelty, or animal fighting.
Sadly, reports of animal neglect and abuse are all too common. The implications of animal abuse are especially disturbing in light of the demonstrated link between animal abuse and family violence, including domestic violence.
One survey (DeViney, Dickert, & Lockwood, 1983) of pet-owning families who had cases of substantiated child abuse or neglect found that animals were abused in 88 percent of homes in which there was child physical abuse.
Domestic violence and child abusers may kill, harm or threaten animals to exert dominance and power over their victims and to show them what could happen to them. In this way, animal abuse silences domestic violence and sexual abuse victims, and prevents them from leaving violent relationships. Killing a family pet eliminates a source of comfort and support for the victim.
As the American Humane Association puts it, “Animal cruelty problems are people problems. When animals are abused, people are at risk.”
What should peace officers do?
1.) Recognize Likely Offenders — One common theme is power and control of others, and law enforcement officers see it often and know what it is. Abusive partners will be more likely to abuse companion animals, and police officers are likely to be in a position to meet them in their homes and make observations.
Physically and psychologically abused children, particularly adolescent boys, may be at high risk to abuse animals after being victimized by a parent.
2.) Identify Animal Victims — They can’t speak and they may be confined to the house or yard. But they might have injuries that don’t fit the explanations given by their owners.
Their owners may show a disregard for their well-being. Abused animals may appear malnourished or they may be extremely timid or frightened in their owners’ presence. Be prepared to identify animals as protected parties if your state allows that.
3.) Make Appropriate Decisions — Be familiar with your state’s laws on animal cruelty. Charge those cases of animal neglect or abuse when the circumstances support it and work closely with your prosecutor to take such cases seriously.
Protecting Animals Elevates Us All
Albert Schweitzer once said, “We must fight against the spirit of unconscious cruelty with which we treat the animals. Animals suffer as much as we do. True humanity does not allow us to impose such sufferings on them. It is our duty to make the whole world recognize it. Until we extend our circle of compassion to all living things, humanity will not find peace.”
Local governments may have ordinances against barking dogs or animals at large that you or your animal control officers can enforce for the safety and good of all.
Laws against animal cruelty exist to protect animals, and protecting them elevates us all.