Reporting suspected animal abuse getting easier, experts say
It's clearly a trend: The nation is cracking down on animal cruelty.
It's clearly a trend: The nation is cracking down on animal cruelty.
The subject became more of a hot-button issue last year, particularly during the investigation, charges and conviction of NFL star Michael Vick and associates in a dog fighting case.
Several states now make animal cruelty a felony that carries strong penalties.
What is the veterinarian's role today?
Mostly, it's an awareness of and willingness to report cases of animal abuse, several experts say.
In 11 states, veterinarians are required by law to report even the suspicion of animal cruelty. And even in states where it's not required, the veterinarian has more protection and greater encouragement than ever to report real and suspected abuse cases.
"The greatest trend in terms of legislation is providing vets with civil immunity for good-faith reporting," says Dr. Randall Lockwood, senior vice president for anti-cruelty initiatives and legislative services for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).
But Lockwood says many veterinarians who are getting involved are doing so because it is the right thing to do, not because of the laws.
"Having protection from civil liability will increase their willingness to do so and they will be protected from losses as a result of the new laws," he says.
"We have been doing that (reporting) all along," says Dr. Monica Hazelwood, a 10-year Colorado practitioner. Colorado's mandatory reporting law took effect last July 1.
Hazelwood says it places a stronger value on the job of a veterinarian, while raising the standard of care for animals. "As a vet your priority is to do what is in the very best interest of the animal," she says. "It always comes first. Now we just have a law that backs us up."
Link to other violence
People are concerned about the link between violence against animals and other forms of violence as well. "The public embraces the concept that there is a connection between animal cruelty and human cruelty," says Denver Senior Deputy District Attorney Diane Balkin, who has testified in a number of animal-cruelty cases.
Oftentimes, an instance where an animal is being abused coincides with domestic violence at home. Forensic veterinarian Dr. Melinda Merck, who has testified in more than 50 animal-cruelty cases, some on behalf of the ASPCA, says that when private practitioners see cruelty to animals that might be related to violence in a home and don't report it, they are missing an opportunity to stop the domestic violence.
"The ramifications are huge when we fail to report," she says.
Merck stresses the importance of simply reporting the suspicion of animal cruelty. "It is not the veterinarian's job to know the entire case before they report; it is not their job to investigate. It is their job to report suspicion," she says.
Prosecutors look to veterinarians as expert witnesses and as advocates for animals that cannot speak for themselves. "Vets are in a unique position to be on the front line of observing cruelty and extreme neglect," Balkin says.
Merck believes the veterinarian is the cornerstone of an animal-cruelty case. Prosecutors don't have much of a case, she says, without a veterinarian's involvement and that such expertise is crucial in the courtroom.
"Animals have no voice, so as vets we are providing their voice by being their advocate every day," Merck says.
But many in the profession are not trained to identify animal cruelty, Dr. Paul Boehm, a 35-year Colorado practitioner, says. "I do have a bit of concern for the pressure that mandated reporting puts on a vet to make a judgment which is awfully hard to ascertain in the office," he says. Some might worry about losing a client if their suspicions are wrong, he adds.
That's why training and education for veterinarians to distinguish between animal cruelty and accidental injuries is important, Lockwood says. He says the ASPCA does provide such training, and that he personally is "involved in training vets on the technical aspects of recognizing animal cruelty and advancing the field of forensics."
Mandatory reporting laws will affect the entire veterinary community because its involvement will not only be appreciated, but required, Merck says.
She acknowledges that the most effective way to combat animal abuse is through education. "We have to have animal cruelty covered in some way in our curriculum in the vet schools," she says, adding that she is starting to see a change in university curriculum to include this training and education.
"We have to teach incoming vets and train those already in practice," she says.
Some veterinarians might hold back out of fear or reluctance to testify in court. Lockwood calls this "the halo effect," in that DVMs are used to being liked and can be very uncomfortable under questioning by an attorney. "Vets are not used to being in an adversarial environment and having their authority attacked," he says.
The ASPCA not only trains veterinarians in how to recognize cruelty, but also provides mock trials for them to make them more comfortable presenting evidence, Merck says.
"Communication between the team of vets, prosecutors and law enforcement is crucial," she says. "The more vets are trained and exposed to these issues, the more they'll gain confidence in relying on their experience and common sense while testifying."
Those fearful of the courtroom setting might be relieved to know that not all animal cruelty investigations result in prosecution. "A substantial majority of our cases result in a negotiated plea and don't end up with witnesses testifying," Balkin says, adding that because most people in the community don't like people who are cruel to animals and because veterinarians come to the stand with a degree of credibility that jurors respect, the mere thought of facing a veterinarian in the courtroom can induce a defendant to plead guilty.
Other legal effects
How else will stronger penalties and laws against animal cruelty affect veterinarians?
"If the effect is better treatment of animals, then the bills should be applauded," says Adrian Hochstadt, assistant director of state legislative and regulatory affairs for the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).
"If vets fail to report suspicion of abuse, they may be subject to a fine and jail time and also the possibility of having their license to practice revoked," says Ralph Johnson, executive director of the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association.
Still, legal action seems to be the last thing on veterinarians' minds. Their main concern is protecting animals. "The law just reinforces that our main priority is to put the animals' needs first. It is our job to step in," Hazelwood says.
The current legal trend has growing support.
"The United States has become more sensitized and unwilling to accept the unnecessary suffering of animals," says Dale Bartlett, deputy manager of animal-cruelty issues for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), adding that "the violent behaviors of people who do this kind of thing are a very real threat to our communities."
Merck agrees. "We are the voice for the animal, so why shouldn't we step up when they are the victim?"
Miss Rammohan is a freelance writer in Chicago.