Advocates say better response, enforcement are key to animal cruelty solution
Editor’s note: In this, the last in a three-part series, experts discuss ways to improve enforcement of existing animal cruelty laws. Click to read Part 1 and Part 2.
ADDISON COUNTY — When animal control officer Brian Webb seized an animal living in unsanitary conditions in Leicester several years ago, he did it with a twinge of uncertainty. After all, he had not received any training in animal cruelty response and did not know how he would represent himself in court if the owners disputed that the state of the animal warranted its seizure.
“There is really no training, so if there is someone that is brought in (to be) a civilian animal control officer and he doesn’t have any background in law enforcement it’s really difficult for them to perform their job,” Webb said.
In this case, the owners did not appeal the seizure, but Webb’s experience still highlights some areas that animal welfare advocates are looking to address in the future.
“I really enjoy my job, but it would be nice if (I) would be able to go to these calls and be more professional and have more resources at hand,” Webb added.
Parts 1 and 2 of this series looked at how Addison County and Vermont handle animal cruelty cases and the shortcomings and gray areas of enforcing animal welfare laws. In this third and final installment, the Independent looks more deeply into ways to improve animal cruelty response and to support humane workers like Webb in carrying out their jobs.
While Vermont does not have the infrastructure and resources for animal cruelty response that many other Northeastern states do, animal welfare advocates continue to work to achieve a functioning system to address animal abuse. Joanne Bourbeau, Humane Society of the United States Northeastern regional director and Vermont Humane Federation (VHF) board member, is one of those people.
“We have had to be a little bit creative with how we utilize the existing resources, and we do that through communication and coordination between agencies,” said Bourbeau about enforcing animal cruelty laws in Vermont.
South Burlington Chief of Police Trevor Whipple represents the chiefs of police on the Vermont Cruelty Response Coalition, a diverse group of animal welfare advocates and experts who discuss and push for ways to improve animal cruelty response in the state. The group, of which Bourbeau is a founding member, began in 2000 as the Vermont Animal Cruelty Task Force but has recently joined the VHF as the Cruelty Response Coalition. Whipple agrees with Bourbeau on the need for cooperation among law enforcement and humane officers.
“In the perfect world we would have a police officer and a civilian humane agent work as a team to conduct these investigations. Each has their strengths and knowledge areas and when you team them up you get the best of both worlds,” Whipple said.
Bourbeau added, “Shelter staff and animal control officers (ACOs) are experts in animal care and husbandry, and police are experts in criminal procedure. So it makes sense to work together.”
The Cruelty Response System, Vermont’s current system to address animal cruelty created by the VHF and the Cruelty Response Coalition, should do just this. When working correctly, the system coordinates lead agents in each county to field and allocate animal cruelty complaints to appropriate humane or law officers. Civilian humane officers do the legwork, and then if enforcement is needed, they call the law enforcement agency with jurisdiction in the area, either the local or state police. Or, on the other hand, if law enforcement responds to a case first, and they need an expert to advise them about whether or not an animal has indeed been abused or neglected, they would call in a humane officer to help them.
“It’s so important to be coordinated effectively and to be working together with these agencies and building good relationships so (humane agents) are a trusted source and (law enforcement officers) know when (humane agents) are calling they really need their help,” said Bourbeau, who has worked with the Cruelty Response Coalition to foster these relationships.
“It’s (also) important for us to know what the capacity is for various organizations to respond. That includes the vet community, law enforcement, private sector shelters, (and) foster homes. There is a lot of moving parts in these cases so we’ve tried to take a multifaceted approach,” she added.
In some areas in Addison County, like Middlebury and Vergennes, this approach seems to be working well. Barry Forbes, the animal control officer for Middlebury and Weybridge, says when he has come across animal cruelty cases, which does not happen often, the Middlebury Police Department has responded quickly and efficiently to investigate.
Likewise, Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel has not encountered difficulties in his experience dealing with animal cruelty cases, which he says “are very few and far between.” He explained that often if animal abuse or neglect is reported directly to his agency, the Vergennes Police Department will take the case on its own, but sometimes they will also notify the Addison County Humane Society (ACHS) at the Homeward Bound Animal Welfare Center.
But in areas of Addison County that do not have local police, animal cruelty response often does not run as smoothly. As discussed in earlier in the series, for the more than 15 towns in the county where the state police have primary jurisdiction, animal cruelty cases sometimes cannot take priority. Furthermore, local humane investigators, like Webb (who is now Salisbury’s animal control officer), often do not have the training and expertise they need to address animal abuse and neglect cases effectively.
While there is no statutory mandate in Vermont law for humane officers, including animal control officers, to get any sort of training, one of the goals of the VHF and the Cruelty Response Coalition is to still get as many humane officers and law enforcement officers as possible trained in responding to animal cruelty cases.
The VHF sponsors four levels of animal cruelty investigation trainings offered by the Vermont Police Academy in Pittsford. Whipple leads these trainings, which occur every September and range in price from $17 to $35 depending on the type of training. They are open to anyone but aimed at humane officers and law enforcement officers.
Paul Crosby, currently Leicester’s animal control officer, has taken several of these training classes to prepare himself for situations like the case discussed in the first two parts of this series where three dogs were seized from a Dorie Lane home.
Sgt. Eugene Duplissis, a trooper at the Vermont State Police’s New Haven barracks who works with a K9, has not done the training. He said that most animal cruelty cases are straightforward, but for some less obvious cases it could be helpful to have expertise on the subject.
“If someone were to tell me this (horse) wasn’t getting any salt that wouldn’t mean anything to me. Whereas if you are a horse person that may mean something specific,” he said.
In fact, many law enforcement officers and humane officers have not gone through the training. Merkel does not believe any of his officers have done it and neither has Forbes.
Some do not think they need training, but others, like Webb, would like to have more, they just have not found it accessible. He remembers vaguely hearing about it a few years ago, but with holding down two jobs in addition to his duties as Salisbury’s animal control officer he doesn’t believe he would have time for the seven-hour class.
Recently, state government has begun to address the lack of animal cruelty training in Vermont. In a June WCAX-TV story, Vermont Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn was quoted as saying that he wanted look into requiring every state police barracks to have troopers trained in animal cruelty investigation.
State Sen. Chris Bray of New Haven, who helped create the Livestock Care Advisory Council, has not looked into the issue carefully but agrees on the importance of training for effective enforcement of laws passed in the Legislature.
“I think the state needs to be careful about making sure that if people have authority that they have training to go along with it,” Bray said.
According to animal welfare advocates, the most effective improvement to the Cruelty Response System would be hiring paid humane investigators to back up law enforcement and local animal control officers who cannot realistically all be trained.
“Ideally, I would love to have somebody in every single county in Vermont who could be the backup for municipalities who don’t have an ACO or don’t have an ACO who is trained in animal cruelty investigation specifically,” said Bourbeau.
Some might believe these positions already exist in a place like Addison County, however in reality most humane societies, like the ACHS, do not have the ability to fund this position but do it anyway without pay. Currently only the Humane Society of Chittenden County has a paid humane investigator, and that position is part-time.
While having a paid investigator in every county might be unrealistic at this point, Bourbeau says having regional investigators who contract with multiple towns or humane societies, to share the financial burden, has been discussed.
In Rutland County, some towns, including Brandon, have contracted with the sheriff to carry out the duties of an animal control officer. Because sheriffs are trained in criminal procedure they can more effectively carry out animal cruelty investigations without needing to involve other agencies.
“That system works very well,” said Rutland County Humane Society Executive Director Gretchen Goodman. When more than 100 neglected animals were seized from properties in Brandon and Hubbardton in 2008, it was the sheriff who carried out the investigation, according to Goodman.
Another idea is for humane societies to receive state subsidies or grants from the Agency of Agriculture or the Department of Public Safety to hire humane investigators, or even to create special animal welfare divisions as they have in other states like Maine and Connecticut. Bourbeau said Commissioner Flynn is looking at data being collected through the Cruelty Response System and she hopes in the future his department will pay more attention to the application of animal cruelty laws.
Sen. Bray contends that, in general, enforcement of laws passed in Montpelier is important even though it does not always happen.
“It’s far easier to create a law than to enforce a law,” he said. “Personally, I think we need to be careful that we not create laws we are not willing to enforce because you invite a level of skepticism on the public’s part about the real intentions of state government if we don’t enforce what we pass.”
But in the end it is all about the money.
“We are looking at a variety of models around the state. But what it comes down to is really needing the funding for filling these positions,” Bourbeau said.
IS IT WORTH IT?
But even if funding did appear for improving animal cruelty response in the state, some are not convinced that it would be worth spending the money on something that occurs relatively rarely like animal cruelty incidents. After all, in Addison County only one to three animal cruelty complaints lead to criminal charges each year, according to former ACHS Executive Director Jackie Rose.
Forbes said no one wants to see tax increases.
“The economy is not great and people are looking for ways to save a buck,” he said, echoing Crosby, his colleague in Leicester. “I’m in the same boat so I can’t blame them.”
Sgt. Duplissis also has doubts about the need for more funding for a humane investigator, especially in Addison County.
“I don’t know if Addison County would warrant one full-time person (for humane investigation),” he said. “I don’t know if this county has that much animal abuse. I don’t think it’s a real epidemic right now, whereas methamphetamine is becoming an epidemic, yet we (VSP) don’t have full-time meth investigators for it. If they get the funding that’s great, (but) I don’t know if it warrants it.”
For the time being, humane officers and law enforcement will do their best with the resources available.
“Right now … basically I get a call (and) I just go on doing it the best I can and hope that I did the right thing,” Webb said.