Managing the costs of caring for animals seized in cruelty cases
Once cruelty or animal fighting charges are filed, it can be several months or even longer before the criminal case is resolved-either by a plea bargain or by a trial. During this time, the animal victims who were taken into custody must be housed, fed and provided with veterinary care.
Humane societies, shelters and SPCAs that take on the care of animals seized in cruelty cases face often daunting financial hardship. The fiscal burden is particularly acute when a case involves seizure of large numbers of animals.
Unable to shoulder this cost alone, many shelters are compelled to limit the assistance they can offer. This in turn creates an obstacle to effective enforcement of cruelty and fighting laws. If there is no place for the seized animals to go, law enforcement is less likely to do the seizure in the first place.
Fortunately, there are some strategies to help alleviate this burden. This article briefly describes several approaches to providing and paying for proper care of animals seized in cruelty cases.
Securing a written voluntary surrender of the seized animals from the owner at the outset of the criminal case allows the animals to be made available for adoption quickly. However, release for adoption will be subject to approval by the prosecutor handling the case since the animals are after all "evidence."
Many states have laws that authorize the court to order the person charged with cruelty or fighting to post a bond to cover the cost of caring for the seized animals while the criminal case is resolved. These laws typically allow the court to order forfeiture of the animals if the person fails to post the bond.
Some laws even permit immediate disposition of animals used for fighting purposes under the theory that these animals are "contraband" and therefore illegal to possess. These laws must, however, be carefully crafted since they have been and will likely continue to be challenged on constitutional grounds.
Laws authorizing forfeiture of assets used in animal fighting ventures may also be tailored to require use of resulting funds to defray the cost of caring for seized animals and for enforcement of fighting and cruelty laws.
"Unfit Owner" Provisions
Some states have civil provisions that allow the court to find the animal's owner "unfit" without resort to a criminal prosecution. A finding of "unfitness" authorizes the court to order forfeiture of the animals.
Some state laws define animals left without adequate food or water for a specified period of time as "abandoned." Abandoned animals are no longer "owned" and can therefore be made available for adoption or euthanized (again with the approval of the prosecutor).
Impoundment on Premises
These provisions allow law enforcement to "seize in place," meaning that some or all of the animals are left on the premises where they were found. Law enforcement also has the right to go onto the property to care for the animals and/or to make sure that they are receiving appropriate care.
This option is most frequently used in cases involving large numbers of livestock or farm animals. This approach can, however, make it difficult to accurately document and track the condition of the animals and to ensure that the animals receive necessary care. Therefore, it is generally considered an option of last resort.
Courts can make repayment of the cost of caring for seized animals a part of the abuser's sentence. Law enforcement should be sure to recommend this to the prosecutor handling the case and to the probation department which typically makes sentencing recommendations to the court. Violations of a restitution order should trigger placement of a lien on the defendant's assets to satisfy the debt. Sentencing provisions in cruelty and fighting laws can be fashioned to make restitution and liens a mandatory component of the sentence.
Some animal abuse victims require substantial ongoing medical or behavioral treatment before they can be placed. In some cases the defendant may have adequate financial resources to cover reasonable costs for these treatments. The court can make this restitution for ongoing or even future services part of the defendant's sentence, ordering the payments made to the agency providing care to the animal. Violation of this order can trigger placement of a lien on the defendant's property to satisfy the debt and/or contempt proceedings.
Depending on the state, fines can be imposed in varying amounts as part of the defendant's sentence. Often, fine money goes into a general fund. But some jurisdictions are making creative use of these fines to help fund cruelty investigations and prosecutions in their community. Dedicating the money for this purpose may require a change to your local or state law.
Crime Victim Compensation Funds and Animal Abuse Funds
Convicted criminals generally pay into these funds to benefit the victims of their crimes, to help fund investigation of animal cruelty, and to pay for the care of animals they are convicted of abusing. These laws should be crafted to expressly include animals as "victims" and to authorize use of funds for the direct care of animals seized in cruelty and fighting cases.
Contracting for Services
Because animals seized in cruelty cases are evidence in a criminal matter, the cost of preserving that evidence should be borne in the same manner as any other evidence in a criminal case - that is to say, by the government, and not by a private organization.
Shelters, humane societies and SPCAs should consider entering contracts with their local or county governments in which they agree to care for specified numbers of animals seized in cruelty cases for delineated fees, which can be renegotiated on an annual basis. These contracts, much the same as contracts for housing stray animals, take much of the unpleasant (and financially crippling) surprise out of cruelty case work.