Protecting DC’s Animals: Humane Law Enforcement’s Important Role in our City by Anna M. Gould

courtesy Humane Rescue Alliance

Anna M. Gould has lived in the District of Columbia for 16 years and considers herself a dog AND cat person. HRA is taking calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week. To report animal emergencies, please call (202) 576-6664. To report cruelty or neglect, please call (202)723-5730.

In recent weeks, PoPville has kept us informed about some animal cruelty cases here in the District. As much as we need to know about these things, reading about them can be disheartening. Fortunately, there are men and women fighting the good fight on behalf of our city’s animals. Did you know that DC has its own humane law enforcement?

I recently had the opportunity to attend a presentation by Chris Schindler, the Vice President of Field Services at the Humane Rescue Alliance (HRA). Almost entirely supported by donations, HRA is an animal welfare organization providing shelter for DC’s homeless animals. With staff and volunteers, they offer many programs to help animals and their families and educate citizens. In HRA’s Field Services division, Schindler is in charge of the special people responsible for humane law enforcement in the District. His team consists of a director, six Humane Law Enforcement Officers, 11 Animal Control Officers, four Animal Control Investigators, one wildlife specialist, and seven Field Services Dispatchers. Together they handle between 1800-2000 calls annually, while being on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

They are responsible for a number of activities, including responding to all animal-related emergencies. Officers address a variety of complaints, including: neglect, animals left in cars, poor shelter, physical abuse, dogfighting, and hoarding. While a Metropolitan Police Department patrol officer might call in a detective or crime scene technician for help in working a case, the Humane Law Enforcement officer has to be ready to patrol his or her section of the city, investigate negligence or abuse, and work with the U.S. Attorneys Office in order to obtain search and arrest warrants. According to Schindler, their officers receive specialized training in crime scene investigation, documentation, and interviewing techniques. They serve as expert witnesses in court, making victim impact statements on behalf of the animals, and help attorneys with guidance, investigations, and recommendations. The officers also cultivate close relationships with the DC police and other law enforcement agencies both in and outside the city. Additionally, by providing community education opportunities, HRA and its officers help prevent cruelty and negligence cases from arising by educating residents about how to properly care for the animals in their care.

In terms of humane law enforcement priorities for DC, HRA has a few. This includes allowing lights and sirens on their vehicles, which would allow them to respond to life-threatening emergencies quickly. They also would like to ban bestiality in the District, which, according to Schindler, is one of only six areas in the United States where it is legal.

And very importantly, they would like to see penalties upgraded and sentencing guidelines adjusted for animal cruelty so that “judges have the tools necessary to hand down a sentence more fitting” for the crime. Just as it sometimes is hard to find appropriate punishment for crimes against humans, the penalties for crimes against animals are likewise often too weak and insufficient. Schindler says that most defendants end up receiving suspended sentences and probation for cruelty, demonstrating a critical need for updated laws and penalties.

It can be frustrating to read about cruelty cases affecting animals in our city. Fortunately, there are tangible ways to make a difference. Humane law enforcement relies on donors. If you can’t volunteer, giving a few dollars can greatly further their work. They have specific funds that you can learn more about on their website, including the Fund to Combat Cruelty in Memory of Sophie Abrahams and Robby Watts and the Justice Fund. They also have a Humane Hold program where trained volunteers provide animals with enrichment, help with behavior issues, and take care of their needs while they are held in the shelter awaiting action in the courts. Humane Hold volunteers provided at least 519 hours of assistance in 2017 when HRA had 32 dogs in the program. Their work was critical in preparing the dogs for their future homes. Finally, the Humane Heroes program is a foster program designed specifically for animals rescued by humane law enforcement.

Besides donating or giving your time to this worthy endeavor, you might consider making your voice heard on animal cruelty issues with the DC City Council. There are a lot of people in this town who love animals and want to ensure their welfare is taken seriously. It is my hope that the more we talk to our elected officials, the more likely they will respond and act in favor of animals. The animals cannot petition for better laws, but we can. As stewards entrusted with their care, we must.

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