The ASPCA frequently participates in animal rescue missions, both large and small, all over the United States. Here’s an inside look at what goes into planning and executing a life-saving raid.
Many of our cases begin at the investigation stage, with law enforcement, prosecutors, or other animal welfare agencies from across the country contacting the ASPCA for assistance with animal cruelty cases. They might get in touch at the very beginning of an investigation—when they’re not yet certain if the situation constitutes a criminal case—or later on in the process once they’ve concluded that a rescue operation is necessary. Either way, the ASPCA’s vast investigative, forensic, legal, operational and sheltering expertise can play a critical role. Other times, the work of our own investigators, sometimes following up on tips from concerned citizens, can uncover situations where there appears to be evidence of animal cruelty and reaching out to law enforcement is the appropriate step. Whether cases are initiated by law enforcement, or we bring a potential cruelty situation to their attention and they decide to move forward, we are poised to support local efforts, typically traveling to the area to provide assistance.
Requests for the ASPCA’s assistance are sometimes quite time-sensitive because law enforcement is facing a dire situation in which the animal victims are in crisis and intervention must be immediate. The ASPCA is unmatched in our ability to help animals quickly while supporting the criminal investigation, maintaining the integrity of a crime scene, documenting the conditions of the animals, and providing subject-matter expertise to help authorities build a criminal case and lay the groundwork for a successful prosecution.
Shelter Planning and Setup
Sheltering is a substantial challenge—a temporary shelter will serve as a home for the rescued animals during the oftentimes protracted period before the court determines ownership. It can take weeks or even months for our Policy, Response and Engagement Group’s staff to identify an appropriate location for a temporary shelter, and the pressure is even greater when a seizure is imminent and a location has to be secured quickly.
Every situation is different and presents unique complexities. On top of the more obvious baseline requirements for a temporary shelter—like electricity, running water and proper ventilation— a mountain of practical details must be ironed out before any location can be utilized. These details can include zoning considerations, obtaining the proper permits, complying with veterinary practice laws, and security. The ASPCA’s Legal team works through all the issues and, in the midst of planning, is on call 24/7 to ensure that the lease agreement for a temporary shelter location will be finalized by the given deadline.
Every case is a distinct logistical puzzle and requires a diverse array of supplies, vehicles and responders. Once we have a plan in place, the team springs into action and begins staging the facility. In addition to preparing supplies for the animals—food, transport crates, pens, cleaning supplies, medical supplies and equipment—we must get our responders there, and longer stays require rotating in a fresh crop of skilled professionals weekly. This means flights, rental cars and lodging must be booked, and local restaurants or caterers need to be contracted to bring in meals. This is where our Finance team steps in—all expenses and reimbursements are routed through this department, which gladly takes on the extra work on top of their regular responsibilities.
Raid and Forensics
Once law enforcement has the authority to execute a search warrant, the ASPCA’s NFR team holds a meeting the day before with any other participating agencies (such as law enforcement or staff from other animal welfare organizations) to review the exact plan and finalize roles, responsibilities and protocols. The ASPCA provides particular expertise with respect to the special challenges in processing crime scenes involving animals and closely collaborates with law enforcement, whether local, state or federal. As of late 2016, we have three forensic veterinarians on staff, as well as one crime scene/evidence technician and five investigators with evidence-collection expertise.
Following strict protocols is critical. Once we arrive on the property, we immediately conduct a full inventory of the animals, taking care to document any scars, injuries or signs of disease, as well as environmental factors like overcrowding or unsanitary living conditions.
Investigators and evidence technicians walk through the property and take notes, photos and videos, as well as draw a detailed crime scene sketch. The Forensics team documents evidence like blood spatter, gravesites and paraphernalia associated with the crime. This is all evidence that will aid prosecutors with any future criminal proceedings.
Our mobile Animal Crime Scene Investigation and Medical Animal Surgical Hospital (MASH) units are on the scene to help with evidence collection, forensic work and veterinary triage. The MASH unit is a custom-built, mobile animal hospital that allows veterinarians to provide critical care to animals onsite. The vehicle includes a surgical suite, exam tables and diagnostic technology allowing for immediate medical results.
Intake and Treatment
Each animal is assigned a unique alpha-numeric code and given a collar or tag bearing that identifier. As soon as possible, we bring the animals to a temporary emergency shelter using our state-of-the-art Animal Transport Trailers. Our team is capable of moving hundreds of animals in a day.
At the temporary shelter, the animals are greeted by a medical team, animal handlers and daily care staff, and go through intake. After the intake process, they are triaged by veterinarians, who examine them, administer any necessary emergency treatment, take notes on their overall condition and lay out a treatment plan. The animals are then set up safely in their enclosures to settle in and rest before any additional treatment.
During their time at the temporary shelter, the animals receive first-rate medical care and professional, ongoing behavior evaluation. In addition, the animals’ improvement in health is documented as evidence. Depending on the progression of the case, we may maintain a temporary shelter for anywhere from a few weeks to more than a year.
If and when the ASPCA becomes the legal guardian of rescued animals, we aim to place as many as we can in homes through our extensive network of shelter partners and rescues. In addition, we sometimes host local adoption events to help find loving homes for rescued animals. Planning and promoting these events to ensure high adopter turnout requires the full force of our New York City-based Media, Creative Services, Digital Marketing and Communications teams, and executing them typically requires a major surge of boots on the ground—ASPCA staffers from throughout the organization, as well as many of our dedicated volunteers, answer the call and travel far from home to pitch in on these special days.
When all is said and done—when the animals are safe and healed, and we’ve packed up our gear and headed to the next case—an important part of our work is what we leave behind in the form of education and awareness. The ASPCA strives to pass on our knowledge and experience to our law enforcement partners: We work with them to identify effective means to investigate animal-related crimes, because these techniques are often different from those employed for human-on-human crimes. This collaboration leaves law enforcement units that may not have much experience with animal cases better equipped to respond to similar situations in the future.
If a case progresses to a prosecution, the ASPCA’s Legal Advocacy and Investigations department provides expert assistance to prosecutors, police and cruelty investigators, as well as “second chair” support through the coordination of legal and other expert services.