Signs of Animal Cruelty
- Animals that shrink or cower from contact
- Animals left exposed in severe weather
- Untreated wounds
- Missing hair or fur
- Dirty or confined quarters
- Strong odors and lack of sanitation
- Chained and infrequently exercised animals
Last summer, Lynn Varin noticed a skinny horse confined to a small paddock in her rural Vermont community.
"He was in a stall for 4 days with nothing to eat, only water. I know because I checked every day."
Lynn reported the neglected horse to local authorities. When Vermont State Police officers acted on her report, they found four severely malnourished horses. They eventually cited the owner for animal cruelty and instituted a program of supervision to ensure the healthy recovery of the horses.
Lynn chose to act on behalf of the helpless. At-risk cats, dogs, other companion animals and livestock depend on people doing exactly what Lynn did. If you suspect animal cruelty, it may feel uncomfortable or even nosy to do something about it, but it may be the only shot an innocent animal has. Reporting cruelty can be done easily and anonymously once you have the resources handy.
Recognizing Cruelty and Taking Action
Hitting defenseless animals, keeping them chained without exercise or leaving them exposed in severe weather all count as abuse. Mistreating animals can (and often does) escalate into domestic assault. Studies have shown a link between violence toward animals and violence toward spouses, children and elders. If you witness an animal in imminent danger, dial 911. Police will respond. You can choose to remain anonymous, or by identifying yourself, you can help in future prosecution.
Hoarding occurs when someone possesses multiple animals without providing adequate food, care and sanitation. Hoarders often fail to understand the consequences of their actions and may exhibit signs of mental illness. Reporting hoarding can be a first step toward getting that individual into new or additional treatment. Call your local animal control officer or police department. Those agencies have the power to remove the animals or take corrective action, and they’ll involve social services if necessary.
Neglect is the most common form of cruelty, and it’s on the rise. As more Americans struggle with financial difficulty, many pets are put at risk of starvation, abandonment and death. The horses that Lynn observed in Vermont were victimized, in part, because of their owner’s financial situation.
Neglected animals may belong to neighbors you’ve known for years. They may try to hide the neglect due to embarrassment. You can try intervening yourself, or if you’re concerned about your neighbor’s reaction, many states and locations have set up tip lines and email addresses allowing you to call, text or email an anonymous report.
What Happens After You Report?
Most animal control officers view seizure and criminal charges as a last resort. Generally, officials or volunteers will attempt to educate the owner and provide that person with alternatives. If charges are brought, animal cruelty can range from a misdemeanor to a felony in certain cases.
Unfortunately, most states don’t have the resources to investigate and prosecute all incidents fully. You may have to follow up on your original complaint to make sure action was taken. Email your state legislators, and let them know that animal cruelty is a serious issue. It’s going to take persistent action to strengthen ordinances, laws and enforcement.
Nonprofit and volunteer organizations are on the front lines and under financial pressure as more and more animals arrive in their care. Look for rescue societies, shelters and community resources in your area, and volunteer or donate. Many nonprofit groups coordinate with authorities on cruelty issues. You may be able to report incidents through them.
Lynn is still keeping an eye on those horses. When people like you and Lynn stay observant and have the courage to act, it can make a huge difference (and nobody is going to call you nosy).
For more reading and local resources, visit the following URLs: www.aspca.org/ and www.humanesociety.org/.
Be Prepared to Act
- Call 911 if you’re an eyewitness to abusive behavior.
- Familiarize yourself with animal cruelty statutes in your state. An associated URL is www.aspca.org/Fight-Animal-Cruelty/Advocacy-Center/state-animal-cruelty-laws.aspx.
- Contact your town administrative offices or local law enforcement to determine your appropriate point of contact for animal cruelty complaints.
- Decide if you feel comfortable talking to an owner if you suspect neglect.
- Contact your animal control officer to report suspected abuse, neglect or hoarding.
- Search for local tip lines to call, text or email incidents anonymously.
- Report online videos or images of animal abuse to your FBI branch office. An associated URL is www.fbi.gov/contact-us/field/field-offices.
- Support local shelters, rescue and rehabilitation groups, and community organizations.
- Contact your legislators, and tell them to support strong animal welfare laws and enforcement.
Neil Ryan is a farmer and writer living in central Vermont.
This article originally appeared in PetsMatter March / April 2012, published by the American Animal Hospital Association. Copyright © 2012 AAHA. Find out more.