The ASPCA has spent the last 147 years advocating for animals, finding homes for pets, providing medical care, and enforcing anti-cruelty laws. In 1866, ASPCA founder Henry Bergh convinced state lawmakers to enact the nation's first anti-cruelty law. The organization then served as the primary law enforcement agency for animal abuse and neglect in New York City, a role that was the first of its kind in the nation. Decades later, the division was even featured on the Animal Planet reality television show, Animal Precinct.
However, all that has changed with the appointment of the new ASPCA president, Matthew Bershadker. Matthew, who previously led the organization's anti-cruelty department, has shifted law enforcement responsibilities to the New York Police Department, saying that they are better staffed to handle the workload.
The NYPD started working on a subset of animal abuse complaints in September as part of a pilot program. Then in December, the ASPCA laid off most of its 17 remaining law enforcement agents in preparation for a full transfer of responsibilities. The ASPCA will support the NYPD by aiding case prosecution, increasing veterinary forensics work, training officers and assistant district attorneys, and handling confiscated animals. A new ward at the ASPCA Animal Hospital has been created specifically for pets brought in by the NYPD.
Some have praised the change, saying that the ASPCA's small enforcement staff can't handle the volume of abuse reports. Over the past few years, the division has handled about 4,000 investigations annually, resulting in about one arrest per week. Reports made through a dedicated hotline soared from 2008 to 2011 when Animal Precinct was on the air.
However, others, including some of the dismissed agents, are concerned that animal abuse cases will be given a lower priority by officers dealing with a full case load of human crimes.
"If they think they can just give this to regular police officers and have them handle it, they're crazy," said David Favre, an expert on animal law at the Michigan State University. "It's hard work. It's different work. It's important work. And it's sad that the ASPCA isn't doing it anymore."
There's no question that the NYPD has the manpower to handle the job (34,000+ officers versus 17), but that is only if they have the right training and a mandate from the top to make the cases a priority. In 2011, the ASPCA found that while nearly all law enforcement officers (in a nationwide study) feel they should play a role in enforcing animal cruelty law, only 41 percent say they know the relevant laws in their area and just 30 percent say they know the penalties.
The NYPD does seem to be putting in the right steps to reverse those numbers. A dedicated staff of two, 25-year NYPD veteran George Kline, and former Bronx County assistant district attorney Elizabeth Brandler, will be providing support to the NYPD relating to anti-cruelty law enforcement. George will coordinate training for all eight NYPD patrol boroughs and district attorneys and Elizabeth will provide criminal law expertise to assist in case prosecution.
I hope that this shift in responsibilities is successful and creates a standard for how law enforcement is trained on anti-cruelty practices.