Animal welfare advocates say Vermont has made progress when it comes to handling cases of animal cruelty, but they say there's still a lack of clarity when deciding who's responsible for investigations, and who pays the costs associated with caring for the animals.
And there's still significant risk, because taking in animals while cases of neglect and abuse work their way through the courts can expose shelters to liability if the animals get hurt or die under the care of the people who rescued them.
At Homeward Bound, Addison County's humane society, executive director Jessica Danyow let two fluffy little dogs out of their pen. "The little one is Little Man, and the big one is Bear," she said. "They’re Pomeranians. In the case, there were 5 Pomeranians, there was a westie and her puppies and there was a mini schnauzer. They were all little dogs."
The dogs are two of 28 animals seized from a house in Ferrisburgh in October by Vermont State Police. Homeward Bound assisted and took in a menagerie of animals.
"Dogs, puppies, cats, multiple birds, parrots of different species, small animals, guinea pigs, hamsters, ferrets, even a bearded dragon," Danyow said.
Most of those animals are in foster homes. While the dogs overall seem healthy, their brown teeth are signs of neglect.
As the court case against the owner proceeds, the animals are in a sort of legal limbo because animals in Vermont are considered personal property. They're also evidence in the court cases. In 2014, Vermont passed a civil forfeiture law that gives shelters a legal path to gain custody of animals like these and find homes for them without affecting the outcome of the court cases.
The Addison County States Attorney has asked for civil forfeiture of the 28 animals in this case and Danyow , who's also president of the Vermont Humane Federation, says that's a crucial request for the well being of these animals.
"Four of the dogs that were taken were puppies, that were between three and four weeks old. They’re now 13 weeks old. They’re in foster care homes and they’re getting care and socialization. But they’re also in a really strange limbo and if this case were to drag out, their entire puppy-hoods could be spent in an institution essentially. They miss out and families who could have adopted them as puppies and loved them miss out," Danyow said.
And because the animals are considered personal property, that shelter liability problem comes into play.
Windham County Humane Society executive Director Annie Guion says prior to civil forfeiture, cases were even more risky. "In 2005, the shelter seized 40 animals from the owner in terrible condition, she was deemed incompetent to stand trial, the case was thrown out," Guion said. "The shelter held those animals for a year and the estimated cost was $65,000 never mind the loss in income from adoption fees and it pretty darn near closed our doors for good."
The Franklin County Humane Society cited expenses of an animal cruelty case as part of the financial troubles that caused them to temporarily shut their doors.
The state convened an animal cruelty task force. Guion said in a more recent case the shelter was able to gain custody of six dogs and find homes for them, but the process still took six months.
And when it comes to cases of livestock or other large animals, care can be even more expensive. Guion says the Lucy McKenzie Humane Society in West Windsor spent about $100,000 caring for horses involved in a cruelty case. And then there was the case involving alleged animal neglect at Santa's Land in Putney. Guion says in that instance the sheriff's department asked for the humane society's help.
"They called me and said hey can you take these animals? I was kind of flabbergasted. They have reindeer which are exotic, they require permits to move and even have, they had a llama and emu and on and on it went. I said I do not have the means to do this, and the wherewithal and the financial backing."
Guion said in that case the sheriff's department was persistent and found foster care for the animals. But if the case had happened in another town the response might have been different. Animal cruelty complaints are investigated by multiple agencies: animal control officers, law enforcement, the Agency of Agriculture and the Vermont Humane Federation. As a result, Guion says calls about animal welfare might be answered differently depending on the town and who gets the call.
"It varies town to town. Towns are supposed to have an animal control officer, it’s rarely paid, it’s not a trained position usually, sometimes they don’t even get a leash and a catch pole," she said.
"Some animal control officers are elected, some are appointed, and some are hired. In some communities it might be the person at the end of town meeting who says ok, I’ll do it. They might not have training or experience in assessing animal welfare," said South Burlington Police Chief Trevor Whipple.
Whipple trains law enforcement officers and civilian humane officers at the Vermont Police Academy. He says calls about animal cruelty are infrequent and officers might not have the expertise to know what constitutes proper care for each species. But he trains them to find experts.
"What I do want them to do is to know where to go so if they get a complaint about pigs that aren’t being property cared for that they have a veterinarian or civilian humane agent who is an expert in the area of raising pigs that I can get advice from them or ask them to come join me in this investigation," he said.
Whipple said most police agencies have found at least one officer to take the training voluntarily, but more is needed. He says most officers recognize that crimes against animals are worth pursuing, even if they are difficult to investigate.
"People who are abusing animals have a dark side to them and it’s not just animals they’re abusing. Identifying those types of folks can also lead us to other criminal behavior, or if they don’t lead us there, but engaging with them and addressing their inappropriate behavior we might be derailing them from some future harm to human beings," he said.
And he says while the task force is making great strides, he agrees more legal clarity is needed.
"I do believe it would behoove us if we could have a point entity, not a person but a position because now we kind of throw the balls in the air and figure out who catches it or who does it drop closest to as to is it going to be the local humane agent or is it going to be the law enforcement officer? There’s no definitive point," he said. Whipple pointed to Maine which has an Animal Welfare Division with a dedicated funding source as a model for Vermont to follow.
Back at Homeward Bound, Jessica Danyow agreed. She said the role of shelters is to support investigations, not to lead them, and there needs to be a dedicated funding source, perhaps even a special pet license plate program to raise money to support the program. She said State Attorneys offices can also be part of the solution.
"What I’d really like to see is that it is standard procedure for animal cruelty cases that attorneys need to file for civil forfeiture. Because the cost involved in caring the for animals is high. To date for us it’s been about $7,000," she said. And those costs will continue to add up.
Earlier this week, charges were dropped against one of the defendants in the Ferrisburgh case, and the other two defendants are still fighting civil forfeiture. So for now, the animals will stay in foster care and in the shelters until their fate can be resolved by the courts.