In her 14-year career with the Pennsylvania State Police, Trooper Colleen Shelly saw her share of animal abuse cases. She gathered evidence. She put the facts together. She brought offenders to justice. But she was frustrated by what seemed to be a lack of coordination in efforts to arrest perpetrators of animal abuse, and to prosecute them. “It seemed like everybody was doing their own thing, and not working together,” she says. “There is no way to investigate these cases without it being a joint effort,” she explains. Humane organizations, cruelty investigators and municipal officers need to be involved. “Police agencies cannot house animals. It does require a group effort.”
Animal abuse cases are often volatile, emotionally charged, rife with misunderstandings. Part of the problem is that the victims can’t speak for themselves. Another factor, Shelly says, is “an overall lack of understanding about these complicated investigations—because they are complicated.”
While she was a State Trooper, she developed a 32-hour training program for state and municipal police officers, and humane police officers. Eventually, though, she saw that a lot had changed in the realm of animal abuse. Shelly realized that she wanted to—and could do—much more.
“Throughout the years, seeing how important these cases are to the public, and how the public views animals so much more differently than 30 years ago,” she says, she saw another professional path emerge for herself. “There was confusion about who is supposed to be investigating what, and who is supposed to enforce what.” She believed that a more robust training program, one that recognized both the potential and the limitations of investigators from various agencies, would be a more effective strategy to improve animal welfare. “What I decided to do was develop a training school—the Animal Crime Institute—that dealt specifically with animal crime. A lot of times they start with cruelty. But oftentimes there are other crimes that are associated with cruelty that are outside the scope of humane officers,” she says. “I felt this was the direction I needed to go. But this isn’t about me. It’s about professional investigation of animal cases.”
One Door Closes; Another Opens
While it was a wrenching decision to leave the State Police, Shelly is energized and enthusiastic about the Animal Crime Institute. She compares animal cruelty to other criminal activities, such as computer crime. “Investigating cruelty is very specialized. Nothing (formal training for investigators) exists right now, and we wanted to fill that void.” She says that in Pennsylvania, humane officers actually have full police power. “The training we offer for humane officers is very much police-oriented. They should be trained like police officers.”
Whether they are properly investigated or not, the reality is that animal abuse and cruelty are violations of Pennsylvania law. But budgets and personnel are limited, and these crimes often drift below the radar. When more people are trained to identify and investigate abuse, animals stand a better chance of achieving the justice they deserve. “It’s difficult because particularly with the economy, humane officers work for organizations that rely on donor money. When donations are down and budgets are tightened, organizations have to make decisions,” Shelly says. “Those are tough decisions to have to make. In some areas of the state, there are counties with no humane officer.”
Compounding the difficulty, Shelly says, is the fact that there is no official reporting system in Pennsylvania for animal cruelty incidents. She relies on data-gathering internet sites such as www.pet-abuse.com. This website aggregates information based on media reports throughout the United States. Unfortunately, not all cases of animal cruelty get the attention of media the way animal hoarding, large-scale abuse of horses or farm animals, and other cases do. She recalled that there were a lot of cases of equine abuse when she was working as a State Police officer. Part of the training at the Animal Crime Institute does focus on equine issues. In order to investigate cases of equine abuse, humane officers and police “don’t have to be expert in riding horses,” she says. They just need to know what to look for when investigating possible incidents of abuse.
In July the Institute hosted a two-day seminar on investigating equine neglect and abuse. The classwork included a comprehensive discussion of the relevant statutes in Pennsylvania, how abuse cases proceed, and hands-on instruction, during which participants learned about proper hoof care and why it’s important, dental care, how to evaluate a horse’s condition using the Henneke scale. They also learned how to catch, halter and lead a horse. An experienced and competitive equestrian herself, Shelly still understands that horses can intimidate investigators.
Investigations, not Advocacy
Shelly is very clear that the Animal Crime Institute is not an advocacy group. Its goal is to educate police and humane police officers with the knowledge they need to effectively investigate and prosecute violations of Pennsylvania’s animal cruelty laws. She works with instructors who are experts in their fields. The training is specifically geared to Pennsylvania’s laws and evidentiary rules. The goal is to ensure that citizens’ and animals’ rights are protected, and that liability for investigators is minimized.
“As far as the Animal Crime Institute is concerned, I have three rules,” she says. “First, we all care about animals, love animals, and we all have a different standard of care.” But, she says, “no one is allowed to come and push an agenda. It’s about reviewing the laws, understanding the pertinent facts, and learning how to navigate through the system in place now.”
Second, all of the guest instructors at the Animal Crime Institute are experienced prior or current law enforcement professionals, or they are experts in their fields—such as attorneys and veterinarians.
Third, every instructor is an experienced educator.
Although issues such as no-kill shelters, open access shelters, spay and release of feral cats and other potentially controversial topics are interesting to her, Shelly steadfastly refuses to permit them to hijack the discussions that are directly relevant to her primary objective—identifying, documenting and prosecuting violations of Pennsylvania’s animal cruelty laws. “We want to make sure people have the confidence in our program. It’s about understanding the laws that are on the books.”
Doing the Right Thing for Animals
The state of animal welfare is improving, but practically every day humane officers and police find themselves facing situations that are heartbreaking. From hundreds of feral cats overrunning a Chester County town, to dozens of horses neglected in barren fields, to sick and dying dogs hoarded by misguided homeowners—animals’ lives are compromised daily. But Shelly says that these days there are many more insidious threats to animals. “It isn’t just the cruelty, either. When you start talking about show horses and race horses being given illegal substances, those are big issues,” she says. Big and difficult to investigate and prosecute.
It’s daunting and often frustrating to do the right thing. “Shelters right now are filled to capacity for a variety of reasons. The tough thing is, if there’s probable cause to seize an animal, that’s a priority,” she says. “But that’s difficult, because police agencies can’t house these animals.” It’s especially difficult to find alternative housing for large animals like horses and cows, and to ensure that their well-being won’t be compromised further by removing them.
When there’s no outward evidence of an investigation, when animals remain with the people who are allegedly abusing them, misunderstandings inevitably arise. The public loses faith in the agencies that are trying to help the animals. “An investigation doesn’t always mean an animal has to be seized right away. There’s no easy answer to that. I hear a lot of things thrown around, but it costs a lot of money to take care of these animals, and they belong to their owners,” Shelly says. “But I believe education is the key. It’s the start of it. If we don’t know what we’re looking at, and what questions to ask, it’s difficult to know where to go.”
She believes that the nature of animal abuse cases can drive law enforcement’s response, but that response must rely on facts, not emotion. “There’s a lot of emotion in these cases. But we don’t want emotion to cloud our response. Cruelty to animals is something that—even if someone is not cited—there’s a good chance that the media is going to pick up on it. Animal cases are not exempt from following the same rules of criminal procedure and rules of evidence.”
Passionate About Animals and the Law
Shelly has been riding horses since she was four years old, and has been passionate about animals for as long as she can remember. She competes in Dressage with her Lippizan and a young Thoroughbred. She sees the welfare of animals as a societal challenge, not just a challenge for those who are trying to enforce the laws. “I’m an animal owner. It’s important that the public is educated on the laws as well—that the public understands that these laws apply to them, too.” She says that although she has always viewed animals to be property, “I’ve always considered them to be ‘elevated’ property.” She says she encourages people to put themselves in other peoples’ shoes. “If this were your dog, or horse, or pet pig, and something happened to it, you would want the people investigating it to understand their roles.”