After the Webinar: Understanding the Link between Animal Abuse and Other Human Crimes – What Probation Officers Need to Know. Q&A with Michelle Welch

Webinar presenter Michelle Welch answered a number of your questions after her presentation, Understanding the Link between Animal Abuse and Other Human Crimes: What Probation Officers Need to Know. Here are just a few of her responses.


Audience Question:  What is the difference between animal welfare and animal rights? 

Michelle Welch: I teach animal law at William and Mary Law School and at U of R Law School here in Virginia. The difference is animal welfare is really about saving the animal.   I teach a whole class on the right of animals and how the evolution of rights for animals begins.  The bottom line is animal welfare is the protection of the animal. That’s really what I do. I am an animal protection lawyer and animal protection prosecutor. Animal rights is about giving animals the rights that humans have and there is a whole chapter about how different beings in our society have claimed their rights through society evolving to allow those rights.  You can email me offline, and I can give you an animal law case book that examines the evolution of rights, the evolution of rights for women, and the evolution of rights for children. And really, we treat animals the way we do children:  in that we protect them. We protect them from harm. So, we have child neglect, child abuse, child sexual abuse statutes and we have the same kind of things for animals. So, we protect them in the way that we protect children.  Children don’t have rights under the law.  They have protections under the law.



Audience Question:  Next question Sarah and several others have asked you to go back I think it’s the slide 20, 21 go back to that set those slides where you had the books?

Michelle Welch: I can do that.

Host: Folks those of you who are asking about the books and the resource and such take some screenshots of those book covers so that you can refer to them later. Also, they were also asking about if you have that list of the studies that you referenced if you could share that? Michelle if you’re happy if you want you can email me that list of studies and I’m happy to put it on the course resource page, but also, I think people want to make sure they get a hold of that list of resources.

Michelle Welch: Yes, I will provide the resources.  I can send it to you, and here’s the second slide with the books as well.  A lot of the studies that I had in the slides are listed there like one by Ascione. Frank Ascione did a lot of the studies between animal violence and human violence and domestic violence, family violence, and child abuse. So, they’re easily gathered but I can provide them to anybody that wants them.   I will provide it to Justice Clearinghouse as well.  One of the studies that I referenced was one on the link between sexually violent predators and animal sexual abuse/bestiality.  It was published this month, May 2020.  (Additional resources listed at the course recording page.)



Audience Question:  A victim advocate in law enforcement sees so many cases of animal abuse and strangulation especially in domestically violent families. Can you recommend resources to help investigators prove or document animal strangulation or abuse like we can with like a forensic exam with humans? It would be especially great to help prosecution’s knowing how and where to turn when we have a case like that. 

Michelle Welch: Yes. Dr. Melinda Merck has a forensic science book that she has put out. There are two different editions. If you just looked up Merck, you will find the two editions.  There is also an online course on Vet Folio that talks about the forensics behind animal abuse in particular. There are also some online courses that are out there that could be useful. I think you can look at the ASPCA website. HSUS may have training resources on their website as well. I don’t know if it’s just about strangulation, but it’s generally how to ask questions. Dr. Mary Lou Randour has a book called A Common Bond and in that there are questions to ask children. I also have some screenshots of those if you want to email me. I can also put you in touch with Dr. Randour about other questions to ask. I’m trying to think what else might be helpful. But anyway, if you would email me whoever asked that question, I will try to get you as many resources as I can.  In interviewing animal abuses, you should not treat it differently than investigating any other case.  Treat it just like you would a serious investigation and ask the questions that you normally would ask in any case you might be investigating. Get out there and talk to people, talk to witnesses. That’s what’s going to make the case for you. (Additional resources listed at the course recording page.)



Audience Question:  If a child sees animal abuse, can the adult be charged with child abuse or child endangerment? 

Michelle Welch: It is going to depend on your state statute. In some states, you won’t be able to charge it.  However, in some states, they have started outlawing animal abuse in front of children, but for the most part, it’s still not as prevalent in every state. I think you need to look at your statute and see whether child endangerment will work. I will say taking a child to a dogfight or to a cockfight could also be child endangerment and could be charged separately as well, so look into whether your state statute would allow it.



Audience Question:  I was going to ask you about that of because I think I’ve heard you talk about children who were taken to these fights, to these cockfights to these dogfights, and wouldn’t that also be grounds for? 

Michelle Welch: I have charged child endangerment in a cockfighting case, but it will be coming up after the world returns to normal.



Audience Question:  You mentioned that animal cruelty is usually intentional and then gave an example of a four or five-year-old beating a cat. Can afford or five-year-old really be intentionally hurting a cat or this be more of a case of learned behavior and that’s a really great example of that child’s cognitive development. What do they know and what do they not know? I’d love to hear more about this. 

Michelle Welch: Right.   I don’t know if I said it as artfully as I could have. But usually when you’re doing something intentional to an animal to beat it, to maim it, to set it on fire, the conduct is intentional. The four and five-year-old that I referenced, I bring that out because a lot of times the abusers are young, and we have to figure out what’s going on with that child. I referenced in my webinar that if a child is doing something to an animal, you need to figure out what’s going on because the worst thing that can happen to a child is to abuse an animal and get away with it.  I don’t mean to bring them to justice or imprison them. But if you don’t intervene when that child abuses an animal, you don’t intervene in the cycle of violence.  I suspect those 4-5 year olds beating the kitten to death are likely being abused themselves or they are witnessing the abuse of their mother or some other person in the household. So again, we want to know what’s going on in that household. Are they witnessing violence and that’s why they’re doing it? I mean, here’s the bottom line, people who abused animals as children – let’s go back if children abuse animals,  they’re not necessarily going to turn into a serial killer, but we miss an opportunity to stop the cycle of family violence.  Killing a kitten is not normal behavior, that’s not healthy behavior.   By stopping the cycle of violence to the children, we may save them from a bad outcome. By caring about the animals, we help those children. Those children were too young to obviously go into the juvenile system, so we called Social Services and Child Protective Services to look at what was going on in that home.  That is how we made a difference.



Audience Question:  Michelle,  you talked a lot about domestic violence, and you talked about child abuse. Is there a connection between elder abuse and animal abuse?

Michelle Welch: Yes, there is, and that was an oversight. I apologize. There were so many things to cover, I was afraid I wouldn’t get to everything. We see in the Elder abuse situation, the caretaker of the elderly person doing something to the animal to gain power and control over the elderly person’s finances. They leverage the animal for Control over the elderly person and they benefit in some way. Maybe doing something with a will or whatever but they’ll do something to the animal to gain the power and control over the elderly person.  We also see them doing it for revenge because they’re angry that they have to take care of the elderly person and so they might do something to the animal out of vindictiveness. Another example is a lack of care for the elderly person.  It’s that financial part of the crime, where there was an elderly person up on the second floor of a house that had no utilities, and there they have all these dogs. So, it was almost like a hoarding situation and also endangering that elderly person who was basically peeing and defecating in a bucket.  Again, animal neglect may signal neglect of a human.  Animal neglect and elderly neglect can co-exist.  Additionally, the financial exploitation of the elderly person might involve animal abuse.  The caretaker might do something to the animal to gain an advantage in a financial way.  Look for a red flag:   if the animal acts weird around a caretaker, especially if you’re in the room talking to the elderly person and a caretaker comes in and there’s some weirdness with the animal, you should take notice of that. Just because there’s something weird going on doesn’t mean there’s always a crime, but I want you to be aware so that you know what the red flag might be.



Audience Question:  What about owners who fail to take that dog for grooming, leave the dog matted, extremely long nails, is that neglect? 

Michelle Welch: Yes, that is neglect. I didn’t cover every single aspect of animal abuse in this webinar, but there is simple neglect and gross neglect.  You have to take care of the animal and that includes veterinary care when needed and grooming when needed.  If you don’t groom an animal, especially an animal like a poodle. We had a poodle hoarding case where the leg was being amputated by the coat. We had another case where the dewclaw of the dog was curled in, had never been trimmed and it was basically growing into the pad of the paw. We’ve had horse cases where they don’t do anything to the feet and then you’ve seen them where the hooves resemble sleds, ex.: the hooves are curled up. You have to take care of your animal.  You don’t have the right to just watch your animal die in the field or yard.  Animal have protections and you have to provide for your animal.  Another example is having your animal be ill and you do not do something for it. We have had owners say, “I just want to let it die of natural causes.”   Well, you don’t get to do that under animal cruelty laws.  There are protections. You have to do something for your animal. Even if that might be euthanasia.  In the end, you have to do something for that animal and every shelter in the United States if they’re in a locality; they have to take your dog if you live in that locality.  They can’t just turn you away.  A Municipal animal shelter is supposed to be shelter that takes the unwanted dogs in a community.   They may decide not to intake other animals, like cats, birds, or small pets.  A lot of state codes require a municipal shelter to intake dogs.


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