When the calls come in about suspected animal abuse in Vermont, how are they handled? Well, that depends.
"Our office finds out about cases, circumstances; usually it's livestock cases," said Dr. Kristin Haas, the Vermont state veterinarian. "And the concerned citizen will call and report the info to us. Because our agency doesn't have legal enforcement authority in the animal welfare cases, we then refer those callers to the entity that does in that municipality where the case is alleged to have occurred."
That, in many cases, is the town's animal control officer-- usually a volunteer position, no experience necessary. So, Haas says oftentimes those investigating the calls are not trained to evaluate potential abuse situations, and could possibly miss signs of abuse.
"There are trainings offered within the state currently, but there is no mandate that individuals who are designated enforcement offers, humane officers have to take that training," Haas explained.
The statute requires the participation of a veterinarian on animal abuse calls. And more veterinarians are being trained in Vermont to know how to properly document what they see when they respond.
"The Vermont Veterinary Medical Association will subsidize vets to receive the training at the police academy, animal cruelty investigative training. So, there is starting to develop a roster of veterinarians who have been trained in these types of things who are making themselves available to assist in these cases," Haas said.
In Vermont, you are required to provide adequate food, shelter and veterinary care for livestock, as well as maintain sanitary conditions. For domestic animals like dogs and cats the laws are even stricter.
Deb Loring of the Vermont Humane Federation explained, "For example, about their shelter, if they are permanently contained in areas, how many hours a day they need to get out for exercise, how big their crates need to be, if they are permanently house in crates."
Which is why Loring says it is critical that humane investigators are also trained to know the law. There is training provided through Vermont State Police and Loring completed that training. Many certified humane agents pay for the training themselves. It costs about $100. State Police and local law enforcement officers investigating animal abuse claims are not required to have that training.
Loring says some officers do not consider animal cruelty a priority, but there is a very good reason why they should. Those who abuse animals are reportedly more likely to commit other crimes as well.
Chittenden County Deputy State's Attorney Paul Finnerty has prosecuted several animal abuse cases in Washington and Chittenden counties, and animal abusers can be linked to other crimes.
"I know there are studies that draw parallels to incidents of domestic violence and animal cruelty or animal abuse or bullying or that type of behavior in incidents of animal cruelty," Finnerty said.
Humane investigators we interviewed say there should be a trooper trained in animal cruelty laws in every barracks across the state.
"I agree with that is something we are going to be looking at further," Vt. Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn said.
Flynn says this summer he will be studying ways to make Vermont's animal cruelty law stronger. He says as it stands now, the law is designed to help owners fix the problem, rather than immediately seize the animal. One of the main goals of the statute is to help the investigators work with the people who own the animals to resolve the issues without having to seize the animals.
"One of the things I want to look at is we have the training in place within the state police to have someone with that expertise to be able to take the lead on some of these cases or assist others in investigating these cases," Flynn said. "So, number one, we are accomplishing our goal, which is the legislative intent for the remedial aspects of the statute. And when that doesn't succeed, make sure we are putting cases together that enable the state's attorneys to be able to successfully prosecute these both criminally and for and as far as forfeiture areas."
Which brings up another complaint law enforcement and humane investigators have about the law: Animals seized must be held as evidence as the case works its way through the court system. This can take months. Just ask Keith Flynn. He and his wife took in two foster horses that they ended up caring for for 10 months.
"And when these animals are held it can be a long process," Flynn said. "That is one of the things we are looking at addressing in regard to the civil forfeiture aspect that needs to be quicker for a number of reasons."
One big reason-- cost. Foster care is very expensive, not only for Humane Societies, but for volunteer foster families like the Flynns. After more than 10 months, the former horse owner was found guilty. The horses have been placed in a permanent home and financial restitution proceedings are underway. Flynn has no idea how much of the thousands of dollars his family spent caring for the horses will be reimbursed, if any.
At Spring Hill Horse Rescue, two of the newest residents have been on site for months now. They were surrendered voluntarily by their former owners in Shelburne, but they have been so abused, it will take a lot of work to get them socialized and ready for adoption.
"These mares, they are older, 18 and 20, I believe," said Gina Brown of Spring Hill Horse Rescue. "So, our hope is we can get them gentle and safe enough to get adopted, and hopefully they will go together and just live out their golden years just being horses, which they were not allowed to do for most of their lives."
And it is that hope that keeps people like Brown and volunteer humane agents and Humane Societies going on behalf of the welfare of Vermont's animals.