Washington, DC - On September 14 to 18, criminal investigators and attorneys from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General (USDA-OIG) and the U.S. Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD) collaborated to put on a week-long training for USDA-OIG criminal investigators, as well as other federal law enforcement agencies on animal welfare criminal investigations and prosecutions.
“Animal fighting and other violations of federal animal welfare laws are serious offenses, and ending these cruel practices requires close partnerships among federal law enforcement agencies,” said ENRD Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Brightbill. “Our division is proud to be a leader in this worthy cause. Our work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate and prosecute these cases sends a strong message that those who engage in such illegal and cruel practices will be punished.”
“The USDA Office of Inspector General has consistently and successfully conducted investigations of animal fighting and welfare, and has a proven record of building strong partnerships with other law enforcement officials and nongovernmental organizations to help protect animals,” said USDA-OIG’s Acting Assistant Inspector General for Investigations Peter P. Paradis Sr. “Partnering with the Justice Department to train our special agents ensures that we continue to attain optimal results for our efforts.”
“This in-depth training workshop is critical to the enforcement of our national animal laws,” said Professor David Favre of Michigan State University’s College of Law, and founder of its Animal Legal and Historical Center. “In this ever-evolving world of animal law enforcement, there are always lessons to be learned and experiences to share.”
During the training, special agents with USDA OIG’s Office of Investigations and nine attorneys from ENRD, including Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brightbill, joined by state law enforcement officials, experts from academia, and nongovernmental organizations, shared their expertise with attendees. Instructors provided participants with an overview of the business of dogfighting and cockfighting, horse soring, overviews of federal animal welfare and cruelty statutes, effective investigative techniques, evidence collection best practices, available resources and authorities for the seizure and post-seizure care of animals, and successful sentencing strategies. The training also included a session on biohazards and zoonotics.
The Federal Animal Welfare Act makes it a felony punishable by up to five years in prison to knowingly sell, buy, possess, train, transport, deliver, or receive any animal, including dogs, for purposes of having the animal participate in an animal fighting venture. In 2014, the Justice Department designated ENRD as having concurrent responsibility, with the U.S. Attorney’s Offices, to enforce Federal animal cruelty laws.
The Department of Justice and USDA-OIG have had a number of successes in combating animal cruelty. For example, Operation Grand Champion brought 12 individuals to justice for their roles in a dog fighting ring. The operation began with a tip from a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent surveilling drug crimes, and, from this tip, USDA-OIG investigators, working with the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, uncovered a ring that crossed multiple states and involved hundreds of dogs. The prosecutions, conducted by ENRD and U.S. Attorney’s Offices between 2017 and 2019, resulted in convictions of 12 defendants in four federal districts, who were sentenced to 315 months in prison, combined. As a result of the investigation, 113 dogs were rescued and either surrendered or forfeited to the government.
The Justice Department has a robust and cross-cutting program to ensure effective enforcement of animal welfare law. This includes a civil forfeiture process that often results in animals being removed from accused abusers more quickly, along with the needed care, medical treatment, and the best chance for recovery and adoption. More than 1,200 dogs have been seized and rescued through this process. In addition, the Justice Department has provided extensive training for federal, state, and local law enforcement; identified and successfully advocated for policy changes that improve enforcement; and convened state and local law enforcement, animal protection organizations, and academic institutions to coordinate efforts in this area.