Reporting suspected animal abuse getting easier, experts say
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.