Acting for Animals in Arizona
In the Grand Canyon State, the furred and the feathered have new support from an anti-cruelty coalition
When the Arizona legislature passed a law upgrading animal cruelty from a misdemeanor to a felony in 1999, animal protectionists were delighted. But it soon became evident that the increased penalties called for heightened vigilance on the part of law enforcement and criminal justice personnel. To provide training for officers and education for the community, the Humane Society of Southern Arizona joined forces with law enforcement agencies, animal protection groups, and local veterinarians in creating ACT: the Animal Cruelty Taskforce.
ACT's all-volunteer membership is limited to professionals within these fields so the group can focus on its main goal of fighting animal cruelty in southern Arizona. "A lot of the information we deal with comes from ongoing investigations and is confidential," says Marsh Myers, director of education for the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, "so we did have to limit the membership. ... Our police aren't allowed to sit on any task force that has a political agenda, so we don't accept animal rights activists onto the task force."
But, says Myers, that limitation is what's helped make the task force effective—law enforcement officers see that the group isn't trying to persuade people to eat vegetarian or boycott leather, but simply focusing on the criminal and legal definition of animal cruelty. "They see that we're trying to make their job easier, and make them more successful at prosecuting these cases," says Myers. "And I think they appreciate that, because they know they need training and we're providing this training free of cost."
Some veterinarians were at first reluctant to work on the task force, afraid their clients might stop trusting them for fear of being reported for cruelty. But a local professional organization for veterinarians helped alleviate such concerns, says Myers. "They've really encouraged their members to get involved—even if they didn't want to get involved with the task force itself, to at least get involved if they see an animal who's constantly coming in to them or [if] they think there might be a domestic violence problem," says Myers. Within the next six months to a year, ACT will begin developing training for veterinarians in identifying signs of domestic violence.
Currently, ACT is providing seminars designed to assist enforcement personnel in identifying, investigating, and prosecuting animal cruelty cases; the seminars also help police identify situations in which animal cruelty may be escalating into domestic violence. Training topics include securing a crime scene involving animals, collecting evidence, testifying in court, and other such tasks; eventually, participants will even go through a mock investigation and trial, allowing them to experience the full scope of an animal cruelty investigation.
Myers says the best response to the task force has come from juvenile corrections personnel. "We've had them asking us to come in and train their staff, because they're working with youngsters, and some of them are really seeing animal cruelty at its very inception," he says. "And so those officers are very interested in learning how to identify warning signs."
Member organizations host the seminars on a rotating basis, providing space and training expertise. Funding is overseen by the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, and programs and seminars are underwritten by member organizations. Membership in ACT has grown from 10 people to 50, representing about 25 different organizations. Although it's still too early to see long-term results of the task force's work, the local sheriff's department has witnessed an increase in animal cruelty reports since the task force formed early last year.