Article Written By: Jessica Milligan, Assistant District Attorney and Animal Cruelty Section Chief for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office and Sarah Dimas, HCDAO Intern and South Texas College of Law Class of 2019 Law Student
It’s an average May morning in Texas. The temperature is rising. A concerned citizen comes home after dropping her kids off at school and sees the same mixed-breed dog she has seen the last several days in her neighbor’s backyard. She knows the dog has lived with her neighbor for the last couple of years and was healthy when he first brought it home. However, over the last month, the dog’s coat has begun to disappear and mange has taken over. Each day, it seems the dog gets skinnier and skinnier, its skeleton now showing through its mange-ridden and dirty coat. As usual, the food bowls in the back yard are empty and turned over. There’s only a bucket of bug-infested, dirty rain water left in the yard for the animal to drink. The dog’s nails are overgrown and it doesn’t seem to walk around much anymore, either due to the pain in its paws or its pure lack of energy from malnutrition. The dog’s whimpering now and clearly asking for help. What should the concerned citizen do? Should she jump the fence and take the animal to her veterinarian? Should she call a local rescue group for help? Or should she call 911?
This is a common question that many animal lovers and concerned citizens face across Texas. It’s understandable really, because in our hearts, all animal lovers want to jump in and save the day. We want to rescue dogs like this and nurse them back to health. But, of course, we also want to see the animal owners held accountable for all the suffering animals experience as a result of the neglect. So how can we save animals in our community and still hold cruelty offenders accountable? This article is intended as a guide to accomplish both: Helping law enforcement help animals.
To get to the heart of the problem, many animal cruelty investigations are ruined before they even start. Why? Because concerned citizens or rescue groups sometimes take the law into their own hands. These folks enter a property and remove an animal they believe to be suffering and immediately attempt to nurse it back to health. While this is often done with good intention, it’s still theft and it’s still illegal.
Animals are considered property in the state of Texas. And just like any other type of property, you can’t take an animal from someone’s property without permission. If a witness steals an animal, good intentions or not, it ruins any possibility of filing animal cruelty charges against the owner in the future. So what’s the better practice? It’s simple, follow the four R’s: Record, Report, Rely, and Rescue (but never Remove).
Record: Law enforcement relies on the public to witness crimes within the community and report the details of those crimes to law enforcement. However, animal crimes don’t typically occur within one moment (unless it’s an incident of intentional abuse such as killing a dog). Most animal crimes involve neglect or abandonment, which might not be evident for a couple of days or even weeks, as an animal begins to deteriorate and show signs of the abuse externally. So, it is incredibly valuable for witnesses within the community to document signs of abuse as they observe them and the signs become more evident. Recording these details in a log is quite helpful because that log will later give law enforcement accurate dates of the offense and a good timeline for how long the neglect has been occurring. Photographs and videos are also incredibly helpful because they capture the severity of the neglect and how the owner should have noticed the onset of the animal’s conditions just as the witnesses have.
Report: Once a witness has made observations sufficient enough to feel an animal is being neglected and has preserved this evidence in some form of recording, it is essential that the witness report the situation to law enforcement. Some communities in Texas have a designated phone number that allows concerned citizens to report animal abuse. In Harris County, we have the Harris County Animal Cruelty Task Force and we ask that all citizens either call the Task Force phone number at 832-927-PAWS, or report the situation via the Task Force website at www.927PAWS.org. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, they ask those who witness animal abuse to report it to the Fort Worth Animal Care and Control, unless the report deals with unlawful animal fighting, in which case witnesses are asked to immediately report animal fighting to the Fort Worth Police Department. Dallas County has also implemented an Animal Cruelty Unit that provides citizens within its jurisdiction with a designated animal line to report animal abuse. El Paso is currently creating an animal cruelty task force. For those counties without a task force or designated animal line, citizens can report animal crimes to non-profit groups such as the SPCA of Texas, which has implemented an Animal Cruelty Investigations Unit and serves animals in North Texas counties, via the SPCA of Texas’ website at www.spca.org.
While we recognize that not all areas across Texas have an animal-specific task force or designated line to report animal abuse, most law enforcement agencies in jurisdictions without a designated animal line are more than willing and able to investigate animal crimes. So, 911 should be utilized to report animal abuse in those areas. When reporting, the pictures, videos, logs, and timelines kept by the witness should be provided to law enforcement. Additionally, the witness should always provide their full contact information. Reporting anonymously can be detrimental to a criminal investigation because law enforcement frequently has follow-up questions when they are collecting evidence, and the witness may be needed by prosecutors to testify in court at a future date.
Rely: Once a report is made, law enforcement will respond. Witnesses and reportees MUST rely on that fact and be patient during this process. This can be difficult because there is a process that requires several steps and these steps often take time. In order for readers to have a good understanding of why the process is necessary and should be relied upon by witnesses and reportees, we will explain the process in-depth.
First, law enforcement responds to the scene. When they arrive, an overall assessment of the animal’s condition and environment is conducted. This helps law enforcement determine whether there is a violation of the law and whether it’s necessary to remove the animal from the property. If the officer feels there is probable cause to believe the animal is being cruelly treated under Texas law, a civil seizure warrant will be obtained from a judge and the animal will be removed legally and with the assistance of animal control. This process requires a law enforcement officer and cannot be achieved by a normal citizen. This is also the LEGAL process required to remove the animal from the scene, so it is critical for rescue groups to abstain from removing the animal themselves! The animal is then taken to a shelter or veterinarian for medical evaluation and treatment. In Harris County, one of the partnering organizations within the Task Force conducts the medical evaluations, treatment and sheltering of the animal. A HUGE amount of evidence is collected from this process because the medical partners conduct specific animal cruelty evaluations, which are drastically different from those of an ordinary veterinary office. In the same way, non-profit organizations such as the SPCA of Texas, partner with law enforcement to help evaluate, administer treatment and shelter animals that are victims of abuse.
Simultaneously, additional evidence is being collected by law enforcement at the crime scene, such as identifying the owner of the animal or additional suspects, taking witness statements, taking additional photographs, etc.
Next, a civil seizure hearing is conducted within ten days of removing the animal. The purpose of this hearing is to determine whether the owner gets the animal back or his/her ownership rights are terminated. If the owner’s rights are terminated, ownership of the animal is given to the sheltering organization involved in the current animal’s care. That organization is then allowed to foster or adopt the animal into a forever home.
At this time, law enforcement considers whether there is sufficient evidence to believe a crime has been committed under Texas law and whether, in the interests of justice for all those involved, it would be the right thing to do to pursue criminal charges. If officers believe that removing the animal from the abusive environment has sufficiently resolved the situation, the matter will be closed. However, if law enforcement feels the evidence and severity of the facts support a criminal charge, officers will bring the case to the District Attorney’s Office for criminal prosecution.
In situations where we know an animal was harmed but we do not know the identity of the abuser, jurisdictions such as Harris County will utilize Crime Stoppers to bring the case to the public’s attention and collect tips to identify the offender. Once a suspect is identified, the case will be presented to the District Attorney’s Office for prosecution.
So, as you can see, there are many steps in the process of investigating animal cruelty that are more complex than a citizen removing an animal from a property. While the process might take a bit longer, it also ensures better results, preserves the integrity of evidence and ensures the animal is removed according to the law. For these reasons, reportees need to rely on the process rather than taking the law into their own hands.
Rescue (but never Remove): Even though citizens should not remove an animal on their own, it does not mean they can’t ultimately rescue it. Once the sheltering organization has ownership rights of the animal via the civil seizure disposition, the animal is usually made available for fostering and adoption! So, if interested, the reportee can always track the investigation and make a request to adopt the animal after the civil seizure process is complete. This not only provides a nurturing home for the animal (which is the ultimate goal), but also helps the shelter stretch its resources and make space for additional animals in need of housing and medical assistance.
Relationships: While “Relationships” is not one of the four R’s, maybe it should be, because relationships in your local “animal world” are very important to the ultimate success of an animal cruelty investigation and the future of the animals involved. There are so many postings on social media about how law enforcement, prosecutors and government don’t care about animals and don’t do anything to hold animal cruelty offenders accountable. But that simply isn’t true. For example, Harris County didn’t have a formalized task force until February, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t responding to animal crimes prior to its creation. We were. Even before the Task Force’s initiation, we had relationships that allowed us to work together to investigate, shelter, treat, and ultimately prosecute animal crimes. We just didn’t have a streamlined phone number, website or process. The Task Force simply formalized the process and commitments each partner was willing and able to contribute. And with its creation, we built stronger relationships with the public, who is now utilizing the system to make it a success. But if you don’t have a task force established in your jurisdiction, relationships are still the key! Rather than complain about the resources (or lack thereof) being utilized to combat animal crimes in your area, use that energy to build relationships with your local law enforcement, animal control agencies, prosecutors, and sheltering facilities. Relationships build credibility. Credibility brings attention to your concerns and complaints regarding animal situations. Attention results in action. And the action will ultimately bring better evidence and better prosecutions on behalf of animal victims. Those relationships will also begin to create an informal task force, which will eventually lead to a formalized task force as resources allow and statistics justify. Never underestimate the power of relationships. The “animal world” is small, but it is also mighty. If people work together within the animal world, rather than against each other, more can be accomplished for the animals.
In conclusion, while animal lovers have the desire to rescue animals, we have to remember the proper way to do so. As animal lovers, it is instinctual to immediately jump to their aid, sometimes to the detriment of animal cruelty investigations. As such, citizens should follow the four R’s: Record, Report, Rely, and Rescue (but never Remove), while building relationships with law enforcement, animal advocates, veterinarians and prosecutors to build an effective animal cruelty task force in your community.