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VACTF Manual - Chapter 1: Be Perpared Ahead of Time

Photographic Evidence


One of the best pieces of evidence that you can use to document animal cruelty/neglect is photographic evidence. The importance of photographs cannot be over-emphasized. Your objective is to show the judge and jury the neglect or cruelty that prompted the complaint and caused you to charge the owner (or person responsible for the care of the animal) with animal cruelty charges. (See also Appendix IV, Fact Sheets and Articles, "Ten Top Tips for Good Photography, Videography")

Animals cannot generally be brought into the court room, and even if they could, their physical condition always will have improved by the time the case goes to court. Thus, it is critical that you provide photographs to the judge and jury that show accurately the condition of the animals and the surroundings from which they were seized on the day that they were seized. No amount of verbal testimony can convey the suffering as well as photographs, which clearly depict emaciation, injuries, filthy conditions, etc. They validate all the written documents you have accumulated.

What to do

Always take a still camera, and if possible, a camcorder, when you are investigating a complaint. Ideally, both should be capable of generating a date and time stamp on the film and video. Also, take a Polaroid as a backup. That way, if your 35mm pictures do not come out, you will still have the Polaroid photos.

CAUTION: It is important to keep cameras warm in cold weather as their delicate parts may fail if exposed to the cold. In particular, batteries on 35mm cameras can fail; this is another reason to have a Polaroid on hand.

Normally you would take photographs or video tape at the scene; however, if exigent circumstances were involved (and you had to remove the animal immediately to a veterinarian’s office, for example) you would take photographs of the animal there. Have someone else stay behind to document the conditions in which you found the animal, or if warranted, immediately contact the police and S.A.’s office to obtain a warrant to return to the scene to take photographs and gather evidence.

IMPORTANT: Images of police and others helping at the scene will appear in photographs and video tapes. In cases involving large numbers of animals, many volunteers may be needed. Insist that they maintain a professional image at the scene. Assisting at a scene of animal cruelty is very stressful and people handle that stress in different ways - one of which is telling jokes to ease the stress. Images of people laughing and smiling in photos or video comes across as callousness. In court, the defense can contrast this with the crying face of the owner, and you could lose your case as a result.

Photo-taking Guidelines

We have found the following guidelines to be useful:

  • Take pictures of the animal from various angles. If possible, take front, back, and both sides. Take a picture of the animal’s surroundings. Be sure to note and photograph the food and water bowls (if any) and their location and condition, bedding, cages, animal waste, food bags, and restraints such as tie-outs and chains. This is very important in neglect cases. Many of these cases may take months to get to trial. When asked if there were food or water bowls present, a response of “none that I saw” is not very strong. A picture that documents the lack of food or water in the room or other conditions (like moldy food) is much more powerful and will also serve to strengthen your testimony and perhaps jog your memory.

  • Certain details of the animal’s appearance will demonstrate neglect; for example, overgrown toenails, overgrown hooves, skin infections, sores. Take a close-up photo of any such detail, and a full body shot to assist you in remembering how the close-ups fit together.

  • Take photos of all animals, including any dead ones.

  • If there are many animals or if some of them look alike, identify each of them with an ID number. This can be done in a simple manner by using a thick black marker to write a large identifying number on a sheet of paper and placing the numbered sheet in all pictures of that animal. (See also Appendix IV, Fact Sheets and Articles, “Animal Hoarders Fact Sheet”).

  • If you have access to a camcorder, you can use it to show any problems the animal may have in moving about. In addition, you can use it to record the entire scene relating to the condition of the animals.

IMPORTANT: Again, request that all persons on the scene maintain a professional image and manner of speaking. Everything will be recorded by the camcorder. Jokes and disparaging comments about the defendant should be avoided. You might also want to turn off the sound feature to avoid such mistakes.

What do you do with the evidence?

Ensure that you retain your video and have two copies of the photos or video tape. Provide one to the State’s Attorney’s Office. The police officer will secure the other in his evidence file. Save all notes made by investigators, animal control officers, etc. and enter them into evidence.

NOTE: If the film is not developed by a police agency, we suggest that you identify all photo receipts (with your initials, the date, the time, the firm that developed the film) to maintain the chain of custody. Although this is not mandatory, and is usually not a problem (the only criteria for admission is that they "fairly and accurately" depict the item in question), this procedure demonstrates your professional approach.


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