ADDISON COUNTY — On a frigid afternoon this past January, Jackie Rose, then executive director of the Addison County Humane Society, received a call. It was an animal cruelty complaint, which wasn’t altogether out of the ordinary for her: As the head of a medium-sized humane society she dealt with about 100 animal abuse or neglect cases a year, most of which were unsubstantiated neighbor disputes or issues remedied with simple animal care education.
But this particular situation belonged to the 1 to 3 percent (by Rose’s estimation) of animal cruelty complaints that could lead to criminal charges.
When the local animal control officer, Paul Crosby, arrived at the property in question on Dorie Lane in Leicester at around 3:30 p.m. the afternoon, he found three dogs huddled together under the porch of a dilapidated house, trying to find warmth for their shivering bodies. Temperatures had been dipping below zero that week, getting as cold as minus 12. A neighbor reported the owners had left a few days earlier, and no sign of them could be found.
“The water bowl was frozen and tipped over. Dog food and feces were frozen to the ground everywhere,” Crosby wrote in the affidavit.
One of the dogs, a Pomeranian named Buddy, could barely walk and another, a boxer named Tyson with a thinner coat than the other two, was so emaciated that its ribs seemed ready to pop out of the skin stretched over them. Unlike the other dogs, a twisted chain tied him to the porch.
“The boxer was shaking and breathing with a gurgle. Her nose was dry and brown from lying in frozen dirt. She look scared,” said Crosby further down in the affidavit. He knew the dogs: He had caught them a couple of times after they had run away from home. But now he barely recognized them.
If an animal is in imminent danger of death a humane investigator is allowed by law to seize it without due process. Crosby made that call.
“I was fearful of them being left overnight again in their condition,” he said. “The animals were in jeopardy of freezing to death.”
Crosby took pictures of the site and of the dogs for evidence, cut the chain the boxer was tied to, and took the animals to the veterinarian. While Buddy and Bam Bam (the third dog) seemed to be doing OK, Tyson looked like she might not make it. The veterinarian reported to Rose at the Humane Society that she was weak and falling over.
“Dog is extremely thin, body condition 1.5/5 (1 is emaciated and 5 is obese), ribs very prominent, edges of ears are crusted and bleeding consistent with frostbite, nose consistent with frostbite,” said the veterinarian’s medical report.
According to Title 13, Chapter 8 Section 352, of Vermont state law, “A person commits the crime of cruelty to animals if the person … deprives an animal which a person owns, possesses or acts as an agent for, of adequate food, water, shelter, rest or sanitation, or necessary medical attention.”
While by many animal lovers’ standards this instance of neglect constitutes clear animal cruelty worthy, even, of criminal charges, to others, including state law enforcement, cases like these are not so black and white. Over the past decade or so, a debate over how animal cruelty should be investigated, who should enforce animal cruelty laws, and the extent of animal cruelty in areas like Addison County has been unfolding in Vermont.
A HIGH-PROFILE CASE
Animal cruelty, both to domestic pets and to livestock, does occur in Vermont as it does in every state. In a particularly high-profile case that occurred this past January, former WCAX news anchor George Wilson, 63, and his wife, Ann Gilbreth, 64, were charged with cruelty to animals after several horses were found living in a barn on their Shelburne farm underfed, hooves untrimmed, and sleeping on manure and the carcass of a dead animal. They face a possible four-figure fine and a short prison term, but perhaps most harsh was the public outrage toward such egregious neglect.
Indeed, while it can be all too easy to numb to hearing about ubiquitous drug-related violence and domestic abuse, harming helpless animals often seems to hit a nerve among many people, especially in a place with more livestock than people like Addison County. Furthermore, studies indicate that those who abuse or neglect animals are frequently violent to their spouses and children and are convicted of other crimes, as well.
The Vermont Humane Federation (VHF), a network of Vermont animal welfare organizations and humane societies, started tackling animal cruelty and its lack of adequate enforcement, which it regarded as a pressing issue in Vermont, in the 1990s. It worked with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and other animal welfare advocates to pass a felony animal cruelty statute in Vermont for the first time.
More recently, in 2007, the VHF looked more closely at the enforcement of that statute. It instituted a statewide Cruelty Response System (CRS) that designates a “lead agency” in each county to field all animal cruelty complaints in the area that come in by phone or online through the website www.reportanimalcruelty.com. The head of the lead agency then determines the next step, either deeming it unsubstantiated, contacting a local humane investigator (often the town’s animal control officer) to look into it further, or getting local or state law enforcement involved if exceptionally egregious.
“The Cruelty Response System was created to give people a process to follow when they saw something that concerned them. Prior to that it was unclear who to contact, whether it was a humane society or the police,” said Jessica Danyow who took over as executive director of Addison County Humane Society at the Homeward Bound Animal Welfare Center in June. She is the lead agent for the CRS in Addison County.
Animal Tracks, software that tracks animal cruelty complaints that come in through the CRS, has registered more than 2,000 complaints since it started collecting data in 2008 (many complaints that are made directly to law enforcement and not through the CRS are not included in these numbers). About 325 of these complaints, or 16 percent, were from Addison County, the second most of any county in the state (Chittenden is the first with 22 percent). On the one hand, most of these complaints prove unsubstantiated and even fewer see criminal charges — only one to three a year in Addison County.
“The majority of cases are people who just need a little help (and the humane agent) to say, ‘Yeah, you got him a dog house but it’s facing right into the wind and look at the floorboards of it: They are rotted out and there is ice and mud seeping out through there,’” said Danyow. “So you work with them (and) get (the dog house) up off the ground, turn it so that it’s not facing prevailing winds, make sure there is insulation into it.”
But one issue those involved in humane work are quick to point out is the difference between what the law constitutes as animal cruelty and what much of the animal-loving public thinks it is.
“Often what you will run into is that what the law requires is very much sub par to many (animal) loving people’s views of what animals should have,” said Danyow. “So you will get a lot of calls, and then the call will be something that, while not great, is not illegal.”
On the other end of the spectrum, it is impossible to know how often animal cruelty occurs unreported, especially without what Jackie Rose would deem adequate animal welfare education.
“Often, people do not recognize situations that are neglectful or unlawful,” Rose said, which means they won’t report it.
The likely high number of unreported animal cruelty cases has been an area of focus for the animal welfare advocates who created the CRS. They see a correlation between the number of reported cases and the quality of animal cruelty education and enforcement.
“I think (the statistics are) … more a reflection of how the complaints are handled,” Danyow said. “If a person lives in a town where they know no matter who they call nothing is going to be done they are not going to be very encouraged to call, nor are they going to encourage friends or neighbors to call.”
Rose and Danyow agree that Addison County’s high rate of animal cruelty complaints reflects how relatively well the CRS works here, rather than the number of abusive animal owners in the area.
Back in Leicester, the dogs freezing outside the house on Dorie Lane this past January have fully recovered (even Tyson, the thin-coated boxer) and have found new homes. That these dogs did not die in the cold and are now healthy and loved is a testament to how the CRS really can work to help animals, especially with the hard work of the lead agent at the humane society, Rose, and the animal control officer on the scene, Crosby.
But many areas around the state do not have the resources and people to make the CRS work yet. Furthermore, while the animals were saved in this situation, no charges were brought against the owners when they finally returned home. Should those owners have been penalized beyond losing their animals? Should they be allowed to go out and get more dogs, as they can now? How much time and resources are worth putting into a case like this in a county dealing with violence against other humans and drug epidemics?
VHF board member Joanne Bourbeau says Vermont faces an unusual challenge in its effort to protect animals because of limited resources.
“We have had to be a little more creative here in Vermont,” she said.
In Part 2, the Independent will look into the shortcomings and gray areas of the current system for enforcing animal cruelty laws.
Reporter Luke Whelan is a summer intern at the Independent.