ELIZABETHTOWN — An emerging group of lawmakers, civic organizations and grassroots activists want you to know that animal abuse doesn’t fly in Essex County.
On Monday, March 17, a task force met at the Essex County Government Center to chart a path forward in preventing, identifying and prosecuting animal cruelty within county lines.
“We as a society definitely need to provide better protection to our animal population,” said Essex County Sheriff Richard Cutting, who helped set up the force. “This can be done by more comprehensive laws designed to punish offenders and make offenses carry more legal weight than the outdated and archaic laws that we have to deal with now.”
Cutting said there are currently no local laws specifically prohibiting animal cruelty and authorities have to turn to the often-antiquated Agricultural and Markets laws written for the agrarian communities of yesteryear.
Those laws, most of them equating to toothless misdemeanors, mainly refer to things like overdriving livestock, said Cutting.
District Attorney Kristy Sprague agreed that current legislation hasn’t caught up in reflecting the contemporary realities of animal ownership and nailing those who continually abuse them, whether by leaving them exposed to the harsh elements or neglecting to the extent to which they’re eventually whittled into skeletal, sore-pocked skinrags.
“The animal abuse statutes as they stand now do not provide increased sanction for repeat offenders and provide no statutory right for the prosecutor to ask for lifetime prohibition on ownership of animals,” she said in an email message. “This is just scratching the surface as to the inadequacies of the current laws.”
Sprague, who is on the task force, said from a law enforcement standpoint, crimes against animals have been linked to other types of abuse, including domestic violence.
“This is very concerning,” she said.
BEST HOOF FORWARD
Chaired by Lewis Supervisor David Blades and Willsboro chief Shaun Gillilland, the task force’s objectives for the year are to develop, approve and adopt county policies and procedures for handling animal cruelty cases that are beyond the capability of local town animal control officers to handle.
Afterwards, they hope to supplement these procedures with community outreach and awareness programs and, if necessary, fundraising campaigns.
“We’re going to harness the lessons we’ve learned in the past and move forward with specific objectives so we can accomplish something,” said Gillilland. “We’ll then move suggestions up the board of supervisors for approval.”
Prior to the task force, the county didn’t have a set blueprint in place for dealing with animal abuse, a gap that became increasingly evident during the lengthy struggle when authorities grappled with allegations of abuse on an Essex farm before finally seizing 41 sickly horses and arresting the owners.
That case is still winding its way through the county court system, as are several others.
“Animal abuse is a nationwide issue, not just at the county level,” said task force member Major Dave Reynolds of the Essex County Sheriff’s Department.
Reynolds said since Jan. 1, his office has deemed 24 citizen reports of animal abuse to be credible and dispatched officers out to all of them to investigate.
He said his staff looks forward to advising the task force how to move forward from a law enforcement perspective, a role that includes dispensing advice and making recommendations as to how his department would like to see abuse addressed from a legislative standpoint.
“There is very promising legislation currently making its way through Albany, including the Consolidated Animal Crimes Bill, that the task force is excited to support,” said Jessica Hartley, Executive Director of the North Country SPCA, the official who help spur the creation of the task force after an impassioned presentation to the board of supervisors in August of 2012.
“The more we educate people about the proper treatment and care of their animals, the bigger the impact we will have on reducing the cases of animal cruelty and neglect that we see in our communities,” she said.
Gillilland said the task force’s executive committee plans on meeting monthly with the full group meeting on an as-needed basis.
Nancy Van Wie, co-owner of Crane Valley Horse Rescue, the organization that took in the aforementioned horses last fall, said they will keep their ears to the ground:
“We will certainly continue to provide counsel whenever consulted,” she said.
At the state level, state senator Greg Ball (R, C, I - Patterson) has been circulating a petition since this past August to create a statewide animal abuse registry after the so-called Railroad Puppies case in Albany drew widespread attention to what many perceived as the lack of all-encompassing animal rights laws in the state.