The initial actions by sheriffs, police officers, and humane law enforcement officers responding to reports of animal abuse/animal fighting or family violence can make the difference between a case that is prosecuted successfully and one that is not. The following checklists (which include elements that can be found in the preceding articles), summarize the essential steps for first responders that will help ensure that abusers are held accountable for their actions.
In an animal cruelty investigation, whether active abuse, animal fighting, neglect, or hoarding:
- Call Animal Control if animals have to be secured and removed and responding sheriffs/officers do not have that capability.
- Include a vet who can conduct the necessary forensic examinations and necropsies.
- Obtain warrants if needed; make sure the warrant covers all buildings; vehicles; and computers, smartphones, and similar devices, especially if animal fighting is involved.
- Preserve the crime scene.
- Collect evidence (e.g., urine or blood soaked materials; fighting-related paraphernalia such as gaffs or dogfighting equipment).
- Take pictures of each animal and the environment, and identify each animal so that the animal can be matched with the photo later.
- Document other aspects of the scene that can’t be photographed—sounds, odors, temperature.
- Document other possible violations, such as health or building codes.
For processing a crime scene involving hoarding, which can present dozens or even hundreds of animals in bad shape and horrid condition, be prepared with proper equipment. Animal abuse is often part of a cycle of violence within a home. Ascertain whether the situation also involves spousal, child, or elder abuse by asking questions and observing the environment and behavior.
A family violence investigation, where the victim may be a spouse, child, or elderly family member, can also reveal animal abuse:
- Observe and record whether or not there are animals in the home and their condition.
If children are present, ask them about their pets as a way to investigate the family situation and ascertain if animal abuse is also present. Ask!
- Do you have a pet?
- Where is he now? Do you think he is OK?
- Has anyone ever hurt your pet?
Collect statements at the scene from the victim and other witnesses, including any age-appropriate children who may be present or neighbors who may have heard the incident.
- Collect statements at the scene from the defendant.
- Observe and record the emotional demeanor of the victim and any children.
- Describe and photograph visible injuries to all parties, including pets.
- Document complaints of pain or observation of signs of internal injury of both human and animal victims.
- Take photographs of the scene.
- Preserve recordings of 911 calls.
- Obtain releases for medical records of the victim and treatment records for the victim’s pets.
Document history of prior acts of domestic violence, including threats or abuse directed toward the victim’s pets. Neighbors and family members also may be able to provide critical evidence of the history of an abuser’s treatment of the victim’s pet in order to defeat a claim that the injury to the pet was by mistake or an accident.