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.