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Animal cruelty cases spike in King County; prosecutors and service organizations consider pandemic’s role

Kaitlyn Sauers, shelter tech at SCRAPS, takes Bug for an outside walk on March 30. Animal shelters in King County have taken in hundreds of mistreated pets this year.  (DAN PELLE)
By Elise Takahama Seattle Times

SEATTLE – When Ann Graves and her team walked into a West Seattle home to investigate an animal cruelty complaint in mid-October, she was horrified. There were caged animals in nearly every room in the house, and the floor was covered in hay and animal feces, according to police. In some rooms, police said they found animals that appeared to have died from lack of food, water and medical attention.

That afternoon, Graves and her team rescued more than 220 live animals, including dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens, mice and chinchillas.

The case was the largest one Graves, director of the Seattle Animal Shelter, had seen in her 20-year career, she said.

“In my time in this profession, including nearly two decades as an investigator and trainer, I have seen many things that have been shocking, disturbing and that I cannot unsee,” Graves said. “When I was taken through the (property) … I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness and suffering that I will never unfeel.”

Prosecutors are reporting animal cruelty cases in King County, like cases in other categories of crime such as homicides, domestic violence and shootings, have increased this year, raising concern among law enforcement and animal agencies and prompting them to remind residents to report any issues they might see involving animal care.

In 2018, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office filed 10 animal cruelty cases and in 2019, the office filed nine cases. As of Monday, county prosecutors had filed 19 so far in 2020, including 12 counts of first-degree felony animal cruelty.

Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Tali Smith, who handles many of the animal cruelty cases in King County, said Monday she’s in the process of reviewing another case this week, and expects to see at least three more on her desk within the next couple of weeks.

“It’s concerning when we’re filing (more cases) in one month this year … than (all of) last year, and we’re concerned about these animals and the neglect or violence they’re suffering from,” Smith said.

Last year, many of the cases included neglect, which often falls under a second-degree misdemeanor charge, but cases this year have involved much more direct violence against animals, she said.

In addition to charges filed in the West Seattle case a few weeks ago, the PAO has seen cases this year involving dragging a cat with a bike, covering a dog’s head in duct tape, drowning a cat, strangling a dog and killing a Canada goose, according to an office spokesperson.

The office has also filed two felony animal fighting charges – the most recent case involving a Kent man with 91 roosters he was allegedly using for cockfighting.

“My guess is that the pandemic has been hard on a lot of people, both in terms of their resources (and) their mental health,” Smith said. “And so it’s kind of a pressure-cooker situation. You have people that are angry (and) they’re at home a lot. That anger can be taken out on an animal.”

Smith added, however, that there’s no definitive evidence of the virus’s effect on animal abuse cases.

“It’s just what we know about people, what we know about violence and these cases,” she said. “And we’ve seen violence increase in the other areas of our office, so it makes sense that with this other vulnerable population, we also see an increase.”

This year’s rise in cases has also worried prosecutors who have studied the connection between violence against animals and violence against people, she added.

According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a California-based nonprofit that aims to protect animals in the legal system, animal abusers are five times as likely to also harm people.

The organization cites a 2013 study that found 43% of people involved in “school massacres” have also committed violence against animals, usually dogs and cats.

“This link makes it critically important that cruelty toward animals be taken seriously by law enforcement, and by society at large,” according to the ALDF website. “This is for the sake of the animals themselves, and for people who are also at risk.”

Animal abuse can be an indication of domestic violence, according to the National Link Coalition, a group that studies the intersection between violence toward animals and humans.

Smith said her office has seen other examples of increased violence this year: “Any time there’s abuse in a home either against an animal or against a person, we’re always being careful to look at whether the other people in a home are being affected by that.”

Between January and October, the PAO filed 1,103 felony domestic violence cases, including assault and homicides, compared to 983 during that same time period in 2019. Shootings are also up nearly 39% from the county’s three-year average, with a 58% increase in the number of fatal shooting victims, according to a PAO spokesperson.

Stacey DiNuzzo, spokesperson for Pasado’s Safe Haven, a sanctuary based in Monroe that responds to animal cruelty complaints through the state, has also reported an increase in violence against animals.

Pasado’s is also seeing an uptick in animal abuse reports in general, DiNuzzo said.

“What we don’t know is: Is cruelty up? Or is it more that there’s just more people around to witness it and report it?” she said, noting the role the state’s stay-home orders might play.

Within the past month, she said, Pasado’s has executed rescues in two large animal hoarding cases, one involving 37 cats and another involving 47 cats.

“The key thing is the reporting,” she said. “Sometimes people are really hesitant to report. It’s like any abuse – they don’t want to get involved. … So we’re trying to get the word out for people that we, along with other shelters, have lots of resources for people who might need help.”

Meanwhile, the animals from the West Seattle seizure – which has led to at least 17 animal cruelty charges against 54-year-old Matthew Hazelbrook – are slowly recovering, though it’s put a strain on the Seattle Animal Shelter’s resources, Graves said. Fortunately, she said, the shelter has an extensive foster care system and has continuously worked to move as many pets into foster homes as possible.

The animals were initially taken to the Seattle Animal Shelter, where workers weighed and assessed them, then three – a guinea pig and two rabbits – were taken to the Center for Bird and Exotic Animal Medicine in Bothell for further treatment.

“They’re in better condition than when we found them,” Graves said.

Many of the remaining animals are still at the shelter, recuperating and receiving treatment, although Graves said some are starting to move into foster homes as their health improves. None will be up for adoption until either Hazelbrook, whose case is ongoing, surrenders the animals or a judge orders him to give them up, she said.

Amid the pandemic, animal service organizations in Seattle and King County – including the Regional Animal Services of King County, Seattle Humane and the Seattle Animal Shelter – are putting their heads together to come up with ways to support pet owners and help them overcome issues that might cause them to surrender or abandon their pets.

One idea was to launch a coalition to donate pet food throughout the county. In some situations, owners feel they can’t afford to support a pet, which can lead to neglect or an “economic surrender,” Graves said.

“That’s one of the tangible ways we’re trying to eliminate some of that stress that can lead to owner surrenders of animals,” she said.

Partnering with law enforcement agencies, including the PAO, also helps, she said.

“But we also learn in this profession that it’s not just about the animals, it’s about the people,” Graves said. “I think the overarching concern in all of this is that … when we see that level of pain to the animals in our community, I think that it says very clearly that we have a community that’s in pain. And that’s everybody’s concern.”