Attorney General Mark Herring was honored by the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) during its National Justice for Animals Week for the creation of the nation’s first Attorney General’s Animal Law Unit. In its first year, the Unit has worked on more than 200 matters across the state including groundbreaking trainings, complex investigations, and animal cruelty and fighting prosecutions.
“We formalized our work to prevent animal fighting and animal cruelty because we wanted state agencies and local law enforcement to know where they could turn for these kinds of cases, and based on the response we’ve gotten this year it’s clear there was a real need,” said Attorney General Herring. “Laws related to animal welfare and animal fighting should be strictly enforced for the sake of animals themselves and for the strength and safety of our communities since animal fighting often reveals other associated crimes like illegal gambling, illegal drugs or alcohol, or even things like assaults, domestic abuse, or illegal weapons.”
The ALDF’s National Justice for Animals Week is held annually to raise awareness about animal abuse, recognize outstanding work by law enforcement and public safety officials, and encourage continued work to protect animals and communities from abusers. This year’s Week will highlight many of the areas that Attorney General Herring’s Animal Law Unit has been working on, including animal fighting, hoarding, and the link between violence toward animals and violence toward humans.
“Animal cruelty cases are very complex and resource-intensive and do not always get the time and attention they deserve,” said Stephen Wells, Animal Legal Defense Fund executive director. “We applaud Attorney General Mark Herring for taking the very important step of creating the nation’s first-ever attorney general’s animal law unit, led by esteemed veteran prosecutor Michelle Welch. We’re hopeful that this tremendous team will pave the way for future animal units in attorney general’s offices nationwide!”
In January 2015, Attorney General Herring announced the designation of the nation’s first Attorney General’s “Animal Law Unit,” a small group of current staff attorneys led by Senior Assistant Attorney General Michelle Welch, herself a previous ALDF honoree, who spend a portion of their time 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 Unit in effectively investigating and prosecuting these cases. The power to initiate an investigation or prosecution remains with local agencies, but the Animal Law Unit provides assistance or handles cases by request from a commonwealth’s attorney or law enforcement agency.
In its first year, the Unit has worked on more than 200 matters, including criminal cases, trainings, and consultations. The Unit worked in state and federal court to prosecute the operators of the “Big Blue” cockfighting case involving hundreds of birds and hundreds of thousands of dollars in southwest Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Operators of the pit were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 6 to 18 months and forfeited cash and assets connected to the ring. For their work on the case, Herring and Welch were honored with the Humane Law Enforcement Award from the Humane Society of the United States.
“This year has been really gratifying. We have helped so many local law enforcement and animal control officers as well as prosecutors throughout the Commonwealth. The sheer number of calls has really shown that the Unit is a cutting edge law enforcement tool,” said Animal Law Unit Chief Michelle Welch. “We made a real difference in alleviating the suffering of animals and built awareness about how to combat animal cruelty in all its forms. In combating animal cruelty, we have prevented further violence against humans. This next year, we hope to do even more good work providing aid to localities and trainings on the link between animal abuse and domestic violence, animal fighting and hoarding issues.”
The Unit has also worked on multiple animal cruelty, animal fighting and animal hoarding cases and provided additional training on topics including police/animal encounters, the connection between animal abuse and domestic abuse, and even held the Attorney General’s first statewide conference on prosecuting animal fighting.