Delays in reporting hurt animal abuse cases

OKEECHOBEE — When it comes to cases of animal abuse, the sooner the suspected abuse is reported, the greater the chances the case can be successfully prosecuted, and just as importantly, the faster an abused animal will be helped.

When a call is received, the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office dispatch sends a deputy to take an initial report. If someone contacts animal control, they respond and determine if there is anything criminal. If circumstances point to a criminal act, then it is turned over to OCSO Road Patrol or the Criminal Investigations Division, depending on the allegations. The incident is then handled accordingly.

A big problem that the law enforcement community faces on a whole is timely reporting of incidents by the populace and then having to manage those cases that have suffered from a delay in reporting. This was brought to light with the recent dairy undercover investigations conducted by Animal Recovery Mission (ARM). ARM is a Miami-based animal rights organization that promotes a strictly vegan diet.

Undercover ARM investigators applied for jobs as dairy workers back in August and September. Videos by those individuals were released beginning Nov. 9. Okeechobee County Sheriff Noel Stephen made it known that this type of delay in reporting hinders the ability for law enforcement to effectively do their job.

“The way these videos were reported was very problematic and makes it an issue for us to investigate. I would like to have had the videos in a more timely fashion to be able to identify the cattle that are on these videos to see if they are injured. McArthur Dairy for instance, they got 1,100 cows out on their farm. There is no way we are going to be able to identify the cows depicted in this video to see if they are in fact injured, and we’re talking two and half to three months ago. So, some of those cows are probably not even on that farm. That’s very problematic for us to prosecute these cases from,” stated Sheriff Stephen Dec. 21.

Some questions that deputies may ask themselves in determining if abuse may be present are: Does the animal appear to be physically abused? Is the animal being starved? Is the animal possibly being made to fight?

If the abuse involves horses, the ag deputies have been trained in and utilize the Henneke Body Condition Scoring Chart.

“The Henneke Chart is a standardized scoring system, whereas the terms ‘skinny,’ ‘thin,’ ‘emaciated’ or ‘fat’ are all subjective terms that have different meanings to different people.

The Henneke Scoring System is a scientific method of evaluating a horse’s body condition regardless of breed, body type, sex or age. It is now widely used by law enforcement agencies as an objective method of scoring a horse’s body condition in horse cruelty cases.

The chart is accepted in a court of law” according to the website habitatforhorses.org.

For example, a local animal abuse arrest that involved six horses and the Henneke Scoring Chart utilization occurred when a 54-year-old man was arrested on an Okeechobee County felony warrant for 14 first-degree misdemeanor charges of cruelty to animals. His bond was set at $2,500 for each charge, totaling $35,000.

According to the report Deputy James Hartsfield, of OCSO, responded to the man’s address Sept. 21 of this year in reference to an active animal control case that was opened Sept. 1.

The chart score of 5 indicates an ideal fat content. Two of the man’s horses scored a 6 and two more horses scored a 3. One horse scored a 2.5 and the last one scored a 1.5. The report concluded that all the animals on the property were impounded at the Okeechobee County Animal Control for safe keeping and a full assessment could be conducted.

If the abuse involves a dog, the deputies use a canine body scoring condition chart.

The owner of the alleged abused animal must be identified. The deputy has to make determinations on each individual case whether abuse has occurred or not. If need be, they contact a local veterinarian.

It is important to note that there is not a set-in-stone procedure. Incidents are handled as individual cases with law enforcement utilizing whatever resources are required to facilitate the investigation.

Sometimes, an animal that appears to be neglected is actually suffering from a health issue and is already under a veterinarian’s care.

The sheriff encourages the public to report suspected animal abuse or neglect in a timely manner so the authorities can investigate and make sure the animals receive the needed care.

The Lake Okeechobee News is published every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday and now includes news from around the lake every Wednesday.

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