Today in the U.S., you’re more likely to find a pet inside a home than a live-at-home father says Assistant Director for Animal Law Enforcement at the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region, Lindsey Vigna. People adore their animal companions, and most pet owners treat them like family members, tending to their every physical and emotional need. Despite this, Vigna says “in the state of Colorado they are considered property,” making them “the most vulnerable creatures in our lives.”
Accordingly, the 4th Judicial District Attorney’s office fields more calls from the public on animal cruelty cases than any other type, aside from high-profile murder trials, says District Attorney Michael Allen. “There’s a public interest,” he says, noting animals’ entire livelihood or well being is relying on the human caretaker.”
To address that, he’s in the process of creating an animal cruelty unit overseen by Assistant District Attorney Martha McKinney and composed of five to 10 prosecutors. Upcoming trainings will include partnering law enforcement agencies “so that we have good results on the investigation side of things,” says Allen. Cases will be assigned to the courts on a rotating, random basis the way all criminal cases are assigned.
Allen says this unit will be the first of its kind in Colorado, though he’s aware of others nationally, which he’s not directly modeling. “It’s indisputable that there’s a connection between people that are willing to commit crimes of violence against animals — they’re also willing to commit crimes of violence against people,” he says. “So this is a way to hopefully curtail further criminal involvement by addressing it earlier in the process… and getting those folks the treatment they need, so they don’t re-offend, but also protecting our furry friends and victims of domestic violence.”
Nuanced evaluations of defendants are a crucial part of addressing animal cruelty, says Philip Tedeschi, a clinical professor at the University of Denver and the executive director of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection, because the link that DA Allen refers to between overlap of animal and people abuse has been “mis-utilized and often talked about a bit inaccurately.”
Tedeschi utilizes a real-life analogy of two individuals accused of animal cruelty both for injuring baby rabbits. One individual clearly showed a “criminogenic focus,” harming with intent, while the other, who showed as “emerging schizoaffective,” naively was tossing them in the air, seemingly unaware of their fragility. They needed different interventions. The Institute’s ground-breaking FAME (Forensic Animal Maltreatment Evaluation) is a more sensitive evaluation tool than a typical (and sometimes inappropriate) anger-management assessment.
“We’ve gotten to the point where in these cases, we can explain what actually caused the animal to be abused,” says Tedeschi. “We don’t have that much mystery in it anymore. It’s not an exotic crime of sorts. We really can explain to the court what happened and what we should try to do about it.”
Assistant DA McKinney says her office has begun to explore collaboration with Tedeschi and the Institute, which has in the past provided assistance to the Humane Society’s animal law enforcement division regarding evaluations and assessments for defendants that are required by the animal cruelty statute.
Colorado’s animal cruelty statute reads quite broad, covering in a single sweep everything from mutilation to sexual acts with an animal to failing to provide shelter or proper sustenance. “Part of the issue with animal cruelty in the state of Colorado is the deficiencies in the statute,” Allen says. “Specifically as it relates to holding egregious cases to a high standard of accountability.”
Calling it “a drastic change from the policies that we had in place before creating this unit under the previous administration,” he seeks to provide “uniformity in training approaches to those cases, and consistent results that are evidence-based… We need to increase the consistency and make it a higher level investigation… The idea is that if we can develop specialties in the office, and not just with animal cruelty, but with anything, that’s a good thing. It creates expertise in subject matter areas.”
Tedeschi is hopeful for details on the new unit as it matures, but warns “if it’s modeled after a hard-on-crime, high-intensity policing response and is built off the emotionality that exists around animal cruelty, then I suspect that we’ll jut see more of the same.”
He says the largest failure with past response to animal abuse generally has been a lack of engagement around the critical issues that drive it: the “social-science-informed issues that inform welfare considerations for animals. They’re often the same ones that inform welfare issues for people.”
While greater specialization and a dedicated unit may sound like the right strategy for combating animal cruelty, another warning comes via longtime local private investigator Troy Zook, who works closely with many area defense attorneys.
“We’ve got some brilliant people in our District Attorney’s office and in the units created to prosecute certain types of crimes,” he says. “But these units created by law enforcement to handle specific crimes can lose objectiveness. The same people get involved in every single case, and they think they’ve got it all figured out. They have a system, they know how to take the case to court. They often use the same experts, case-in, case-out. It becomes an industry.”
Regarding specialization, Tedeschi points to the efficacy of drug courts and systems that bring in such resources as forensic panels and treatment interventions with the ultimate goal of being more prevention-minded. “Because really the best work that’s being done on reducing violence and reducing crime falls into this category of prevention science... it’s really where we need to take this field if we really want animals to have a better experience.”
DA Allen sounds like he’s roughly on-page with Tedeschi when he says, “If you’ve got somebody that’s just having a hard time even putting food on the table, let alone into the pet bowl, that’s one thing... If it’s somebody that’s torturing an animal, that’s a totally different thing, and that’s going to result in a different type of approach.”
A dedicated animal cruelty unit is one approach to protecting animals and people, but Tedeschi believes “we need more than just punitive strategies. … If we’re really interested in the broad sense of the word in ‘animal well-being’ we should be interested in these humane community principles around better governance and more highly educated personnel and leadership that establishes resources, and in really understanding what’s likely to create the most effective outcome.”