(Keona, an abused dog rescued)
Keona     Witnessing cruelty

Nothing ruins a beautiful day by the lake like seeing someone beat a dog.

The man I saw on Miller Beach in Gary, Ind. hit, kicked and choked the dog he was walking. He held the dog by a leash in one hand and in the other wielded a stick he used to beat and choke the animal.

Animal cruelty investigators say they get a spike in complaints about animal abuse when the weather warms up. They also caution against approaching someone seen in the act of hurting an animal.

“We never recommend running up to anybody and trying to stop them yourself,” said Joseph Giannini, who helps monitor animal cruelty cases in Cook County courts. “If they have enough anger to hurt a helpless animal, what will they do to you?”

In this case, the more I yelled at the man to stop, the more he hit the dog. What response would have been more effective and less dangerous, for me and the dog?

“Call 911,” said Giannini. “Operators won’t just brush it off. It’s against the law to hurt or abuse an animal.”

In Chicago, police take such calls more seriously than previously. About a year ago, said police spokesman Larry Langford, the department added animal abuse to emergency call categories, which up to then had offered dispatchers only two animal-related categories: animal bite and animal fighting.

Calls about animal bites are the most common. But between April 2003 and April 2004, 911 dispatchers took almost twice as many calls about animal abuse as about animal fighting. Almost a third of all animal-related 911 calls have fallen into the abuse category.

The department has trained almost 200 officers on how to spot animal abuse, particularly that related to dog fighting.

“We know that kind of activity is very tied into gang membership and recruiting,” said Langford.

But calling 911 is just the first step in a truly effective response to witnessing animal cruelty. The next one, becoming a witness or complainant, is essential for successful prosecution but hard for many people to take.

“Unfortunately, many people call and then leave the scene. People are afraid of retaliation,” said Giannini.

“Be prepared to follow through,” advised Betty Clayton, director of the Humane Society in Gary, Ind. and an experienced cruelty investigator. “If you want these people prosecuted, you have to stand your ground.”

If you aren’t willing to testify against the abuser, prosecutors won’t bother pressing charges, she said. This is a difficult decision for people who are known to the abuser. The danger is real, said Clayton, and in her experience retaliation has included poisoning pets.

If the abuser is someone you know or live near, another option is to try to capture the cruelty in photographs or on video, said Clayton.

In cases where you suspect cruelty but haven’t witnessed it, call 311, said Cynthia Bathurst, who also works with advocates watching the progress of cruelty cases in court. It’s especially important for police to be called if the abuse might be connected to the drug trade, gang activity or dog fighting.

A lot of dogs at one residence with many old wounds, especially around the face and front legs, are a sign of dog fighting, said Bathurst. Dogs that are skinny and undernourished might be being used as bait. The yard might contain a treadmill with a fence around it for training the animals. Overlarge, heavy chains might be wound around their necks to build up their strength and endurance.

Another option is to make an anonymous complaint. If the evidence is serious, police can use the information to obtain a search warrant. This requires being questioned before a judge or grand jury, but Bathurst said anonymity still is maintained.

In Chicago, people also can call the city Animal Care and Control Department (312) 747-1406) or the Anti-Cruelty Society (312 644-8338). Both have investigators who will respond to reports, which can be made anonymously.

In Lake County, Ind., reports of animal cruelty are investigated by the Gary Animal Control Department (219-885-7507) or Lake County Animal Control (219-769-7016). 

Even in cases where witnesses call police, sign complaints and testify, animal cruelty convictions aren’t easy to obtain. That’s one reason for programs like the court advocates of D.A.W.G.

The presence of an advocate in a courtroom lets judges and prosecutors know that there are people in the community unwilling to tolerate animal abuse, said Giannini.

Unfortunately, that isn’t always enough. Judges often let people off with little or no punishment, allow animals to be returned to people accused of abuse and grant repeated delays, said Clayton.

One case she cited from Lake County, which started with the removal of 38 neglected dogs from the defendant’s property, has been going on for four years without resolution.  Nonetheless, she continues to monitor cases and urge prosecution.

“The only reason I bother is because I hate to see these bastards get away with it,” she said.

The author, Linda Gibson, is a freelance writer and petsitter from Indiana, where she runs At Your Service Pet Valet.


By the numbers

  • In the calendar year 2003, Chicago’s Animal Care and Control agency received 3,895 calls about animal abuse, 203 about animal fighting and 29,895 about stray animals.
  • From April 2003 to April 2004, 911 dispatchers handled 1,862 calls about animal abuse and 1,035 about animal fighting.

Keona now
 (read her story here)

How you can help

Joseph Giannini and Cynthia Bathurst work with D.A.W.G., the Dog Advisory Work Group. It’s a coalition of individuals and groups working to improve conditions for dogs and educate owners about their treatment.

In conjunction with the Chicago Police Department’s community policing program, D.A.W.G. operates a court advocacy program in which volunteers monitor animal cruelty cases as they progress through the judicial system.

For information on D.A.W.G. and the court advocacy program, call D.A.W.G. at 312-409-2169 or check out its Web site at www.dawgsite.org.

The Anti-Cruelty Society, which investigates reports of animal abuse, always can use help in the form of volunteers or contributions. Contact it at 312-644-8338 or visit its Web site at www.anticruelty.org.

Two other Web sites of note are www.pet-abuse.com and www.dogsdeservebetter.com.

Pet-Abuse maintains a national database of pet abuse cases. It also offers sections on what people can do about animal abuse, animals available for adoption and the link between animal abuse and violence against people.

Dogs Deserve Better campaigns against the practice of chaining dogs. It won a national award in 2003 from the ASPCA for its efforts.

Balto, a stray, had been beaten and covered in concrete. He was brought to a vet where he eventually recovered and was adopted.

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