Recognizing Animal Cruelty and Knowing What to Do About It

Animal neglect and cruelty don’t seem to be issues that are going away anytime soon, especially in Northern Lower Michigan. Because many people in the community are uncertain about how to deal with this issue and how it is investigated, I recently attended day-long event that was offered through the MAACO (Michigan Association of Animal Control Officers) annual conference. They invited MPAW (Michigan Partnership for Animal Welfare) to participate in the conference for a set of seminars in Thompsonville on May 8th.

Photo credit: Michigan Humane Society (photo of Julie)

Photo credit: Michigan Humane Society (photo of Julie)

I wanted to find out more information for my readers about what they can do when they suspect animal cruelty, neglect or dog fighting. Most of this information was learned from the seminar they offered on this topic, which was my main reason for attending. Other information was gained through other sources and my reporting about this topic over the years.

It was explained at the MPAW seminar that there are three steps to investigating cruelty: 

1. Is it cruelty? (as defined under Michigan State law)

2. Animals as evidence

3. Connecting with law enforcement

Animal cruelty in Michigan covers three main areas: neglect (MCL 750.50a), abuse (MCL 750.50b) and fighting (MCL 750.29). In looking at cruelty, you have to look at the law and not how you personally would like a pet to be kept. While your dog may live inside and sleep in a bed after eating organic snacks, it doesn’t mean that someone who has their dog chained up outside all day is breaking the law. While it’s not what you would define as “adequate” treatment of a dog, it is nevertheless not against the law unless the owner is breaking specific requirements of animal care under the state law. Below you will find some definitions used in the Michigan law to understand what is required by the state of Michigan.

When understanding neglect, it must be established WHO is the one responsible for the pet. In order to find out who the owner, possessor or person in custody of the animal is, one can look to pet licenses, vet records, neighbors and family, adoption contracts and other documents which show ownership or custody. These are areas that your local investigator will look into so they know who they need to talk to about the animal.

Neglect under Michigan law is failure to provide an animal with adequate care. Adequate care means “the provision of sufficient food, water, shelter, sanitary conditions, exercise and veterinary medical attention in order to maintain an animal in a state of good health.” A state of good health means “freedom from disease and illness, and in a condition of proper body weight and temperature for the age and species of the animal, unless the animal is undergoing appropriate treatment. Adequate shelter is adequate protection from the elements and weather conditions suitable for the age, species and physical condition of the animal so as to maintain the animal in a state of good health.”

Shelter for a horse, it was learned (they are considered livestock) actually includes the structures or natural features such as trees or topography. Shelter for a dog includes a dog house which is “enclosed with a roof and is of appropriate dimensions for the breed and size of the dog. It shall have dry bedding when the outdoor temperature is or predicted to drop below freezing. Shelter can also be a garage, barn or shed that is sufficiently insulated and ventilated to protect the dog from exposure to extreme temperature, or if not sufficiently insulated and ventilated, contains a doghouse that meets the standards of state law and is accessible to the dog.” Details can make all the difference between life or death for a dog when they are outside – do they have straw, is their doghouse insulated, is there a flap on the door, is the door facing away from the wind?

Another definition discussed is tethering. Tethering a dog means “the restraint and confinement of a dog by use of a chain, rope or similar device.” Michigan law states that a dog can not be tethered unless the tether is at least three times the length of the dog as measured from the tip of its nose to the base of its tail and is attached to a harness or non-choke collar designed for tethering (NOT a chain wrapped around a dog’s neck).

Pain and suffering was described as “negligently allowing any animal, including one who is aged, diseased, maimed, hopelessly sick, disabled or nonambulatory to suffer unnecessary neglect, torture or pain.”

Photo Credit: Michigan Humane Society

Photo Credit: Michigan Humane Society

Sanitary conditions were explained as “space free from health hazards including excessive animal waste, overcrowding of animals, or other conditions that endanger the animal’s health. This definition does not include any condition resulting from a customary and reasonable practice pursuant to farming or animal husbandry.” Poor sanitation (and lack of grooming) can lead to medical problems. Weather can also play a contributing role in bad sanitary conditions. Overcrowding can cause sanitary conditions to decline and is almost always seen in hoarding cases.

Abandonment was also discussed, although Michigan law is very weak in this area. The law states that it’s prohibited to “Abandon an animal or cause an animal to be abandoned, in any place, without making provisions for the animal’s adequate care, unless premises are vacated for the protection of human life or the prevention of injury to a human. An animal that is lost by an owner or custodian while traveling, walking, hiking, or hunting is not abandoned under this section when the owner or custodian has made a reasonable effort to locate the animal.”

If neglect is being looked at, sometimes education is all that is needed for an owner who does not understand how to properly care for their outside animal. What looks like a bad situation to someone passing by might not always be a neglect situation. Do not assume that you know what is happening as their condition could be a result of something like a medical condition. More information is needed to make an accurate assessment and that is where the law enforcement comes in which will be discussed later in this article.

Abuse and fighting was also discussed at the seminar and level of intention which includes the words “knowingly, recklessly and without just cause” as it relates to hurting an animal. This is the killing, torturing, mutilating, maiming, disfiguring and poisoning of an animal. It includes, but is not limited to: beating, stabbing, shooting, burning, hanging, torturing, intentional deprivation, punishment, animal fighting and poisoning.

Animal fighting is an area of animal cruelty that involves a lot of time and resources. Dogs and roosters are the most commonly fought animals and fighters are usually involved in other crimes as well. Fights result in severe injury or the death of the dogs. It is not just an urban problem and you should call your local law enforcement or the Michigan Humane Society if you suspect animal fighting.

Because of the laws of cruelty and neglect, animals become evidence. Animal control officers are taught to clearly identify the animal and maintain good records and have photos. Photos from citizens can also be helpful. Documentation of the abuse needs to occur. There has to be an injury and there needs to be a credible witness or a confession. The injury has to match what people say happened. A vet will be used to verify the injury matches the crime. These are all areas that local law enforcement needs to keep up with so that a case can be brought against the owner if needed.

Connecting with law enforcement is the last part of the equation that was discussed at this seminar and it involves every one of YOU.

It helps tremendously to know who the players are in your community who are in charge of responding to animal cruelty and neglect. These people can be Animal Control Officers, the Sheriff’s Department, local Police or possibly state or national humane investigators for bigger cases. It is a good idea to familiarize yourself with state law involving animals as well as your own county, city or township laws that have been legislated.

When reporting something, is important to relay the following information: accurate location of the animal, condition and description of the animal(s), description of living conditions (shelter, food, water, sanitation) and the people who saw it happen.

Neglect is a misdemeanor level cruelty. This may require several visits to resolve and/or build a case. Keep in mind that neglect may have gone on for a long time and it might have a different level of urgency when Animal Control Officers need to prioritize calls.

Abuse is a felony level cruelty. Felony cases have higher standards for prosecution. If you suspect abuse, quickly contact law enforcement. Be prepared to provide details (when, where, who, what, how) and use your senses – what did you see, hear, smell, feel?

A few notes of caution – don’t editorialize, please give just the facts and don’t trespass on property to get information. Let law enforcement do their job – BUT FOLLOW UP. Keep your emotions in check but be in it for the long haul. If you are a rescue group or animal shelter, advise law enforcement about what services your group can provide: sheltering, vaccinations, food, foster care and medical attention.

Documenting cruelty and neglect concerning horses is a more difficult path to go down. A lot of law enforcement personnel are just not adequately educated in what to look for and things to document and some have never even heard of horse body condition scoring systems that are numerical and used as an objective method of scoring a horse’s body condition in horse cruelty cases. Also as stated earlier, horses are livestock so trees and topography are considered shelter. They don’t need to be sheltered by a barn, although if you see one in very bad condition that could be a danger to the horses, that could be an issue to look into.

Because of a lack of knowledge about how to investigate horse abuse, recent horse investigation workshops have been offered in Michigan sponsored in part by MHS. These are critical to help your community. Has your county’s law enforcement personnel participated in one of these horse workshops? If not, please have them contact Linda Reider about the next scheduled workshop. Linda is the Director of Statewide Initiatives for the Michigan Humane Society and her number is 248-283-5697.

So far the horse investigation workshops have been strictly for Animal Control Officers and law enforcement but there is one open to the public at the MPAW conference on Friday, June 7th in Manistee. Click here for the brochure: MPAW-June-2013-spread. Hopefully there will be more of these horse educational workshops to come.

When reporting any kind of animal abuse and neglect, the same rules apply. Report it to the authorities, giving them as much information as possible. Keep a journal of what you have witnessed so you have dates and specific information. And once again, FOLLOW UP. Make sure you talk to the right person. Put it in writing. Don’t just email a complaint. In some communities, the Animal Control handles these issues but sometimes it goes to the Sheriff’s Department.

Work with your local ACOs and law enforcement to solve the problem. Don’t take on these issues yourself. Make sure you follow up and if nothing is being done, that is the time to consider making it a public issue with the local media or going to County Commissioners meetings. Networking and putting a public spotlight on an issue often leads to quicker resolutions. If an animal abuser is put on trial, showing up in court makes it apparent to the prosecuting attorney and the judge that animal abuse should be taken seriously – especially if the case has received a lot of media attention and there is a full court room. Do not be afraid to voice your (respectful) opinions to your prosecutor about an ongoing animal cruelty case so he/she knows there is public interest and is not something that can be easily swept under the rug.

The animals don’t have a voice. You are their voice to help keep them safe.

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