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Dropping the ball on protecting animals

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

The news reports in recent days have been shocking: a puppy stabbed to death, a dog found abandoned with chemical burns. These are disturbing images for anyone. Even those for whom animal welfare isn't a priority recognize that animal cruelty can affect the whole community. It is well known that violence against animals is closely tied to other forms of abuse. Other criminal activities can also often be a part of this abuse, including use of illegal weapons, drug dealing and dog fighting. For any citizen in any neighborhood, quality of life is greatly diminished by such crimes.

A sign of hope was the creation of the Mayor's Anti-Animal Abuse Commission in 2009. Initially started as a task force after the tragic burning of Phoenix the dog, the commission was charged with making recommendations on how to eradicate animal abuse. Knowing such a charge would require the work of many individuals and city agencies, the participation of various departments was written into the city ordinance, including the Bureau of Animal Control, the Health Department, the mayor's office, the state's attorney's office and the Police Department. Other required participants included a city veterinarian, the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter, the Snyder Foundation for Animals and the Maryland SPCA. All were considered key groups who could work together to address animal abuse.

The commission was fortunate to have a dedicated and thoughtful leader in Caroline Griffin. Thanks to her tireless efforts, progress was seen in the commission's early years, including training workshops on the link between animal abuse and human violence, legislative advances in the city and state, awareness events in our communities, beginning to track data and trends of cases, and the very popular "Show Your Soft Side" campaign featuring local sports stars and celebrities.

Unfortunately, progress seems to have stalled. The commission's 2012 report lists a number of serious challenges, including lack of participation by key agencies; the failure to assign an interim director for the animal control department; concerns about data collection and tracking; and — a perennial issue — lack of resources for the critical work of animal control. Disturbingly, the mayor's office did not publicly share this report on its website when it was presented; the shortcomings highlighted in the report only came to light after Ms. Griffin and several other commission members resigned, prompting The Sun and other media outlets to request the document. The mayor's office said recently that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is reviewing the report.

Since news of the problematic report and resignations surfaced, there have been more reported cases of animal abuse. City residents are left to wonder if the city will support the changes recommended by the commission in its report. The fact that the City wasn't willing to publicly share the report is not a good sign. Significant challenges have been identified and cannot be addressed if they are not even acknowledged.

Adequately funding animal control is crucial to a safe community — for both pets and people. Yet, each year, the department is threatened with cuts. Assigning more police officers to investigate animal cruelty cases is sorely needed. One officer is currently assigned to the growing list of these terrible crimes. This is simply insufficient and unacceptable.

Enforcing participation by and communication/cross-reporting among key agencies on the commission is also critical. Humane education should be built into our school curricula. The commission can do good work provided that real support is given to its efforts.

After reviewing the report, the mayor should explain how her administration will address the concerns in the document. It will be a matter of systemic change requiring accountability. This is what we should expect from our leaders.

Aileen Gabbey is executive director of the Maryland SPCA. Her email is aogabbey@mdspca.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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