May 2013 | Many Holes Exist in the Safety Net of Organizations That Monitor Cruelty
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Many Holes Exist in the Safety Net of Organizations
That Monitor Cruelty
May 2013 - Suzanne Bush

If horses, dogs and cats could vote, would their lives be better? Would they ask legislators to require better working conditions for them? If they could form unions to help them secure greater leverage in their negotiations with the people who own them, what would they ask for? Would they demand better kibble? More hay? Or maybe their top priority would be the creation of a better network of protection from abuse and neglect.

Of course, animals can’t vote, and unfortunately those that are abused, starved, abandoned and neglected often have to rely on chance or on the kindness of strangers for relief and rescue. It’s a profoundly asymmetric and unfair relationship, especially in light of the millions of dollars in revenue horses, dogs and cats bring to owners, breeders, veterinarians, trainers, and the hundreds of businesses that exist to support them.

One of the most important cash crops in Pennsylvania is horses. The horse racing industry has brought millions of dollars in new revenue to the state since the advent of the casinos that have grown up around every race track in Pennsylvania. And Pennsylvania’s horse racing industry had a great year in 2012. According to the state Gaming Control Board, race tracks here saw a 12 per cent increase in wagering over 2011, to nearly $780 million. Since the race tracks were the raisons d’ętre for the wildly successful casino industry in Pennsylvania, it is not unreasonable to expect the casinos to be in the forefront of efforts to ensure that someone is actively looking out for the welfare of horses. Although they support various programs for retired race horses, these programs are limited in scope and there are some holes in the safety nets they offer for the horses that can no longer race. Just last year a woman who was promoting her own business of retraining race horses for other jobs was found to be selling these thoroughbreds to the meat buyers at New Holland. She had taken possession of many of the doomed horses right on the grounds of one of the state’s race tracks.

But the racing industry is not the only beneficiary of the manifold talents of horses. The most current census of equine populations ranks Pennsylvania ninth in the United States. There are backyard horses that are primarily used for trail riding, and at the opposite end of the spectrum there are Olympic caliber horses, riders who routinely rank among the world’s best, and successful veterans of international competition—all  living in Pennsylvania. Some of the country’s most prestigious horse shows are here.

A lot of revenue for the state, for businesses, for individuals is riding on the backs of Pennsylvania’s horses.

Who’s Looking Out for Animals?
Recently a herd of Morgan horses was taken from a farm in Palmyra, PA. Several of the horses were severely underweight. Stallions and mares were together, many of the horses were in need of hoof care and veterinary care. The plight of these horses was brought to the attention of the Harrisburg Humane Society by tipsters—people who saw the horses and were concerned about their condition.

Lori McCutcheon, who operates Last Chance Ranch near Quakertown, says that she gets calls all the time from people who want to report animals in trouble. She is licensed in Pennsylvania as a Humane Officer, but says that it is impossible for her to go out to investigate every tip she receives. “Problem we have is we get cruelty calls almost every day—sometimes cattle, but mostly horses. We have to refer them out because we don’t have the funds to go out and investigate.” She says that she refers the calls she can’t follow up to local or state police.

Pennsylvania’s Humane Societies and SPCA’s can employ Humane Society Police Officers who investigate instances of animal abuse and neglect. The state law requires Humane Society Police Officers to undergo 60 hours of initial training, at least 36 hours of which focus on Pennsylvania’s anti-cruelty laws, evidence gathering, proper execution of search warrants, characteristics of agricultural animals, proper care and handling of agricultural animals, etc.

Often municipal and State Police are called to investigate animal cruelty. Previously Pennsylvania’s Mounted Police unit had a training program aimed at helping police develop skills for investigating equine abuse and neglect. According to Lieutenant Andrew Wenger, the program is being revised to accommodate today’s realities. “It (animal cruelty) has been an issue in law enforcement that has typically been handled by other entities. What we’ve seen with budget cuts, cutbacks, we’re seeing that there’s no one to do that,” he says. There are often calls from officers who are not sure whether they’re seeing abuse or neglect. “We felt the need to make sure our people are equipped to handle those. We did create some positions—a program to provide resources for our people to consult.” But it’s still in the formative stages; and Wenger says that they are working on a formal training program for police officers—both State Police and local officers—to attend.

“Actually Pennsylvania is one of the few states that does have mandatory training for Humane Officers,” Anne Irwin says. She coordinates some of the training programs on behalf of the Federated Humane Societies of Pennsylvania, and she is executive director of the Bucks County SPCA. “Half of the training takes place at Penn State—designed to make people familiar with what is normal and what is not normal in agriculture.” She says the goal is to make sure Humane Officers are exposed to issues affecting small animals and large animals. “What is unique about the training that’s different from anywhere else in the country is that portion of the training that teaches humane officers about agriculture.”

Time, Manpower, Distance
Registered Humane Society Police Officers are listed on a Department of Agriculture database, and it is there that the porous safety net for the state’s animals is revealed. Not every county in Pennsylvania has its own Humane Officer. And many of the state’s Humane Officers are registered in several—up to 25—counties. Is that a problem? In some counties there is just one Humane Officer; and that officer may be the lone Humane Officer for several other counties. It’s hard to imagine how this could be effective. Irwin says that Humane Officers are registered in the county in which the organization they work for is located. So there are several officers located in Philadelphia, even though that is not the county in which they actually work. Still, it’s hard to imagine how a single Humane Officer could be accountable to 25 counties. This is not to suggest that there are no local authorities capable of investigating animal cruelty. But it does hint at the daunting gaps that exist between the desire to help animals and the manpower to actually do something.

Irwin doesn’t call the system a safety net, and says there’s not a simple answer to what is a very complicated, widespread problem. “I would say at this point it’s kind of a patchwork, because there are areas that are inadequately covered, and there are humane societies that used to enforce cruelty laws, but don’t do that anymore. The biggest reasons are cost and liability.”

She thinks about what things would be like in a perfect world. “A perfect world?  We’re in a changing world, and I guess I would like to see the police have more knowledge of how to handle cases in places that don’t have coverage (by Humane Officers), and more and more ways for Humane Officers to work with police.”

Crime and Punishment
One of the complexities involved in balancing the rights of animal owners against the rights of animals is that…well…animals are animals and people own them. In some cases, facing a fine for starving an animal is less costly than feeding that animal. Thus, when people are in trouble financially, and can’t afford proper care for their animals, they may persuade themselves that their horses or dogs can survive on their own. So how can the courts and the laws address the imbalance without infringing on property rights? Pennsylvania’s statutes are explicit about what constitutes abuse and cruelty. Humane societies routinely try to educate owners of animals about proper care, and try to help owners provide proper care. Once those efforts have failed, there are few options remaining. Where horses are concerned, most humane societies don’t have facilities for large animals they may ultimately confiscate, so horses and other large animals are relocated to farms for interim care.

If fines and punishment were more severe for abuse of animals, would that afford animals greater protection? It is not clear that there is a direct correlation between the severity of the punishment and the likelihood that severe penalties would deter abusive behavior. In many cases of equine neglect, economic factors are the primary drivers of the neglect. Further complicating the issue, Irwin points out that it’s not always easy to agree on what is neglect.

“There are widely divergent ideas about what should be the minimum requirements for any species. It’s a very tough question humane officers face. When and in what circumstances can you require shelter for horses.”  She says that experts—veterinarians and others—come down on exactly opposite sides of questions about whether horses need blankets, whether turnout in bad weather is neglectful.

Vote for Compassion
Voting for better care is not an option for horses, dogs and cats. But that doesn’t mean that vulnerable animals are condemned to lives of neglect, desperation and abuse. “The animal welfare field may have to get back to their roots,” Irwin says. She points out that the leaders in animal welfare historically had to come up with solutions. “They had to be innovators, we have to shake up our innovation and work with the new reality. Not all of our organizations choose to be involved in law enforcement any more. Those of us who choose to do so will have to work to create coalitions,” she says. Those coalitions need to work together to turn what is now a patchwork of related groups and individuals into a true safety net for the animals that enrich the lives of millions of people in our state.