What to Do if You Spot Cruelty

If you think that an animal is being abused or neglected, it’s very important that you do something about it. Your involvement might be the animal’s only hope. 

Where to Start

First, find out which agency is responsible for investigating and enforcing the anti-cruelty laws in your state, county, or town. This might be a local humane society or Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) or a taxpayer-funded animal shelter (animal control). In jurisdictions without a humane society or animal-management department, citizens can call upon the police or sheriff’s department to enforce the law.

If the victim is not in immediate need of rescue, check state and local animal protection laws online or at your local library or city hall. Print out a copy of any laws that you believe are being violated, and be ready to cite these laws to authorities. In most states, causing an animal “unnecessary suffering” is illegal. That term can include everything from beating an animal to depriving him or her of clean water, food, or shelter.

If the animal is in a life-threatening situation—severely injured or ill—call authorities or 911 immediately and do not leave the scene until authorities respond. If they do not respond right away, call PETA.

Gathering Evidence

Once you have determined which law enforcement agency to contact (and ensured that the animal is not in imminent danger), provide authorities with a short, concise, factual written statement detailing the key points of what you have observed and giving dates, locations, and approximate times. Timely fact-gathering is crucial—the more time that passes, the greater the likelihood that specifics will be forgotten, witnesses will move, evidence will disappear, injuries will heal, etc. If you can, take pictures and date them. Photographic or videotaped evidence fortifies your case, and short, factual, written statements from other witnesses will back up your observations.

Always keep a record of everyone you contact (official or otherwise), the dates of the contacts, and the content and outcome of your discussions. Never pass on a letter, photograph, or any documentation without first creating a copy for your file. Make it crystal clear to authorities that you wish to pursue this case and are willing to lend your assistance if necessary, and be sure to follow up! If you stay involved, the authorities are more likely to do so as well.

Law enforcement officials should inspect the animal visually and, if possible, conduct a hands-on field exam (referred to as “palpating” the animal) in order to find injuries or an otherwise unhealthy physical condition that might be obscured by the victim’s fur. Officials will often be fooled by a dog who “acts happy,” but manic or social behavior does not mean that the animal is safe; he or she might just be anxious to please or desperate for attention. A more thorough examination is necessary, and an injured or clearly endangered animal must not be left behind. The crime scene should also be thoroughly inspected for any indication that abuse has occurred. Suspects and neighbors (potential witnesses) should be interviewed. If the investigator agrees that your complaint has merit, a warning might be issued, charges filed, or a warrant served, and animals might be removed.

Pursuing Your Case

Persistence has saved countless animals from abusive people. If you are unable to get satisfaction from law enforcement officers, go straight to their supervisors. If necessary, appeal to local government officials, such as the mayor, prosecutor, city council members, or county commissioners. A simple call to the media (TV and print) in your area can move mountains. News coverage often forces officials to act and can also scare the abuser into stopping the cruel behavior. News coverage might also inspire viewers who have seen similar acts to step forward and share their own accounts.

If you have personally witnessed an act of cruelty, you can go to your local magistrate or police commissioner and swear out a warrant to summon the abuser to court. Expert witnesses can be very helpful—a veterinarian, for example, can sign a statement that it is his or her expert opinion that a dog suffers if swung by a leash, deprived of food, etc. If you know a sympathetic veterinarian, seek his or her assistance, and let officials know that you have expert support.

Call PETA for Help

Advocating for abused or neglected animals can be difficult and heart-wrenching, but abused animals are depending on you to find the strength to take action. You are in a position to make all the difference in the world for the animals in your community. Please feel free to contact PETA if you need guidance or support or if officials fail to respond quickly to your complaint.

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