October 8, 2013)
BOSTON––The Massachusetts SPCA, founded by humane education pioneer George Angell in 1868, is believed to have been the second SPCA in the U.S. to do humane law enforcement on a constabulary basis.
Like the ASPCA, which was empowered by the New York state legislature to act anywhere in New York, the MSPCA was authorized to act anywhere within Massachusetts. Also like the ASPCA, the MSPCA refocused after the founder’s death. But while the ASPCA retreated from doing law enforcement outside of New York City, the MSPCA expanded statewide law enforcement and incurred an enormous deficit to build the Angell Memorial veterinary hospital––at cost of all but killing the national humane education and outreach programs that Angell considered the most valuable part of his work.
MSPCA officers were stationed at nine or more posts around Massachusetts for most of the 20th century. Over the past decade, however, the MSPCA has been stretched thin by investment losses, a simultaneous drop of $7 million in program service revenue and donations, and old state legislation that kept it from using endowment funds to offset the losses.
Downsizing for the second time in five years, the MSPCA in 2009 sold its Springfield shelter to the Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society for $1.2 million, leased its Martha’s Vineyard shelter to a new charity called Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard, and leased the former Metro South adoption center to the Animal Protection Center of Southeastern Massachusetts.
The MSPCA still has shelters in Boston, Centerville, Methuen and Nantucket, with hospitals in Boston and Nantucket, and still does statewide humane law enforcement. Like the ASPCA, however, the MSPCA is rethinking its traditional law enforcement role.
Cost vs. credibility
“In many ways [SPCA cruelty law enforcement] is similar to animal organizations doing animal control. Enforcing public policy is is clearly a government function,” MSPCA president Carter Luke told ANIMALS 24-7.
“When that type of practice began, it was clearly done for humane reasons, and as time went on, there were financial reasons as well,” Luke acknowledged. “Having an animal control or boarding contract of some type provided some charitable animal organizations with a steady stream of income and enabled survival.
“Turning animal care and control back to government became feasible from a humane point of view,” Luke said, “when government was better prepared to be accountable to citizens and animal organizations for their performance, and put more resources into performing the animal control function.
“The location of humane law enforcement responsibility with SPCAs has some similarities, but also stark differences. There is no significant financial support for a nonprofit to do law enforcement. MSPCA officers are commissioned by the Colonel of the State Police in Massachusetts as special state police, but we receive zero compensation for our investigations, costs related to animal seizures, prosecutions, hiring witnesses, etc. We have been doing this work for free for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for a long time. The public clearly has expectations that we will. And so does government. That is a problem. By performing these duties, we excuse government from safeguarding animal welfare.
“However,” Luke added, “performing these duties has helped on occasion in getting animal protection legislation passed, as there were no costs to taxpayers associated with creating a new law that required inspections of research labs, for example.”
Offsetting that advantage, Luke continued, “The criminal justice system has become increasingly difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to navigate. And defendants are more and more litigious. That costs us a lot of money in legal fees. We avoid seizing animals now and try to solve problems without warrants. Why? Because we could end up holding a herd of horses for two or three years and get sued over it.
“It is also very expensive to run a professional humane law enforcement department,” Luke said. The MSPCA now has seven officers, down from 18 several years ago, but “Direct officer costs for us are $900,000 per year plus animal care.”
Like the ASPCA, the MSPCA, has “decided to push more and more cases back to local law enforcement and support them with training and assistance,” Luke told ANIMALS 24-7. “We have 351 cities and towns in our state, and their police are all on duty around the clock. Many officers are more interested in handling these kinds of cases if we guide them through the process.
“Ultimately, it would be best,” Luke opined, “if every city and town handled their own cruelty cases with the same degree of concern, urgency and professionalism as our officers. We are training more and more police at different levels. We anticipate always needing to provide some support, but we are working toward the day where most cruelty cases are originally investigated by local police. We began that process five years ago. We knew it would be a slow process, because local police were not ready for it, and we were not going to risk animals lives meanwhile.
“Even in the best of circumstances,” Luke acknowledged, “animal cruelty will always be fighting priority battles” with other police duties. We don’t anticipate eliminating our officers or this function from the MSPCA,” Luke finished. “We want police to play a much more significant role, but there will always be a need for training, for collaborative efforts in complex cases, for assistance with animal handling, etc., and we want to be sure animals have a safety net. Cruelty investigation is an important part of who we are––part of our organizational being and our heritage, helping to provide a credible platform for lots of animal related progress.”