In her time as an officer with the Pennsylvania State Police, Colleen Shelly learned very quickly just how complicated the investigation of animal-related crimes can become.
Shelly, who worked on several high-profile equine cases, says that beyond their offensiveness, cases of animal abuse or neglect can widen into other, heftier crimes.
Consider a trainer who injects his horse with an illegal substance to mask the horse's injury before a race—the injection violates the rules of the state's racing commission and may be termed animal cruelty, especially if the horse breaks down as a result. But when the jockey gets a leg up on the horse, the trainer has willfully endangered a human life, also. When the horse enters the starting gates, the trainer has endangered other humans and equines. When the horse crosses the finish line, the trainer has also manipulated a pari-mutuel event. Like a row of dominoes, one crime has led to another, and another.
Shelly saw a knowledge gap for many state police officers about animal-specific laws, sports regulations, and management practices, which hindered their ability to track down that first criminal domino, the illegal injection.
Shelly has a B.S. in Criminal Justice from West Chester University and has been involved in animal crimes and animal law for many years.
“I worked on quite a few cases, but every case that I worked on was a contributing factor because quite frankly every animal case that I had, had some type of an element to it where there was a need to educate some other entities that were involved in the investigation,” she said.
“When I was with PSP, people would call me from other agencies looking for advice, and I realized 'We have to do something here.' I use the analogy of computer crimes, where we have special investigators who investigate computer cases and that's what they specialize in because it's so complex. Animal cases are very similar.”
Shelly left the state police force earlier this year and launched the Animal Crime Institute where she offers continuing education courses for police and humane officers, with the hope they can more easily recognize animal-related crimes, including equine crimes.
The Institute has two tracks—one is an animal cruelty track, which trains officers in Pennsylvania's specific cruelty laws. The other focuses on animal-related crime, which could include fraudulent sales, cheating in equestrian sports, or deceptive practices relating to an animal business or tax-exempt organization.
Shelly said many officers are quick to dismiss accusations between people over animals as civil disputes, but sometimes that's a mistake.
“Sometimes these are civil disputes, but sometimes they're not civil disputes. They go beyond that.”
The training courses bridge the knowledge gap for humane officers too—they may be well-versed in animal law but less familiar with search and seizure regulations or interrogation methods.
The Animal Crime Institute hosted its first training sessions earlier this summer, and Shelly said the classes were at or near capacity. She has more sessions scheduled for next month and has already received a strong number of registrations for those. Currently, all courses are on-site only, but she hopes to eventually offer virtual training. Although the animal cruelty courses are Pennsylvania-specific, the animal crime track attracts state and federal investigators from across the country—she is hoping to pull in some FBI agents to her animal fraud course launching next year.
The range of expertise of the Institute's educators (some of whom are not advertised due to their positions with law enforcement) is wide and far-reaching–from lawyers to veterinarians to a farrier. Shelly said the goal isn't to make her students experts in equine health or hoof structure but to introduce them to basics like the Henneke body condition scoring system and the outward appearances of well-trimmed versus neglected hooves.
“They need to have some perspective as to what a healthy animal looks like, and what a skinny animal looks like, and why might the animal look a certain way,” she said. “The starting point is, 'Something doesn't look right here.'”
It's also important, Shelly said, to help officers understand the circumstances in which a horse may appear in poor condition as a result of something other than neglect or abuse—sometimes well-meaning callers report what they think is a thin horse which turns out to be healthy but elderly. Even if an officer isn't sure what may be going on, the Institute's goal is to give him a resource of questions to ask the owner.
Shelly also hopes the Institute can help police establish connections with other law enforcement agencies, as well as animal owners and handlers who can help them investigate crimes when they occur. She has spoken to local rescue groups and animal owners to give them resources within law enforcement. That type of relationship benefits everyone—including citizens who may want to report a crime but don't know where to turn.
“It can be very frustrating,” she said. “If they know what entity is responsible for investigating what type of event, it helps them know where to go so they're not spinning in circles, in addition to understanding what some of their responsibilities as animal owners.”
And, it might help a police officer find that first domino.
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