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VACTF Manual: Chapter 3 - Investigating an Animal Cruelty Complaint


There are no hard and fast rules when you investigate animal cruelty; you must use your best judgement in each situation. However, in all situations, we recommend your response be guided by the following concerns:

  • What is the best thing to do for the animal?
  • What would a reasonable person do in this situation?
  • Do I have "reasonable cause" to do what I am doing, based on the facts as I know them?

Be aware of the following general considerations when investigating cruelty complaints:

Arriving at the scene

  1. When you investigate an animal cruelty case, always bring a camera with you.
  2. Are there any witnesses? If so, note their names, addresses, and phone numbers for follow-up contact.
  3. Pay attention to the conditions as you approach the property, and document them, if possible:
    • What buildings are on the property?
    • Are there any sounds coming from the buildings?
    • What is the condition of any animal in plain view on the property?
    • Is the property well kept?
    • Are there any bad smells coming from the property?

These observations will provide you with an idea of what to expect with regards to the condition of the animals as well as clues as to where you might ask to look.

Preparing for Owner Reactions

Throughout this manual, wherever we refer to "owner," the term includes anyone responsible for the care of the animal, as well as the owner himself.

When you confront an owner with an animal cruelty complaint, his or her response can range from cooperation to outrage. Be prepared for anything. Keep in mind that short of being caught in the act of beating their dog, owners generally will not admit to mistreating or neglecting their animals, or they will find excuses for why it happened. It is important to remember this when confronting an individual.

Obtaining a Search Warrant Before Confronting Owner

You may be faced with a situation in which animals are in very bad condition. You may have obtained signed statements attesting to the animals' condition, in addition to your own observations. If it is a situation where you anticipate that confronting the owner first will cause him to remove the animals before you have a chance to obtain a search warrant, consider obtaining the search warrant beforehand.

If the animals are in plain view, consider taking photographs of them from a location where you are not trespassing. Submitting the photographs along with the search warrant application will enhance your chances of obtaining a search warrant. The photographs will also be useful as evidence in your case.

Animal's Condition/Circumstances

The following scenarios can be used for guidance in investigating any animal cruelty complaints: i.e. complaints relating to house pets or farm animals on private property; animals that are part of a circus; animals at county fairs; or animals in a pet store.

The scenarios are based on the assumption that you have received a complaint (anonymously or not) about an animal or that you have personally observed a situation in which an animal is being neglected or abused. The scenarios cover the following situations:

  1. Non-exigent circumstances
    1. Arriving at the scene
    2. Serious neglect
    3. Less serious neglect
    4. Confronting owner/owner reactions
    5. Owner cooperative - wants to surrender animal
    6. Owner cooperative - doesn't want to surrender animal
    7. Owner uncooperative - allows you access to animal
    8. Owner uncooperative - refuses you access to animal
  2. Exigent circumstances
    1. Arriving at the scene
    2. Animal easily accessible
    3. Animal not easily accessible
    4. Confronting owner/owner reactions
  3. Abandonment
    1. Arriving at the scene
    2. Non-exigent circumstances
    3. Exigent circumstances
  4. Large numbers of animals - unable to remove easily

    Your assessment of the animal's circumstances and condition will determine how you proceed. (See also chapter 6, "Animal Care Practices for Some Common Animals", for additional guidance in assessing an animal's condition.)

At the end of this section, we have provided samples of the types of excuses you will hear when you confront a person with the neglect or abuse of their animal.

^ Manual Contents Non-exigent circumstances »

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