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Western Mass. DA's office launches animal protection task force, calls for more funding

Sophie, a pitbull, was taken from an Agawam home by Agawam Police and Animal control in 2022 after being severely abused. She was cared for at MSPCA-Angell in Boston where she healed from her injuries and was placed with a foster family.
Sara-Rose Brenner
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MSPCA-Angell
Sophie, a pitbull, was taken from an Agawam home by Agawam Police and Animal control in 2022 after being severely abused. She was cared for at MSPCA-Angell in Boston where she healed from her injuries and was placed with a foster family.

The Northwestern District Attorney’s office has launched a task force on animal protection, in part, to help make up for limited resources among western Massachusetts cities and towns.

Prosecutor Erin Aiello, who runs the domestic violence and sexual assault division of the DA’s office, specializes in cases involving animal cruelty. She said animal abuse often goes hand in hand with intimate partner violence and child abuse - and many times, animals must be seized as part of a criminal case.

“A lot of times we get better results (prosecuting other crimes) when there's an animal cruelty charge attached, because people have a bias towards animals they don't necessarily have in favor of humans,” Aiello said. “So if we can prosecute animal cruelty cases fully, we're actually keeping human members of our society a lot safer as well.”

However, she said prosecuting animal cruelty is more challenging when resources are stretched thin.

The DA’s office reports 5 to 10 calls a week of suspected animal neglect or abuse, Aiello said. Meanwhile, not every town has an animal control officer, and some officers have to cover multiple towns.

“I definitely think there's cruelty going on in our communities that is not being addressed. And it's not because the animal welfare officers or animal control doesn't care,” she said. “It's just they don't have enough resources.”

Aiello is also concerned about resources available to care for animals brought into the legal system. If an owner surrenders their pet, it can be adopted by another family or rescue league. But if not, there’s only one shelter covering Franklin and Hampshire Country for dogs who are in police custody (and none for cats), so they may have to rely on volunteers taking in animals or enlisting shelters from other counties.

Aiello would also like more state funding for cities and towns trying to care for seized pets.

“This isn't a bag of drugs or a gun that can be stored in an evidence locker. It's a being that requires food, vet care. And so it also becomes a cost for the municipalities,” Aiello said. “For a small town in Franklin County or Hampshire County, their animal control budget may only be $1,000, and one vet bill from an animal cruelty case can wipe that completely out.”

Since the pandemic began, Aiello said there are more instances of animal neglect and abandonment since families may have adopted a pet during lockdown but now have less time and fewer resources to care for it. She said her office works hard to distinguish between families who are cruel to their pets and those who simply don’t have the money to properly care for them.

“Our office is really thoughtful about not punishing poverty,” Aiello said. “So a lot of times, animal control officers work with families, work with individuals, to get them in compliance. And sometimes that will be through vouchers or food or just providing some education.”

Last fall, the DA’s office launched a regional animal protection task force, partly as a response to the shortage of animal welfare resources. Aiello said it’s meant to help pool resources and expertise among law enforcement, animal welfare, and mental health professionals.

“You have animal control officers who are not sworn officers but they have a lot of animal welfare knowledge,” she said. “And then you have officers who have the training in regards to criminal investigation and proper procedure, but they don't necessarily have that animal related knowledge.”

The task force’s next training is Feb. 8, with a focus on how to recognize cases of dog-fighting.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.