Webinar presenter Michelle Welch answered a number of your questions after her presentation, Animal Crimes: The Issues and Problems Facing Small, Rural and Tribal Law Enforcement. Here are just a few of her responses.
Audience Question: Do you have any recommendations on how to handle a suspected puppy mill in our rural farming area?
Michelle Welch: I would say, you got to slow your roll and you got to do your investigation and do it in a way that you corroborate it. People rush in and they don’t have the requisite resources they need, and a puppy mill will wear you out. So, I think it depends on what state you’re in and what your laws are. In Virginia, we have a commercial breeder law that gives animal control a right to enter any commercial breeding establishment on their own complaint or if a complaint is filed. So, that helps us out a lot. It really has helped us get compliance from people who are large-scale commercial breeders. And so, what I would say is, if you’re starting out, you take whatever complaint you have. And you start working that case the way you would any other case. Which is you talk to neighbors, you can look on Facebook, you can start monitoring their sales if they’re doing that online. Most of the time they’re hidden in plain sight like they’re out there on Facebook selling puppies. And if you’re in a state where the attorney general’s office has a consumer fraud unit, that’s another wealth of knowledge. They may have complaints about your person, and I would try to contact your AG’s office and see if you get that. But again, making sure you’re meticulous in how you investigate that. But if you want more specific you can contact me, and we can talk it through.
Audience Question: The things you talked about today, how does jurisdiction work on tribal lands?
Michelle Welch: So, the reason I didn’t spend a lot of time on animal issues in the tribal areas is that I’ve learned a lot about that lately and it’s very complicated. Many animal control officers have jurisdiction in the tribal land, but there’s also such a cultural aspect to how they treat their animals. And so, it’s just extremely complicated. And so, what I would say is most law enforcement officers, if they are enforcing in the tribal areas, may have some kind of authority. But it really depends on what state you’re talking about. They’re very specific.
Audience Question: Are there additional resources for these smaller agencies who are so often under-resourced? Are there non-profits that they can turn to for additional funding or additional support in their investigation?
Michelle Welch: So, I’d like to mention. Yes, there are. And I will say, you know, that’s why I’ve talked about developing your local resources, because I guarantee you, you have an SPCA or Humane Society, or even a foster group who’ll help you – you have to vet them. You don’t want someone who’s going to be talking about your case on social media and putting the animals you just seized up on social media. You need to develop them so that you trust them. But, for instance, the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys has a fund. Now, it is a prosecuting attorney’s association, but they will fund law enforcement investigations, but it’s only for dogs. And so, they have this grant for this year. So, if you have a case that is involving dogs, you should contact the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, because they have the grant funds. The national humane groups will also often allow you to get grants: ASPCA, ALDF, and HSUS, are kind of the top ones. They do not tell you what to do with your case, but they will provide resources for expert witnesses, necropsies, lab reports, tests, stuff like that.
Audience Question: It sounds like with small and rural agencies that they should be planning in advance for the just in case they come across a hoarding case or a dogfighting case. Should the plan, should they place MOUs in place, or what, some of their best first steps?
Michelle Welch: So, that’s a great question. Yeah. Plan in advance. When you get that case, slow your roll, you don’t have to rush in. I often tell people, especially with active tip fighting, I don’t really want you rolling up to a pit and dispersing everyone likes to, that’s a very dangerous situation, you want to slow your roll. But MOU, I’m glad you brought that up because they are really important and mutual aid agreements with other localities are very important, especially if you get an allegation against an officer in your county, you really need someone to come in and do an investigation from another county who is independent. So, again, having those Mutual Aid agreements. In Virginia, we have the Virginia Animal Fighting Taskforce, which is a loose group of people who are experts and who, many of them are in law enforcement agencies and said that those agencies loan them out to help us on the scene of any dogfighting, cockfighting, or large animal search warrant.
Audience Question: I was hoping maybe you could take a few minutes and talk more in-depth. Could you talk a little bit more about the link and what rural agencies should know about the link? And how it connects to other crime?
Michelle Welch: Yes, yes. Yeah, we have webinars just on the link, but what I think what you need to understand is that animal plays a role in almost every kind of case you. In domestic violence cases, often they use the animal as a pawn to either gain control of that victim or to get retribution on that victim. We’ve had so many abusers that will kill the animal put it in the door frame of the house and the message to the victim is I will kill you too. In child abuse cases, animals often are used for that same power and control. We know we did a study of sexually violent predators in Virginia that had animal sexual violence and animal sexual crime in their background. What we learn from our data was that many of them went on to abuse children sexually, so having that deviant sexual interest in an animal led to other things and a breakdown of barriers, and then may abuse children. And again, children and dogs will often put themselves in the way for harm, you know, if the abuser is harming the animal, we had a dog that jumped in front of a knife to save his little human. And then we’ve had children put themselves, in the knife’s way to protect the dog. And so, you know, in a violent home, the animal doesn’t escape the violence. And so often, they use the animal to torture, to hurt that human victim. We had a woman, who was in a violent situation with her partner, who duct-taped the cat. And then, he punched her in the face, as she was crying about the poor cat. The cat survived, just so you know. But we just see this violence being played out over and over again. In animal fighting, every time I turn around, they’re involved in child porn, they’re doing something even more heinous and criminal in their regular life. Dogfighting might be their hobby but they’re a drug dealer or a gang banger or producing child porn. So, we just see, so much criminality involved in animal fighting. It really is organized crime. They’re very highly organized. Wildlife traffickers are also highly organized with organized crime. And the bottom line with those kinds of animal crimes is that it’s about the money. And so, you see that they’re making all kinds of money on the back of the animal and cruelty to the animal. And then finally, you know, we know that school shooters, the FBI has done a study in like 43% of the school shooters had basically hurt an animal, not their own animal, but a neighborhood animal. And that was a strong indicator of the profile of a school shooter or mass shooter. Everybody knows about the serial killers and how many of them had animal cruelty in their background. So that’s a very, very brief overview of the link.
Audience Question: Michelle, you touched on social media. Would it be a good idea for animal control agencies to maybe start communicating or over-communicating with their communities, since we’re going into summer about hot weather, about leaving animals in hot cars and what the laws are? Should they start being proactive with that messaging now?
Michelle Welch: Yes, absolutely. We do that in Virginia every year. The Virginia Animal Control Association puts out a heat advisory, especially when it starts getting hot. They put out what our laws are regarding the adequate shelter. They talk about dogs in the hot cars. In my AG’s office, every summer and also in the winter, we try to put out an advisory about what the law is because not only animals shouldn’t be left in hot cars but also children should not be left in hot cars. And they are exactly the same, that they both will die from heat in a hot car. It’s both felony-level crimes when you do that. So, making sure that you are proactive as an agency and really putting it out there. I think, especially when it’s not part of a case, the more you can do to educate your public. Now, some of them are never going to listen, right? And those, you probably just have to enforce them again, but many people will come along. I mean, those two examples were just examples from this year where the man turnovers dogs, they didn’t want to see the dog suffer in the winter again. And then, the other man. Yes, thank the ACO for helping him get his animal a better situation.
Click Here to Watch a Recording of Animal Crimes: The Issues and Problems Facing Small, Rural and Tribal Law Enforcement.