“Just because we’re the big city of Houston doesn’t mean you can’t do this as well in your smaller town,” Assistant District Attorney Jessica Milligan, chief of the DA’s animal cruelty section, told participants at the recent Texas Unites for Animals conference. “All you need are the communications and the connections. Reaching out to other agencies, learning what resources they have, and telling them what you have makes things happen,” she said. “A task force is like a ‘field of dreams.’ If you build it, they will come.”
The multi-agency Harris County Animal Cruelty Taskforce – which pioneered the concept of a streamlined centralized hotline for reporting animal abuse in the sprawling metropolitan areas around Houston, Texas (See the March 2018 LINK-Letter) that has resulted in a 200% increase in animal cruelty arrests (See the April 2019 LINK-Letter) is offering tips to other communities on how to launch their own interdisciplinary programs.
Milligan offered suggestions based on how they launched their program in the nation’s 4th-largest city:
- Find a key person in the district attorney’s office who cares enough, and who has the passion and connections to make things happen.
- Start small with a core group of invited partner agencies, and don’t give up if some agencies don’t want to participate initially. “People are afraid of something new until they see that it’s happening,” she said. “Start small and watch it grow.”
- Encourage reluctant for- and non-profit partners that they stand to gain legitimacy, increased public presence, and additional marketing and funding opportunities by affiliating with a regional taskforce. Government agencies can benefit from additional funding, legislative and political support, and the rewards of working collaboratively.
- Create a central website and phone number where cruelty cases can be reported spanning multiple jurisdictions; the public’s lack of awareness of who to call leads to many cases “falling through the cracks.” Efficiency is the key to make reporting as user-friendly as possible for witnesses and to connect multiple law enforcement agencies. Document the number and disposition of calls for reporting purposes.
- Get letters of commitment from all partner agencies, including private veterinarians where cases may be referred. Plan in advance what will be done with horses, livestock, fighting animals and exotic animals seized in cruelty cases. Local stables and livestock handling facilities have specialized equipment and transportation capabilities that will be necessary; these agencies gain community credibility by being a part of a task force.
- Plan in advance what will be done with horses, livestock, fighting animals and exotic animals seized in cruelty cases. Local stables and livestock handling facilities have specialized equipment and transportation capabilities that will be necessary; these agencies gain community credibility by being a part of a task force.
- Market the taskforce: publicize cases through press conferences and social media; create a logo and a secure website; get donated billboards; speak to public groups; interface with Crime Stoppers.
- Emphasize to partners that once the initial organization is done, the efficiency gained through collaboration requires less of a time and financial commitment than if each agency were doing these cases independently. “Sharing resources saves everybody money,” she said.
- Funding for medical needs, equipment, and other expenses can be obtained through donations or starting a separate 501c3 nonprofit, such as the “Paw & Order” Friends of the Harris County Animal Cruelty Taskforce. Funders may be more likely to support a collaborative partnership than an individual agency.
- Engage legitimate, screened and trained rescue groups as “ambassadors” to inform the community about what and how to report animal abuse and the evidence and documentation that courts will need.
- Create a Council of Resources, including domestic violence agencies, law schools and others, who can be called upon when needs arise.
- Be flexible as the taskforce evolves and be prepared to continually assess its evolution.