Webinar presenter Jessica Rock answered a number of your questions after her presentation, "Animal Cruelty and the Link to Collateral Crimes." Here are some of her responses.
Audience Question: While it seems like attitudes might be changing, do you find that there are still pockets of the justice profession population who aren't quite making the connection between animal abuse and other crimes? And if so, are there any particular trends you can share?
Jessica Rock: In my experience, I still see it run the gamut. Since I started prosecuting these cases in 2004, we have definitely come a long way. We now do trainings for judges and plenty of them recognize the significance and importance of sentences in these types of cases.
In terms of not re-entering the criminal justice system, there are different types of counseling that can be ordered to focus on the issues. We are definitely seeing a huge improvement from where we've been. In the South, we have a significant problem, in general, with how we treat our animals. I think we still have a long way to go. We still have counties in Georgia that don't have animal ordinances, animal shelters or even animal control officers. The law enforcement in some of those jurisdictions aren't even aware of the animal cruelty statute and I don't fault them for it — they're not trained on it.
I will always circle back to training. We need more training on these issues. We need more training on not just animal abuse investigations and prosecutions but more training on what to look for at a crime scene and how to handle it and how to uncover other abuse that might be going on as well.
Audience Question: Are you seeing any particular growth areas and certain types of animal abuse crimes? For example, neglect because their older owners lack resources or neglect because they're in an area where they're experiencing economic hardship? Are you seeing any growth in these areas?
Jessica Rock: Historically and even presently, when we talk about socio-economic status and folks who might have fewer resources, we see more issues of neglect in those areas, or maybe somebody who just isn't informed of the proper way to take care of animals. But it can be a financial issue as well. Sometimes, somebody wants an animal but they aren't necessarily up to speed on how to care for that animal and may not be taking the animal to a vet, and they may be trying to take care of medical issues themselves. We also see a lack of shelter problem and we see problems a lot of times with animals being tethered or used as guard dogs. I wouldn't necessarily say I see a growth of it, I just think different issues exist in different areas for different reasons.
We have a huge dog fighting and puppy mill problem here in Georgia — because we have so many rural areas. There are so many areas outside of metro Atlanta where somebody can have hundreds of puppy mill puppies in a location and they can bark all day and night and we're not going to hear about it. No one will hear it. Certain issues definitely are more prevalent in certain areas for certain reasons.
Audience Question: How does the investigative process change when it's a crime involving animals? Or does it change when it involves animals?
Jessica Rock: Part of why we have problems when it comes to investigating animal cases is because we try to view them differently, or we think they should be viewed differently than other cases. On the one hand, we most certainly need to be treating them differently when we have live evidence. We need to be mindful that we have a living, breathing animal that needs to be cared for and we don't want that animal to go cage-crazy. In that respect, we do need to be treating these cases differently.
However, when it comes to investigating and prosecuting these cases we don't need to handle these cases any differently than any other crime. For example, if we have a situation where a child is mauled to death by a dog we need to be treating that case as if it is a homicide. Crime scene needs to be called out. Bloody clothes of that child need to be tested for evidence, etc.
Certainly, we need be treating evidence that we have in these types of cases and investigating these types of cases just as we would any other crime. Obviously, there are certain things that we need to know as law enforcement officers. If you are asking the judge for a search warrant on a hoarding or puppy mill case, we want to make sure that we're including animals that are above ground and below ground. There's certain information that I think is key. Again, it always goes back to training. These folks need to understand the importance of knowing how to investigate these cases and information that need to be in their search warrant and ways that the language is worded in the statute to help them prosecute the cases effectively.
Audience Question: How does social media play a role in how cases are investigated or brought forward?
Jessica Rock: We see a lot of people on social media talking about cases, or problems they may be having in their community. For example, dogs on chains that aren’t getting the attention of law enforcement or animal control. Most of the time, we see social media campaigns, it is about tethering or some neglect issues or something like that. Often, we don't see it with the more severe cases.
Sometimes I see social media being helpful in this regard, but unfortunately, I do often see it as a disservice to what may be going on. It may be that that jurisdiction is well aware of what's going on and well aware of the issues and they're investigating it and are working on it. What happens is a lot of times, when somebody goes to a social media campaign rather than just letting law enforcement or animal control handle it, law enforcement spends so much of their time dealing with the social media campaign and they are able to focus on investigating the crime. I just think we need to be mindful when we are putting things out there on social media. What I have found most often is when I have followed up on social media claims with my law enforcement agencies, they are often very much aware of the situation and are investigating it. We need to respect our law enforcement decisions and where they are in that investigation and the process. We have to give them time to investigate the cases.
Audience Question: As a probation officer, I have noticed a few defendants who would get puppies and then a few months later, they're gone. The defendant usually says the puppies die of parvo then a month or two later, they have new puppies. Is this a good example of something to look for in report in terms of animal cruelty investigations?
Jessica Rock: Definitely, especially when it's happening over and over again. Obviously, puppies do get parvo, a serious and deadly disease that does affect young animals. You could also ask for vet records. The person who said that the dog got parvo should have some proof of that other than just saying the dog has parvo. I know probation depends on what state you live in and how much you can follow up on that type of information. But certainly, I would think that it's an issue or a red flag if that person is already under sentence for some type of link related crime, especially if it was domestic violence, child abuse, or elder abuse. I would definitely be paying attention and asking a lot of questions to try to be sure that that information is truthful.
Audience Question: Do you have any tips for getting this kind of information into the courts? The courtroom staff, especially judges. We have tried unsuccessfully to get this type of training to judges in our state, so any advice that you have will be really appreciated.
Jessica Rock: It's difficult to get on judge's calendars. Persistence is kind of key. Often, where I live, judges have one yearly conference and they all get together and have a number of sessions where they get their CE credits for the year. First and foremost, if you can get on that type of agenda, that is key because then we're hitting every state court judge, magistrate court judge, or superior court judge in your state. Even if you can't there's no harm in doing the grassroots type method to this. Going to a particular jurisdiction and asking to meet with that chief judge. I would say magistrate judges and municipal court judges hear a lot of these case. Your state court judges hear misdemeanor cases. I know we call it different names in different states, but even if it's just a matter of taking them out to lunch and talking to them about the presentation you heard today, that's a way to start. However, you can best get that conversation started is going to be helpful in some sort of fashion.
Audience Question: Do you think that urban conflict around drugs could have a connection with domestic violence specifically with multi-species families?
Jessica Rock: I saw a huge connection back when I was prosecuting cases, of all of these types of crimes that we talked about. When you have drugs, you usually have weapons. When you have weapons, there's a chance there are drugs. When you have gambling involved, there's a chance that there are drugs there, there's money there. I see a huge connection between all of these case for different reasons at different times.
Click here to watch a recording of "Animal Cruelty and the Link to Collateral Crimes."