Attorney General Mark Herring announced on Thursday the designation of the nation’s first Attorney General’s Animal Law unit, a small group of current staff attorneys who will spend a portion of their time, as needed, serving as a resource for local law enforcement and state agencies on issues involving animal welfare and animal fighting or abuse. Because of the specialized and relatively infrequent nature of cases involving animal welfare, many prosecutors and law enforcement agencies seek assistance from the Office of Attorney General in effectively investigating and prosecuting these cases. The power to initiate an investigation or prosecution will remain with local agencies, but the Animal Law unit will be available to provide assistance or handle a case by request from a commonwealth’s attorney or law enforcement agency.
“We’ve seen firsthand in Virginia that animal fighting is associated with other serious crimes such as drug distribution, possession of illegal alcohol or firearms, assaults, and illegal gambling,” said Attorney General Herring. “There’s also evidence that abuse of animals or exposure to animal abuse, especially by young people, can be predictive of future abusive or criminal behavior. Our attorneys often serve as a training and prosecutorial resource for commonwealth’s attorneys working complex or specialized cases such as gang crimes, internet crimes, or complex drug cases. This unit won’t replace or undermine local law enforcement decisions on whether to investigate or prosecute, but it will formalize the delivery of training and assistance our office already provides for communities who confront situations involving animal fighting, abuse, or neglect.”
The team will be led by Michelle Welch, an assistant attorney general with nine years of service whose work on animal-related cases has earned her numerous accolades including the Humane Law Enforcement Award from the Humane Society of the United States, the Albert Schweitzer Medal from the Animal Welfare Institute, the Prosecutor of the Year Award from the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, and awards from the Virginia Animal Control Association and Virginia Federation of Humane Societies.
“Over the past twenty years, there has been a growing realization that cruelty toward animals is a criminal act that cannot be tolerated in a civilized society. All of the evidence shows a very direct link between animal cruelty and violence against women and children,” said Anthony Spencer, Caroline County Commonwealth’s Attorney.“As the Commonwealth’s Attorney of Caroline County, I have relied on Michelle Welch on many occasions to help me in navigating Virginia’s laws regarding animals and in prosecuting serious charges of dog fighting and animal cruelty. Her knowledge in these areas is unparalleled, and she is widely regarded throughout the Commonwealth as ‘the expert’ on understanding and enforcing Virginia’s animal laws. Michelle has also been the person most responsible for drafting changes to our animal laws to make them more effective. Our Attorney General, the Honorable Mark R. Herring, is to be commended for his efforts in enforcing Virginia’s animal laws and in ensuring that Michelle Welch will be available to assist local prosecutors throughout the Commonwealth with cases of dog fighting and animal cruelty.”
As their first project, the unit has partnered with the Humane Society of the United States to send a letter and fact sheet to Virginia pet stores on important consumer rights involving the purchase of animals, including new rights created by Bailey’s Law, which was sponsored by Sen. Chap Petersen and signed into law in 2014. The law helps ensure that customers have complete and accurate information about the health and history of a dog or cat before purchase and gives consumers recourse if an animal is later found to have significant, undisclosed health problems. Within certain specified time periods, if an animal is sold and subsequently determined by a veterinarian to suffer certain illnesses, or if the animal dies from an undisclosed health problem, the consumer has the right to return the animal for a refund, exchange the animal for a healthy one, or keep the animal and recover the costs of veterinary fees up to the original purchase price. A consumer can take legal action to recover damages if a retailer fails to honor the remedies in the law.
“The decision to bring an animal into the family, whether by adoption or purchase, is a big one, and consumers have the right to make an informed decision when they decide to add a companion animal to their household,” said Attorney General Herring. “Though many Virginians may choose to adopt, these important new provisions will protect consumers purchasing pets, those who sell pets, and animals that will one day go to the home of a Virginia family.”
In November, Attorney General Herring teamed up with the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and the ASPCA for a statewide Law Enforcement Conference on Combating Animal Fighting in Virginia. The event trained nearly 100 prosecutors, police officers, and sheriffs’ deputies on the tools they need to identify and investigate animal fighting, strategies for building a case against suspected animal fighters, and tactics for successfully prosecuting animal fighting cases.
Attorney General Herring’s office recently worked with the former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia Tim Heaphy to prosecute the operators of one of the largest cock fighting rings in the region. Five individuals were sentenced to jail terms ranging from 6 months to 1.5 years in addition to fines for their roles in operating a cock fighting ring in Virginia and Kentucky.