Striking back

CNJ staff photo: Sharna Johnson Animal neglect comes in many forms, including neglecting to address health risks or medical conditions, Curry County Sheriff’s Deputy Erica Romero said as she views a case file photo of the stomach and chest of dog that was covered in ticks.

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

They approach her in stores or wherever they happen to see her, pointing out hidden atrocities tucked away in back yards and homes across the community.

A rope snaking through a yard to an oversized collar on the neck of a bony, shriveled dog too weak to move.

Another dog’s skin deformed by thousands of ticks covering and mutilating her, literally sucking the life-blood out of her body.

The conversations often start out the same:

“Can you come look at my neighbor’s dog? They aren’t feeding him… There’s this horse in a field near my house and he looks bad, he’s starving…”

Those conversations often result in criminal charges and a turning point in the life of an abused or neglected animal.

Curry County Sheriff’s Deputy Erica Romero said it started with a horse in the fall of 2007, seized from his owners amidst fears his hollowed frame lacked the reserves to withstand the harsh cold of the coming winter.

It was a learning experience, she said, one that she “stumbled through with a lot of help.”

On one front a court case was waged, the owners charged with felony animal cruelty. But behind the scenes, veterinarians and volunteers waged a battle for the horse’s life.

A year and a half later, formerly dubbed “Confiscated Equine”, or “CE”, the once near-death “Jhett Blue” is a transformed animal, working for his new owner as a school horse giving riding lessons to young children.

Jhett Blue’s case served as a lesson in the complexity and challenges of pursuing animal cases. Chief among them, how to justify seizing an animal, what to do with it once it’s removed from its owner and how to successfully build a case for prosecution.

After the success, Romero — with the blessing of the sheriff’s office — attended classes and seminars to learn more. She’s now skilled in topics ranging from animal law to photographic documentation, search and seizure, scoring body condition, exotic animal investigations, ritualistic animal abuse, hoarding and more.

Romero is now working towards national-level certification in animal cruelty investigation.

Romero is also now the lead investigator in animal cases for the sheriff’s office. She has seized 25 dogs, levied criminal charges in 15 cases and continues to receive information on new cases regularly.

And news of her specialty is growing. Often residents seek her out to give her tips. Other law enforcement officers from agencies across the region seek her advice when they encounter animal abuse on the job.

It has been surprising how many cases are out there in the community, Romero said, with neglect topping the list of reported crimes against animals. It has made her more aware than ever of the deficiencies in the region when it comes to the way people sometimes care for the animals that depend on them.

“Animals are not provided adequate shelter, they’re not given adequate food… Some people are either ignorant and don’t know how to take care of their animals, or they just don’t care,” Romero said. “I think the area needs more education. People just don’t get it.”

Undersheriff Wesley Waller said Romero’s interest in pursuing justice for animals was something she initiated. The department quickly came to encourage and support her pursuit of advanced training and certification.

When she would return from the field with photos of the condition animals had been found in, Waller said there was no doubt a crime had been committed.

“Most of these cases that she handles are severe, and when you actually go and see the animal for yourself, it’s shocking,” he said.

“Sometimes it’s surprising that the animal is still standing there alive.”

With no mechanism in the area to care animal victims once they’re removed from their abusive conditions, Romero has garnered the support of residents, veterinarians and animal welfare groups in the community. All have offered their assistance in caring for, rehabilitating and finding homes for abused animals.

And the sheriff’s office has footed the bill in cases where the costs exceeded available support.

Waller said to his knowledge, Romero is the first law enforcement officer in the region to pursue advanced training and make a concerted effort to find criminal justice for animals.

And the knowledge Romero has gained, she has shared with the entire department — educating and preparing other deputies to deal with issues of animal abuse as it manifests in a variety of locations from domestic violence calls to drug houses.

“It has been a learning process for everyone involved and Deputy Romero’s advanced training has definitely benefited those types of cases,” Waller said.

The sheriff’s office is on the cutting edge of a revolution throughout the state, according to Steve Suttle, special counsel with the New Mexico Attorney General’s office.

In March the attorney general’s office is sponsoring statewide animal cruelty training for the second time.

Suttle said turnout to the training seminars has been high, with agencies coming from the largest to the smallest communities in the state to hear from experts, veterinarians, investigators and undercover officers on the complexities of animal cruelty cases and successful prosecution.

Animal cruelty is a hot-button issue in the state and lawmakers are working to update and strengthen state laws to protect animals from cruelty and neglect.

And, Suttle said, the reason is fairly simple.

“If this government can’t protect children, animals and elderly people then we need a different government. The manner in which a society cares for its elderly, its children and its animals, really says something about the civilization,” Suttle said.

“No one else can speak for animals.”

The criminal depth of animal cruelty is often surprising, he said, as investigators responding to reports frequently uncover ties to other types of crime.

Friday, the governor and attorney general’s office endorsed several pieces of pending legislation aimed at increasing penalties for animal cruelty, broadening the scope of animal neglect, protecting animals in domestic violence cases and providing for financial recourse in cases of animal abuse.

“We’re getting negligence defined so that it’s clear that, ‘I didn’t know I was supposed to feed my dog’ isn’t a defense,” Suttle said.

“I think the awareness is increasing all the time and I think if we give the prosecutors some more tools, they’ll be able to do an even better job.”

Pending animal cruelty legislation:

• HB 82 — Adds intentionally starving or dehydrating animals to death to the legal definition of extreme cruelty to animals, a fourth degree felony.

Status: Located in the House Judiciary Committee

• HB 159 — Expands the definition of extreme cruelty to animals, a fourth degree felony, to include leaving an animal in a hot car, increasing the penalty for cruelty resulting in death or great bodily harm, or intentional abandonment and clarifies the definitions of mistreatment and negligence.

Status: Located in the Senate Conservation Committee

• HB 434 — Expands the Family Violence Protection Act to add pets to domestic violence protection orders and allow for them to be removed from a home for their own protection when domestic violence victims go to a shelter, and to be cared for until the victims reclaim them or decide where they should be placed.

Status: Located in the Senate Public Affairs Committee

• SB 127 — Provides the ability to recoup from an animal’s owner the costs of caring for and rehabilitating animals that are seized in animal cruelty cases.

Status: Passed with 40-1 vote in the Senate, currently located in House Judiciary Committee