We are often asked what role we play in investigating complaints of animal cruelty. What authority do we have? What laws exist in Osceola County and Florida to protect animals? Why can’t we just remove an animal that does not look good? I will do my best to answer all of these questions.
Any law enforcement entity has the authority to investigate matters of animal cruelty within their respective jurisdictions including the Osceola County Sheriff’s Department and local police departments such as St. Cloud and Kissimmee. In reality, Osceola County Animal Services handles most of these investigations for the simple fact that we often end up caring for and rehoming animals that are seized or relinquished in these cases. Also, we specialize in our understanding and knowledge of applicable laws. Rather than being responsible for having an understanding of many laws, like sworn law enforcement officers, we have the opportunity to focus on laws relating to animals, animal welfare in particular.
Animal Control Officers do not have authority to make arrests so when that need arises, the appropriate law enforcement entity is contacted or a warrant for an arrest is issued by the court or State Attorney’s office. Animal Control Officers are authorized to enforce and investigate the local Animal Code, Chapter 4, Animals, and certain State laws pertaining to cruelty, abuse, neglect, abandonment, etc. Some of the statutes we enforce include F.S.S. 828.12, Cruelty to Animals; 828.13, Confinement of Animals without sufficient food, water, or shelter (abandonment); and 828.122, Animal Fighting and Baiting. You can find these statutes by going to www.onlinesunshine.org, clicking on Florida Statutes, then scrolling to the appropriate chapter, 828. You can find the entire Osceola County Animal Code by going to www.municode.com, click on library, then Florida, then Osceola County, then Chapter 4, Animals.
Believe it or not, Florida is ranked relatively high in its laws to protect animals by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, 14th, nationwide. While we certainly have room for improvement, I think most people believe that our laws are woefully inadequate. I think obstacles to prosecution are more often the problem than a lack of good laws. Those obstacles may include the following:
1) A reluctance to report neglect/cruelty. This can occur for many reasons, not the least of which is fear of retribution from the alleged perpetrator.
2) Lack of evidence. A case cannot be filed on the basis of “belief” that a violation of the criminal statute has occurred but rather we must be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime has occurred. We are talking about the potential for people to go to jail so the burden of proof must be high.
3) False perceptions is another issue we face. Things are not always as they seem. For example, just because you see a thin dog does not mean the owner is neglecting it. Perhaps the dog is old and under the care of a licensed veterinarian. A thin animal doesn’t necessary mean the animal is not being adequately fed, or is being intentionally starved. Thinness is caused by variety of issues, some of which can be cured and others that cannot.
Our job is to find out why the animal is thin and only through a proper investigation will we have that answer. We have to be objective and open minded in our investigations and do not have the luxury of making assumptions.
We deal with many people who are frustrated when they learn we do not have the authority to “just pick up an animal” because the caller thinks he/she is not being properly cared for. Good or bad, animals are viewed as property under existing law and as such, owners have certain rights. If a circumstance is serious enough, we have the ability to obtain a pick-up warrant which allows us to seize animals specifically described in the order. It takes time to get enough evidence to obtain such a warrant. There “may” be exceptions for exigent circumstances when an animal in a dire situation that would likely result in death unless immediate intervention is provided. Those situations are very few and far between and when time allows, we always get the proper pick up warrant.
We take complaints of animal neglect and abuse very seriously and with the help of other local law enforcement organizations and the State Attorneys office, we have enjoyed great success in holding those that mistreat animals accountable for their actions.
Please report suspected animal abuse or neglect in Osceola County to 407-742-8000. Thank you.