Animal Cruelty Investigations 101


We cannot help the animals in need without having the legal authority to act on their behalf. Laws that protect animals are found at all levels of government: federal, State, country, and local. Many of those laws can best be found on the Animal Legal Defense Fund website.

In the midst of saving an animal from cruelty, the investigator should not become so focused on the animal that he/she overshadows that rights of the animal’s owner, keeper, caretaker or tormentor.   Our objective is to save the animal through successful prosecution.  Too often we cut deals with the owner to surrender the animal so as to escape prosecution, only to allow the owner to obtain another animal to harm.  In most cases, investigators can convince a judge to order the defendant to surrender all animals and to not allow the person to have any animals for a specific period of time.  That is our ultimate goal.

We cannot facilitate a successful prosecution without insuring that the suspects rights are upheld.  It does not serve the interest of the animals, if we are negligent in screwing up our legal case against the owner.  We need to have a good understanding of due process, plain view doctrine, and chain of custody.  A good background guide in investigations can be found in an American Humane Operations Guide.

One of the biggest mistakes that we make in an animal cruelty investigation is rushing the animal to treatment before capturing the necessary evidence at the time of the seizure.  You have to be very methodical in your investigation.  If possible, try to have a veterinarian on site as you log your findings.  Whenever possible each animal should be photographed a minimum of three times for the purpose of identification and body condition from the front, side and top.  Each photo needs to be identified so as to preserve them as evidence.  If you get sloppy, you will not be able to prove one animal from another and a good attorney could place doubt on whether your photos are from the same crime scene.

Each animal should be weighed and examined by a veterinarian.  It is helpful (in court testimony) that a veterinarian provide the weight of the animal at the time of the seizure and what an animal of that breed should way at its current age.  While pending a court hearing, it is necessary to continue to weight the animal each day to show the increase of weight under proper care. 

Many times, the owner will surrender the animal(s) to the investigator in hopes of circumventing prosecution.  In these cases, the investigator should proceed with prosecution for the purpose of having the court strip the owner of rights to own another animal and to recover the medical cost of the surrendered animal(s).

I have seen many cases in which the decision to investigate a crime of animal cruelty is decided several days after the animal control organization takes possession of the animal.  The longer the delay, the less valid the animal’s cruelty evaluation becomes.  Whenever you are in doubt, treat an animal’s intake as if preparing for an eventual court appearance.

Managed Intakes

Many animal shelters continue to fight their statistics to reach or maintain their status as a no kill shelter.  Most shelters that reach a 90% live release rate is considered no kill; but, there is a movement afoot to demand a live release rate of over 90%; many (uninformed) individuals believe a 100% live release rate is possible.  To attain higher live release rates shelters would have to adopt critically ill or injured animals as well as vicious animals.

The live release rate is controlled by intakes and dispositions.  Intakes are controlled by the number of people delivering animals to the shelter and those animals impounded by animal control officers on the streets of your community.  In some communities, animal control officers provide taxis service to people claiming that they have no transportation to take their pets to the shelter; even though a new model automobile is sitting in the drive way (they just don’t want to get the upholstery dirty.

Dispositions are the various outcomes that remove animals from the animal shelter’s inventory.  Dispositions include euthanasia, which is the disposition that most people object to.  Animal shelters have gotten good at explaining the justification for euthanasia, but shelters face those who armchair quarter back those decisions.  The primary way to reduce euthanasia is to control intakes through a mechanism called “managed intakes.”

People have gotten used to being able to dump their pets at the animal shelter for the most ignorant reasons: granny is coming for a visit, the pet doesn’t match the furniture; but mostly, the pet is too much work.  In order to maintain the flow of pets into the shelter, people are asked to wait for an opening.  I believe pet owners should play a role in the surrendering of their pet; but I do not believe that people finding stray animals should have to be placed in queue to turn in a stray.  This is happening fairly frequently at shelters.  Pet owners and people finding strays are left with few options in dealing with strays and problem pets.

One of the rules with animal adoption agencies is that an adoption agency will always accept back a failed adoption.  In Roanoke Virginia, our local humane society would use a process to force people into long wait times to return a pet that was not working out; they would direct the person to the public shelter to surrender the pet.  Once surrendered to the public shelter, at the humane society’s convenience, they would determine if they would “rescue” the pet back.  It was a contentious issue because the public shelter was always at capacity and the humane society operated at half capacity.  But, I digress…

With the high influx of animals coming into a facility, shelters devived a mechanism to bring the flow to a trickle and called it Managed Intakes.  For the first time, pet owners were forced to see the impact of their decisions and were told to wait for a better time.  During the waiting period, pet owners would be encouraged to find a different solution, maybe even take their pet to training to solve behavior issues.  Mostly, pet owners just called animal control to report their pet as a stray.

There are a few success stories as a result of shelters using this tactic, but due to the nature of people, Managed Intakes just push your intakes on to other organizations.  When people make up their minds that they have to get rid of their pet, there is usually no changing their minds.

Communities that are dealing with high euthanasia, the solution may not be an issue of poor shelter management; something else in the community could be impacting the situation.  The no kill movement is not concerned as to how your shelter has gotten to the place of high euthanasias, they just want to blame the shelter staff.  Shelter staff are now pushing the problem on through new mechanisms to manage their intakes; sometimes exasperbating the problem of stray running loose in your community.

Dog Attacks

Nothing causes me to step up on my soapbox faster than reading about dog attacks.  Media sources in the Cayman Islands report, “Dog attacks on the rise.”  It makes you wonder if dogs are suddenly becoming more violent.  That doesn’t make sense, so the only thing left is pet owners are becoming dumber.

A few days ago someone videotaped a dog attacking a mail carrier in Detroit.  I love that the only assistance people offer is to videotape incidents.  Actually, I think that after getting sufficient video tape, the person actually did step in.  But, I am not ranting about the videotape.  This is all about the owner.

After being told about the incident, the dog’s owner, asking to not be identified, said, “He’s a big clown, he’s friendly.  He’s not vicious.”  He made it sound like it was the mail carrier’s fault for delivering mail to his house; after all, it is “a dog’s job to defend its home.”

Detroit’s animal control department took possession of the dog and according to the dog’s owner, they plan to “kill the dog.”  The dog does what dogs do.  The mail carrier does what carriers do.  The fault of this incident falls on the dog’s owner for not confining his dog.

The problem with society is that not enough dog owners are sued for the actions of their dogs.  The dog is killed, problem solved.  People like this dog owner should suffer sufficient financial loss to be convinced that he should never own another dog.  He is not smart enough to see the role that he played in putting the mail carrier at risk.  Usually when something like this plays out, we walk away shaking our heads thinking, “Thank God that it wasn’t a child.”

Dog Training

Dog trainers have evolved over the years as parents have evolved in raising children.  We have become a society that demands that correction be given in the form that appears to be a reward for the dog’s or child’s misbehavior.

Several years ago smart dog trainers stopped making public displays of training dogs.  They used public parks to facilitate training in hope that people would see them and would seek their assistance with their own pet.  Not any more.  Just as parents fear being in a shopping mall when their child or children act up.  Bystanders took on roles to determine how the correction should be administrated.

I learned to train dogs in the military.  Our lives depended on the dog following commands.  We needed the dog to listen and stop chewing on a person when then person became compliant and stopped resisting.  I did not find the training techniques abusive, just effective.  When the public first started complaining about the techniques in use by certain trainers, I figured that the economic principle of supply and demand would force the evolution of training techniques. 

If people started avoiding the “rough” trainers and sought out the “gentle” trainers, the tough (rough) trainers would adapt.  That is how evolution works, you adapt to the environment so as to survive and place food on your table.  The world did evolve and trainers became kinder and gentler; some even had their own television shows. 

There have been no studies that suggest that the kindler approach to dog training is more effective.  I think that it was less about the technique and more about the engagement of the owner with their dog.  The same is true with raising children, the more engaged that a parent is with their child, the better the child will behave.  Too many parents leave it up to the school system to raise their children; but, this is a blog about pets, not how people raise their children.

Leash 101

Welcome to Leash 101, your introduction to the use of leashes.  Let’s see a show of hands of those who believe that they have 100% control of their dogs off leash.  If you have raised your hand, you are one of the biggest threats to your neighborhood and need this class.

A leash is a physical connection between a dog and the dog’s owner.  For a leash to be effective, it must be of reasonable length and under the control of someone physically capable of controlling the dog.  A dog being walk on a flexi-leash by a six year old is NOT under control.

Most ordinances require that the length of a leash should be between six to ten feet and should be of sufficient strength to maintain control.  String, ribbon, and twine are insufficient material to constitute a leash.  Many owners purchase flexi-leashes that allow the leash to expand out to 50 feet or more.  These leashes, although not legal, give your dog sufficient room in open areas; these leashes are not suitable on trails.  If you lose sight of your dog, while on a leash, the leash is too long.

In order to achieve maximal control, the person controlling the leash should be of sufficient size and strength to control the dog.  This is called “walking the dog.”  It is not uncommon to see a dog pulling along its owner in an uncontrolled fashion, this is called “the dog walking the person.”  A person with reasonable intelligence would see the dangers of failing to control your dog.  Most incidents involve dogs walking their owners.

If you cannot control the dog that you are walking, look in the mirror.  You need to talk to that person into getting a smaller dog before someone is hurt.

There seems to be a misunderstanding as to when to use a leash.  Smart people place a leash of their dog while in a confined space before taking the dog outside.  Animal shelters are full with animals who once belonged to people who were not smart.

When we adopt animals, we discuss the need to keep a dog leashed until the dog accepts his new home.  I am constantly amazed at the number of times people get their new pet home only to lose the pet when they decided to open the door of their car to let the dog run off leash to the front door of their house.  We have fine-tuned our adoption screening process and have yet to discover a true test for identifying stupidity.  These are the same people who think that their adoption fee should be refunded because the shelter was negligent in adopting the dog to a stupid person.

The leash is your friend.  It keeps your dog from being hit by a car.  Keeps your neighbors from being frightened or bitten.  Keeps you out of court when animal control picks up your dog.  Your leash is one of the single most effective tools for keeping you out of trouble.  It is so important, I suggest that you give your leash a name… make it personal.

Trusting our Pets

It is not uncommon that people use their pets as an indicator for who to have relationships with.  On dating sites, you see comments like, “Must like pets.”  What they are really trying to say is, “My pet must like you.”  We seem to believe that pets have some psychic ability to discern the character of people. 

Pets are a bad judge of character.  Put them on a chain in front of your house and they hate everyone.  Pets hate delivery people and these are the folks that deliver presents to you on your birthday and Christmas.  Pets should hate animal control officers, but with a chocolate chip cookie, a pet will become their best friend (and no, one chocolate chip cookie will not kill a pet).  Let’s face it, you cannot trust your pet’s insights.

As pet owners, we place too much trust in our pets.  We don’t know what is going on in their heads.  If we did, we would have the ability to prevent dog bites.  Pets are like people, they are unpredictable.  Every year we read about a dog killing his or her owner.  Who could have predicted that?

Animal Control Officers become sensitive to the potential dangers of situations that put people and pets at odds with one another.  Too often we witness pet owners disregarding our suggestions, only to discover that we were right.  My experience as an animal control officer is that pet owners are the ones who know the least about their pets.

Why I Hate Social Media

Reading my blog, you may suspect that I hate social media.  I do.  I believe that our freedom of speech is one of the most abused freedoms granted in our country.  Social medial gives people the platform to slander, lie, and defame others.  But the worst abuse is not from those writing posts, but from the folks that believe that crap.

Lie + Social Media = New Truth

Watching the news is evidence that people have no filter.  We have become a society that cannot discern fact from fiction.  Worse, we are more likely to believe a lie than the obvious truth.

Social media provides a mechanism to boost our  own self importance.  We want to stand out and telling the truth just doesn’t provide the substance to become viral.  So, we have to state outlandish things.  People will believe them and will further spread the lie and future boost your online importance.

Animal welfare activists saw early on social media’s potential and exploited it.  They could get people to believe anything that they said, because we became a society too stupid to discern the lie, even when the truth is so obvious.  Social media became the means that our truth was whatever we posted.  As others have said, “Social media was dumbing down America.” 

People get so upset with foreign countries using social media to influence our elections, because we stupidly believe everything we read.  If we could gain back a lick of sense, like be had before social media, we could easily see through the sham.  If you want to find the truth, find someone who is not on social media.

Funding Animal Control

In an ideal world, an Animal Control program would be funded by the people who cause the need for the program to exist.  For that reason, communities create pet licenses to help offset the cost of controlling pets; the licenses also place a form of identification on the pet to facilitate their return to their owner.

The problem with using pet licenses are a funding source is that pet owners are horrible and licensing their pets.  In most communities, 20% licensing is considered good, but insufficient to fund a program.  Animal Control works like the police department, no one expects criminals to fund police patrols.  Any animal control officer will tell you that the bulk of the complaints that they receive are from neighbors of pet owners; so, the non-pet owning public is benefited by animal control services.

Animal control is a public safety organization and as such usually receives funding from the tax rolls.  I have always wanted to see a tax on pet food and pet products to fund animal control programs.  People who do not obtain pet licenses still have to feed their pet.  However, it isn’t an easy thing to tax specific products at the local level, as proven by States that offer animal themed license plates for vehicles.  Distribution of the funds become problematic. 

One option is to increase the fines associated with bad pet behavior.  The problem with penalties is that people who allow their pets to run at large are usually the ones who will abandon their pets when the are picked up; so now you have a shelter full of pets and no money to feed them.

The greatest battle that we wage is trying to prove that our services are necessary; it is a hard battle at budget times.  You will hear people saying that funding for animals take programs away from children.  So many times I have seen City/County Administrators offer up budget cuts to animal control before cutting anywhere else.  During those times, you have to hope that you have served your City/County Council well and they will protect your from your bosses.

Humane Balance

It is not uncommon in our profession to see a person taking on a “lost cause.”  These are the animals that under, most considerations, would be euthanized.  Some people have a knack for these causes; however, with these causes comes risk.

One of the offices of the State Attorney’s Office had a close relationship with a local animal welfare organization.  An attorney from that office decided to make an example of a board member of another organization by prosecuting that member for failure to provide adequate care of one of  those lost causes. 

Looking at the animal, one might agree with the assessment that the animal was beyond care, but anyone knowing the amount of medical care given to the animal would ever conclude that the animal was not being provided adequate care.  This is a common charge against animal rescuers.  The animal was seized and euthanized. 

Fortunately the Courts exercised good judgment and the board member was found not guilty.  I think the judge recognized the conflict of interest by the attorneys, but no one could undo the killing of that animal.  Reasonable minds might say that the euthanasia was a kindness to the animal due to its condition.  We’ll never know if the medial treatment could have turned the animal’s condition around.

Incidents like these are at the heart of our profession: making life and death decisions based on observations, veterinary advice, and availability of funds.  We find ourselves constantly questioning the decisions that we are forced to make and there will be a gallery of people wanting to armchair quarterback those decisions. 


One of the most difficult task in running an animal shelter is hiring or contracting with a veterinarian.  Either they cannot face limited budgets, or working set schedules, or just cannot deal with the volume of patients.  Finding a suitable veterinarian is just a difficult task.

In order to be cost efficient, it is necessary for a veterinarian to perform a large number of spay/neuter surgeries.  During the interview process, I usually ask what the usual time that the candidate needed to perform a surgery.  When they claimed that they needed two or three hours, it became clear that you cannot afford the person.  Good high volume veterinarians are hard to find.  Sometimes you might find someone who can perform surgeries quickly, only to deal with constant suture failure after the surgery.

If you hire a luxury veterinarian, you need to explain the notion of limited resources.  Veterinarians coming from the luxury practises usually have few patients and plenty of resources.  To some, the act of providing just basic veterinary services is a slap to their profession.  In the long run, you won’t be able to afford them because they demand the best of everything.  Working in an animal shelter is an act of constant compromise.

The biggest issue facing a shelter veterinarian is placing a value on the services provided.  Does it make sense treating a critically injured animal, only to have the animal later euthanized for lack of an adopter.  It is a difficult balance; I have had veterinarians too quick to want to euthanize, but most are too slow.  After all, we would take on animals that were surrendered by their owners because the owner could not afford medical care.  Too many factors play in to the decision and I found it easier to relieve the veterinarian from those decisions.  Many times the decision is based on cost.  My last board of directors placed a $3,000 allowance on an animal; pretty generous by any standard.

If you live near a veterinary college, you will find it a wonderful resource for difficult injuries or illnesses.  If one of your animals is in horrible condition, the chances are good that the college will take the animal as a learning experience for their students.  Don’t expect the animal to be returned to you; usually one of their students will fall in love with the animal during its treatment.