How to adapt the Neighborhood Watch concept to combat animal cruelty and neglect
Life is as dear to a mute creature as it is to man. Just as one wants happiness and fears pain, just as one wants to live and not die, so do other creatures.
--His Holiness The Dalai Lama
Port Richmond is a vibrant town steeped in culture and history. Ethnic eateries dot city streets, tempting visitors to this centuries-old Philadelphia suburb, which also is home to a Lithuanian music hall, a theater company, and a Polish-American string band. Sadly, unbeknownst to many, Port Richmond was also, until recently, home to a prison of sorts. Passersby had noticed the stench wafting from the Monmouth Street rowhouse, but it was a neighbor who finally called animal control after spotting a hairless animal encrusted in feces escape from the home. On September 30, law enforcement officers and agents from the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals raided the residence, where they found nearly two dozen cats and dogs living among piles of trash and excrement, without access to running water. Charges are now pending against the homeowner, a 65-year-old woman with a prior animal cruelty conviction.
Hoarding cases stand out in the media spotlight, yet they represent only a fraction of crimes committed against animals each year in the United States. Last year, Pet-Abuse.com, a national animal protection organization, tracked 1,849 cases of cruelty, ranging from neglect and abandonment to game fighting to drowning and other forms of torture. Disturbingly, because most incidents go unreported, this figure represents but a small fraction of the thousands of animals that suffer and die needlessly each year.
All animals, from the family hound to the soaring hawk, rely on humans to advocate for their welfare. In fact, most cases of animal abuse and neglect are discovered when a concerned neighbor sees, hears, or smells something suspicious and takes the initiative by contacting law enforcement or animal control. Thanks to its grassroots structure, Neighborhood Watch is uniquely positioned to help law enforcement prevent and punish acts of animal cruelty. Accordingly, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) are appealing to neighborhood crime prevention groups to incorporate Pet Watch programs into their agendas.
Why Neighborhood Watch for Pets?
Besides being inhumane, animal abuse is a crime. All 50 states have anti-cruelty laws, 46 of which make certain types of abuse a felony. Punishments range from six months to 10 years of jail time plus fines. Animal abuse also often goes hand-in-hand with other crimes Neighborhood Watch seeks to prevent. For example, a 1997 survey of 50 shelters found that 85 percent of battered women entering the facilities reported incidents of pet abuse in their families. Crimes such as dogfighting and cockfighting are frequently gang related and linked to drug use, weapons violations, and illegal gambling. By learning to recognize the signs of animal cruelty and report infractions, crime prevention organizations help reduce neighborhood crime while improving the health and welfare of both human and animal residents.
What Kinds of Crimes Exist?
Animal abusers know no bounds. Pet-Abuse.org maintains a cruelty database, which tracks cases of beating and kicking, burning, choking, drowning, poisoning, mutilation, shooting, and stabbing; neglect and abandonment; forced fighting; unlawful hunting; theft; and unethical breeding (e.g., "puppy mills"). Discussed below are some of the most prevalent types of animal cruelty that Neighborhood Watch groups may encounter.
Hoarding: Not Just Little Old Ladies
According to Dr. Gary Patronek of the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, an estimated 700 to 2,000 incidents--involving up to a quarter-million animals--occur in America each year. Hoarding is a scientifically recognized obsessive-compulsive personality disorder that can affect anyone, young or old, male or female, not just the stereotypical "crazy cat lady." According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), hoarding is detrimental to the welfare of the entire neighborhood: "In addition to the horrific animal cruelty involved, hoarding creates such highly unsanitary conditions that the properties of hoarders, contaminated with fecal matter and urine, are often condemned."
A hoarder is defined as someone who keeps an abnormally large number of animals but fails to provide minimal nutrition, veterinary care, shelter, or sanitation. Many hoarders flout local animal ordinances, mistakenly believing they are doing the community good by saving strays from euthanasia. Red flags that could indicate a hoarding situation include an occupied dwelling that is deteriorated (e.g., holes in wall, roof, or floor; extreme clutter), reeks of ammonia, or shows signs of flea and vermin infestation, especially if emaciated, lethargic, or feral animals are sighted nearby.
The ASCPA recommends contacting local law enforcement, animal welfare groups, and, if necessary, a veterinarian, when hoarding is suspected. Social service groups also may get involved if a hoarder exhibits signs of mental or physical illness. Neighborhood Watch members can help authorities by reassuring hoarders that confiscated animals will be cared for properly and by watching out for repeat behavior. Because recidivism rates for hoarders are high, members may also encourage offenders to spay and neuter future pets.
A well-cared-for pet can be a pleasure to own.
Homes occupied by hoarders often pose health risks to both people and animals.
All Alone: Neglect and Abandonment
Like hoarding, neglect occurs when an owner fails to provide for an animal's basic needs. In some cases, neglect stems from ignorance or financial hardship. Pets die each year after being left in unventilated vehicles simply because owners are unaware of how quickly the sweltering heat can kill an animal, for example. Likewise, owners' inability to pay for veterinary care puts animals at risk for parasitic infections and deadly diseases such as rabies.
Instructional programs can teach well-intentioned owners about proper pet nutrition, and volunteers can help ease the physical and financial burdens of pet ownership. However, good interventions are futile when an owner loses interest in an animal. Besides sustaining psychological damage, a chained and forgotten dog may suffer from starvation or freeze to death from exposure to the elements. It may also sustain deep lacerations when its outgrown collar digs into the animal's neck. A docile pet may become aggressive toward humans and other animals.
Neglect and abandonment affect livestock as well as companion animals. In September 2008, ranchers in Lockwood Valley, California, called the Ventura County Sheriff's Department after observing under-fed horses in a local pasture and discovering dead carcasses being dumped in a nearby forest. An ensuing joint raid by the sheriff's office, animal control, the Humane Society, and the district attorney's office revealed dismal conditions: more than 100 horses with serious health issues resulting from starvation and dehydration. The animals were removed, have since undergone rehabilitation, and some, like "Diva" (see photo) are up for adoption.
Vigilant neighbors were key to successful resolution of the Lockwood Valley case. "Everyone in the community pulled together, and local farmers gave deputies important tips that allowed us to obtain a search warrant," explained Captain Tim Hagel. "Rural neighbors are the best watch group to secure the well-being of farm animals. Not only are they experts in care and treatment of livestock, they are out and about in the community and they understand the ‘norm' from simple observations such as animal weight and pasture conditions."
The Humane Society urges witnesses to report animal neglect and abandonment to the local animal shelter or animal control agency immediately. Neighborhood Watch members can help law enforcement bring absent owners to justice by thoroughly documenting suspected crimes against animals, just as they would crimes against fellow humans.
- Fighting for Their Lives
On September 3, Bernalillo County, New Mexico, deputies and animal control officials broke up a dog fight in progress and captured more than a dozen suspects after residents called to report horrible growling and yelping sounds emanating from a neighbor's backyard. "This area is kind of rural, and we had never caught a dogfight in progress," said Detective Amy Dudewicz, "The fact that so many people called made it warrant a large response from us, allowing us to catch the perpetrators."
Although Title 18, Section 48, of the U.S. code makes dogfighting a federal crime, the brutal "sport" has surged in popularity with the rise in gang membership. Signs of dogfighting include fighting breed dogs (e.g., pit bulls) chained up within a few feet of each other (to promote aggression); treadmills or weights (to exercise the animals); large numbers of kennels (to transport dogs to fight locations); and splattered blood or fur remnants.
Like dogfighting, cockfighting has become popular in the U.S. and is often associated with a bigger criminal enterprise. In Pierce County, Washington, deputies and officers recently busted a cockfighting operation, seizing 50 roosters, and discovering illegal gambling, stolen vehicles and weapons, a marijuana operation, and a methamphetamine lab. Cockfighting is difficult to control, especially in immigrant communities whose residents come from countries where this activity is legal and culturally accepted.
The ASPCA tells residents who suspect animal fighting in their neighborhood to provide law enforcement or animal control officers with the date and time the event occurred, the address or location, and their reasons for suspicion. HSUS further recommends forming local or state task forces composed of law enforcement, prosecutors, animal welfare groups, veterinarians, public health officials, housing authorities, and crime prevention organizations such as Neighborhood Watch to address methods of curbing this problem.
The Crime Connection
Psychologists acknowledge a connection between human-on-human abuse and animal cruelty. An abuser may harm animals in order to isolate or control a partner, as evidenced by a Chicago Police Department Domestic Violence Program survey, which found that 30 percent of animal abuse arrestees had records of domestic violence. Other times, a perpetrator may harm a pet in retaliation for an owner's perceived wrongdoing. One such case involved 20-year-old landscaper Enrique Barreno, who was convicted of burglary and extreme animal cruelty in 2008 and sentenced to 28 months in prison by a Las Cruces, New Mexico, court. Two days after being fired, Barreno broke into the home of his former employer and hanged "Arthur," the family dog, with an electrical cord after the animal allegedly attacked him.
Cruel tendencies often begin in childhood or adolescence. One particularly gruesome case from 2008 involved two Portland, Oregon, teenagers who were convicted of scalding a kitten named "White Socks" and decapitating the animal with a hatchet. A 1999 report by the Humane Society of the United States (First Strike: The Violence Connection) noted that more than half of the juvenile assailants in recent school shootings were known to have persistently abused animals.
Neighborhood Watch groups should inform law enforcement of all acts of animal cruelty as well as remain vigilant for other signs of criminal intent. For children and adolescents, the Humane Society of the United States Youth Education Division publishes materials to help teachers incorporate humane education into the classroom environment. As part of its First Strike® campaign, HSUS also trains members of the animal protection and human services community, law enforcement, and other anti-violence advocates how to recognize the connection between animal cruelty and human violence and intervene before a crime occurs.
How to Begin: Guidelines for Neighborhood Watch
Properly cared-for pets bring joy to our lives and help cement the bond with friends and neighbors. The measures described below, adapted from guidelines published by HSUS, can be adopted locally to begin a Neighborhood Watch for Animals.
Know your neighborhood's pets. Be alert to the cats and dogs who live nearby. Consider creating a pet roster that includes owners' names and phone numbers, basic descriptions of each animal, and tag numbers for use in emergencies.
Watch for abandonment and neglect. Warning signs may include a dog tethered to a tree without food or water, sick animals, hoarding, or abandoned pets. Also look out for pets left in parked cars during hot weather and outdoor animals without access to shelter.
Abuse affects everyone. Animal abusers often abuse people, too. Crime prevention organizations should communicate with local animal shelters and other groups that work to prevent all forms of violence.
Theft. A rise in the number of missing pets and "lost pet" signs may indicate thieves at work. Contact animal shelters and law enforcement if you suspect foul play.
Lend a helping hand. Pets can be a source of joy to older and infirmed people. However, physical limitations may prevent owners from caring for their four-legged companions. Offering to feed and walk pets or transport pets to veterinary appointments can help ease the burden.
Walk on the Wild Side. Loss of habitat and encroachment have led to more frequent human-wild animal encounters. Neighborhood Watch members should report suspected wild animal abuse as well as illegal hunting and trapping. Atypical behaviors (e.g., a raccoon foraging during daylight, a fox that is unafraid of people) may be signs of rabies and should also be reported immediately.
Create Animal-friendly Areas. Setting up a neighborhood dog park is a great way for Fluffy to meet Scruffy while their humans to get acquainted.
- American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) (www.aspca.org)
- Animal Legal Defense Fund (www.aldf.org)
- Humane Society of the United States (www.hsus.org)
- www.Pet-Abuse.com (a searchable database of animal cruelty cases)
- www.pets911.com (a clearinghouse for information on shelters, licensing, and adoption; includes a database of lost and found animals)
- Sunbear Squad (www.sunbearsquad.org)
- Ventura County Sheriff's Office (http://www.vcsd.org/)