Webinar presenter Michelle Welch answered a number of your questions after her presentation, “Creating an Animal Abuse & Cruelty Unit.” Here are a few of her responses.
Audience Question: From Jean from Hawaii, if we are able to get an animal abuse task force off the ground, what organizations would you recommend that we include as part of this standing task force?
Michelle Welch: If it’s animal fighting or animal abuse as well because animal abuse goes hand and hand, I will make sure that you have experienced animal control officers. Or if you have, I don’t know what you have in Hawaii but if have Humane. we also have some Humane investigators still left in Virginia that still do it. If you don’t have seasoned animal control officers that I believe you would, I would make sure that you put together law enforcement officers who would have some kind of animal fighting or have the tenacity, the will to want to do it or the interest to do it. I would put them on it as well. A seasoned law enforcement officer who cares about animal abuse will be a wonderful thing to include. I would make sure that if you have a state vet liaison if you don’t have a state vet which I know some people don’t have assistant state vets I would have a veterinarian who is experienced who could recognize animal fighting scars. In addition, I would say that the University of Florida and ASPCA has training where vets who want to be experienced in animal fighting and how to do that forensics. A forensic vet would be good or at least someone who’s interested in it. I would tell you that we’ve evolved a lot in that we have our assistant saved up as she can’t go to every scene. We have recruited other vets who would go with us now, who have now done an excess of ten animal fighting cases. They’re becoming more and more experienced. You’d want that. You would want a prosecutor. If you don’t have someone in your Attorney General’s office, then you want someone from your state or your island who has done animal abuse or animal fighting cases or at least has the interest in doing it. For instance, I would call out April Doherty who is in Maryland. She has started her own Maryland Animal Abuse and Animal Fighting Task Force. She’s recruited people to actually have some experience. She’s recruited people who had the interest. She’s having our task force come and train her task force on animal fighting. I think it’s in the fall. So that’s the other thing, if they don’t have the training, at least give them that training. Obviously, ASPCA and HSUS both have a lot of experienced trainers in. I’ll love to come to Hawaii, I’ll just put that out there. I would also say state police, if you have someone from your state police I think you should at least try for that. I know the National groups are so busy I don’t know that they can really do have a liaison for everyone but maybe a liaison with your SPCA or your humane society because you’re going to want volunteers to come to help you wrangle roosters and wrangle dogs.
Audience Question: Animal abuse is considered a crime against society by the FBI. Law enforcement doesn’t track crime victim information in their crime reporting statistics for animals. With the case in Virginia where you were able to submit a victim impact statement served as a form of a precedent for trying to get animals recognized as victims under the law.
Michelle Welch: I think I’ll answer it in two ways. What we wanted with the victim impact was to show that the dogs were victims, number one, in just the level of brutality that they have gone through right? The isolation, just the way that they house them can be very cruel because they never get any social interaction with people and the only social interaction they are getting is with the dogfighter himself who is basically praising what we would consider bad behavior, being aggressive to other animals right? And then just the brutality of the ring itself. Most of these dogs were pretty scarred. One thing I didn’t actually say was we had a dog who recently fought on this property. She was bleeding, she had an open wound. Just that part was important to us. I don’t know whether it will eventually lead to the law recognizing them as victims. I don’t know that we actually need a law to do that. We can do that with these victim impact statements so that the judges understand that there is a victim behind that dog or that dog is a victim. I also will say that I have been doing this for 20 years. I went from people barking at me, like the sheriff’s deputy barking at me, to now people who want to be me which you know is a little surreal. I’ve seen judges, I’m not saying every judge is going to take it seriously but I’ve seen a real shift in the paradigm. That’s what’s important I think for that. As far as NIBRS, Julia is talking about NIBRS which is the FBI now tracking animal crime and they are trying to making sure that all states do their NIBRS reporting. In Virginia, I have a liaison with the state police and we are working on making sure that all the Law enforcement agencies are reporting but we are also working to get animal control onboard to report those numbers to the FBI. It is crucial that we know just what the numbers are.
Audience Question: Are you paying the private veterinarians who work with you for the time and work? Any recommendations on private veterinarians on how to get involved without the program going broke?
Michelle Welch: That’s a very good question. They are serving for free, pro bono. That is a problem. they would want to give that time pro bono. In other cases, we have gotten enough money together through grants or whatever to pay them at least for their time right? The other issue with private veterinarians that you need to consider is they don’t have sovereign immunity. Sovereign immunity is one of those things when I go to a scene, I’m not going as Michelle Welch. I’m going as Michelle Welch, Senior Assistant Attorney General with all of my sovereign immunity intact. With a private vet, they don’t have sovereign immunity. They could get sued so you need to be careful that they are coming in as a consultant. That is an issue that private vets need to consider before they do it. Our private vets have decided that they’ll take the risk. That’s where, if there are any pro bono lawyers or civil lawyers that are listening to this, that’s where you would ask the pro bono attorney to come in and represent that vet. In fact, one of our people got sued once and we asked a private attorney to represent her and she did and the lawsuit went away.
Audience Question: Can you talk about other potential pitfalls that can set a team back either in forming or continuing such a unit? Some of those really hard lessons you’ve had?
Michelle Welch: Big blue was such a success but I will tell you it took years off my life because there was a lot of fighting. There were just disagreements. Disagreements about the way you go and the direction we’re going. I had officers be kind of disrespectful to me at times. I had to sort of say I’m in charge and I say no. There are going to be disagreements. I think that the thing that makes you successful over time is people who are in it for the right reasons. I keep seeing this a bit where people are more interested in glory than they are interested in making sure the animals have the right outcome. Glory has no business. If you’re a prosecutor, it’s not about the glory. It’s about doing the case. It’s about doing justice, making sure that you are not railroading people, right? That you’re being fair. Those are the things that I think you need to make sure. When you’re forming it you need to make sure that you have people that aren’t on it because they want to put it on their resume. We’ve had people like that. We’ve had people who come and gone that basically wanted to say hey, I’m in Virginia Animal Taskforce and they wanted to put it on their resume. You want to guard against anyone who might be in it for the glory of it. You want people who are in it for the long haul because it’s going to take a while for your unit or your taskforce to really come into its own. The other thing you need to guard against or to think about is a legacy. I’ll tell you that Richard and I have fought about the legacy because at one point I don’t care about the legacy. He was like you better care about the legacy. The legacy is about making this go into the future. I say that about my unit. One day I will walk away. I will go and walk on the beach and I’m not going to listen to the mayhem anymore. When I walk away there’ll be another director of the animal law unit and that’s someone I’ve trained who will have it and will have its back, same thing with my task force. One day, Richard’s going to retire. One day Amy Taylor’s going to retire. One day I’m going to retire. There’s going to be the second string that’s going to come up and be part of that. You’re not going to have that when you first start out. You need to make sure that you have people who are really really interested in it so you can train, and who can respond whether it’s raining. I’ll tell you this all the time, whether we have a raid or a search warrant, it’s raining, buckets, buckets, mud everywhere. There’s not a lot of glory when you’re walking on a gamefowl farm and there’s 200 roosters. Just ask Tamara of ASPCA or Jeannette at HSUS?.
Audience Question: Do you know if anyone has explored the possibility to have seizures associated with these prosecutions go to help pay for the vets as part of a fund?
Michelle Welch: You mean the pay for the veterinarians who are out on the scene with you? No. I’ve not heard of that, maybe someone who is creative. The problem with that is that a lot of times you are so busy trying to get grants or donations to take care of the animals you’ve seized. I don’t know people who are worrying about the vet bills. I will say you can get it through restitution to a criminal case or in Virginia, we have a bond and we’re getting better and better about how we use that bond. We just started using our bond to basically be affiliated with these other civil bonds that will make it more important in the PO process. I’ve not heard of people trying to, the other thing is a lot of times seizures should be different than the criminal. A seizure is civil and in Virginia, we can actually ban people from owning animals through our seizure statute. They are civil in nature and we have the criminal process which is criminal in nature obviously. There are two different standards. I wouldn’t want them linked because then you wouldn’t be able to get hold of the animals as quickly as you can during the civil process. They would try to delay it. This is what it used to happen in Virginia. They would delay the adoption of animals out and kind of hold the animals hostage while the criminal case was going through the process.
Click Here to Watch a Recording of “Creating an Animal Abuse & Cruelty Unit.”