If you see animal cruelty, get police involved

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If you've witnessed animal cruelty or know of a negligent pet owner, it can be difficult to figure out what to do next. Do you call the local animal shelter? Do you report it to the police? Can your vet be of any assistance? And once your file a report, what happens next?

The first thing you need to do is determine whether animal cruelty has been committed. Unfortunately, what you or I may perceive as being cruel or negligent may not fall under the law's definition of animal cruelty. Leaving a dog outside all day in the rain sounds cruel to me, but if that dog has a form of shelter, food, and water available to him, the state would not consider it to be animal cruelty and no action would take place. Every state has different laws regarding what constitutes animal cruelty.

If you determine that what you have witnessed is actually animal cruelty, you need to call the police to report the crime. Your complaint may be directed to an officer or, if one is on staff, an animal control officer. Animal control officers, most commonly referred to as ACOs, assist with stray animals, enforce state laws and local ordinances pertaining to animal welfare, and investigate reports of animal abuse. If you file a complaint, the ACO will pursue the complaint with further investigation and a home check to determine the animal's welfare.

Although calling the police is definitely the recommended course of action, a second option is contact your local animal shelter. Some shelters employ animal cruelty investigators that work alongside the police to investigate reports of animal cruelty. If your local shelter does not have an investigator on staff, they can direct you to the nearest shelter that does have one or to the local ACO. Remember that shelter staff members do not have the authority to seize animals from people's homes, so complaints need to be directed to either animal cruelty investigators or police officers.

After the ACO or police officer investigates the complaint, there are a variety of outcomes. If an animal is in danger, an officer is able to remove the animal from the home immediately. If not, the officer will get court approval in order to remove the animal from the home. In some cases, the ACO will be able to convince the owner to surrender the animal to the local shelter. This speeds up the process of removing the animal from the home as the court no longer has to get involved.

If an animal has been visibly abused or neglected - emaciated, for example - a veterinarian will document the abuse for use in court. Again, if possible, officers will encourage owners to surrender their pets rather than go through the court process. If a case does make it to court, it is possible that the animals will be allowed to return to their previous home.

When dealing with animal cruelty, it's important for only authorized people to be involved. Taking your neighbor's dog from their back yard because they leave it outside 24/7 and bringing it to the shelter will only result in the animal being returned to his owner and you being in trouble with the police. Animal shelter employees (aside from animal cruelty investigators) and veterinarians are also unable to seize animals, but they can help direct complaints to someone who can help. Never compromise your own safety when dealing with animal cruelty. Trying to handle an abused animal or confronting an abusive or negligent pet owner can be dangerous, so always let the police or animal control officer handle the situation. By contacting the police, you are doing the best thing possible to help an abused animal.

Alaina Goodnough is the Promotions Coordinator at Cocheco Valley Humane Society in Dover, NH. She lives in Sanford, ME with two parrots, a cockatoo, a cat, a bearded dragon, and two dachshunds. She can be reached at CVHS at To learn more about Cocheco Valley Humane Society, go to or call 603-749-5322.

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