Abused animals have a cop who finds the time to care

Theft detective keeps cases in the spotlight

May 4, 2009 

It's not like Jackie Conn needed more to do. As a detective with the Anchorage Police Department -- Detective of the Year in 2008, in fact -- she's in the theft unit, and there's no shortage of sticky fingers in this town.

Plus, she's a single mother with four kids, two cats and a tiny dog named Tank that rely on her.

So no, she didn't heap animal cruelty cases on top of her workload because she had time on her hands. She started squeezing them in around the edges because she loves animals and wants people who abuse them held accountable.

Conn took on the cruelty cop role unofficially at first, then officially as of October. She's still a theft detective, but this is the first time APD has had a designated officer to funnel cases to.

That means fewer animal cruelty cases getting lost under the radar.

A big part of Conn's new role is increasing awareness of how animal cruelty in a home may be a symptom of other kinds of crimes -- domestic violence and child abuse in particular.

Conn, who considered becoming a veterinarian, had a case a few years back that really got to her, that sent her down this path.

She was on day-shift patrol in the fall of 2004 when a call came in about a horrific smell wafting from a house in South Anchorage.

"Nobody answered the door," she said. "So I went out and poked around the outside of the house. Eventually we ended up going in."

What she saw when she opened the door has stayed with her all these years.

"We're standing at the door, and it's like all you see are these little eyes staring at you."

Cats. Everywhere, cats.

"I was like, no way."

The official count was 165, some sickly, some not, all living in unbelievable filth. Plus at least a dozen exotic birds in cages, a couple of dogs and chickens out in the yard.

This was the notorious Krystal Allen animal hoarding case. Allen told officers she meant well by taking in strays but it had gotten out of hand. She later pleaded no contest to two animal cruelty charges, was sentenced to 30 days in jail and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine and do 80 hours of community service.

"So this is the living room," Conn said of the image on her computer screen, one of several photos she took that day. In a room filled with clutter and carpeted in scat, there was hardly a place to step or touch without encountering a cat, or evidence of there having been a cat.

It was the only time in 12 years as a cop that she had to put on her department-issued gas mask. She had to throw away her boots.

After that, Conn started working with Myra Wilson and Bradley Larson at Anchorage Animal Care & Control Center on ways to address hoarding, animal abuse and neglect, some of which involves complicated mental health issues.

Conn and Larson, enforcement supervisor at animal control, went Outside for special training in animal cruelty investigation. They also took the U.S. Humane Society's First Strike training, which focuses on the connection between animal cruelty and domestic violence.

"If they're smacking their animals around there's a good chance they're smacking their kids or their spouse around too," Conn said. "Or committing other crimes." Case in point is a man under investigation now for beating and stabbing his dog, a man with a long record of violent crimes, including domestic violence.

Conn has also held training sessions for fellow APD officers, urging them to look deeper for signs of other crimes when responding to animal abuse calls.

She's only been at this a few months and already animal control officials are seeing a big difference.

Last year, animal control forwarded 21 cases to APD for further investigation. Only four months into this year, it has already passed on around 20, Larson said, and not because there's been a big spike in animal abuse.

"It's a combination of having that point of contact and knowing that if we send a case over there it's going to get looked at," he said.

THREE STRIKES

Among cases that have passed through Conn's hands is the slow, gruesome death of a Rottweiler named Grizzly, who wandered a stone's throw from his front yard after his owner got distracted shoveling snow. The dog got his head and throat crushed in a Conibear 220 spring-loaded trap sitting baited on a neighbor's porch. The neighbor was charged with animal cruelty and illegal trapping. The case is now with the courts.

Then there was the pit bull shut in a room in an abandoned house. No food, no water, both ears sprouting what looked like cauliflower from an untreated infection.

And the cocker spaniel beaten so severely with a belt it left an impression of the buckle in her skin.

And the chow that was sick for so long without treatment that nearly all its fur fell out, leaving its skin covered with sores. That dog was too far gone to save.

"Heartbreaking," Conn says.

The files piled on the right side of her desk go on and on.

Dog killed by woman's boyfriend.

Cat waterboarded by kids.

Dog pepper-sprayed and later shot dead.

Cat shot in the eye.

Dog beaten and thrown from a vehicle window.

Conn thinks some of these first-offense cases need to be treated more seriously. Under current state law, it takes two prior animal cruelty convictions before the charges are elevated from misdemeanors to felonies. So a person who tortures an animal to death could theoretically face the same misdemeanor charges and penalties as someone who accidentally hits a dog with a car and doesn't stop (municipal code says you must).

And until last year, this state didn't even have that. Alaska ranked close to dead last in terms of animal protection laws, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a national group working to toughen cruelty laws. The state inched up a few notches, from 48th to 42nd, when the Legislature signed off on a law making the third animal cruelty offense a felony.

Efforts are under way to move higher up the list. During the legislative session that just adjourned, Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, introduced HB 6, which would specifically ban bestiality. This after a Klawock man, a registered sex offender, absconded with a family's Labrador retriever and, according to police, took it into the woods, tied it to a tree, taped its muzzle with duct tape and sexually assaulted it. Since the state had no law against having sex with an animal, the man was charged with criminal mischief, which later was changed to a theft charge.

Lynne's bill notes the link between animal cruelty and violence against humans, including the high rate of sexual predators with animal sex in their backgrounds. HB 6 would make this a class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine. It passed the state House unanimously. If it is passed by the Senate, Alaska will become the 36th state to have this crime on the books.

HB138, sponsored by Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, makes certain types of animal cruelty a felony the first time. It ended the session in the House Judiciary Committee and will be addressed again next session.

In the meantime, Conn will continue to investigate these cases with the time and laws she's got to work with.

"I could be doing this full time easy," she said.

"I wish I had more hours in the day. I just plug away at it and do the best I can."


Find Debra McKinney online at adn.com/contact/dmckinney or call 257-4465.


What constitutes animal cruelty?

• The Humane Society of the United States found that 77 percent of those committing animal cruelty are men. In animal hoarding, 67 percent are women.

• In a 1997 national survey, 71 percent of domestic violence victims reported that their abusers also targeted their animals.

• Of 332 animal cruelty arrests studied by the Chicago Police Department, 86 percent had multiple other arrests. Seventy percent of them had felony arrests and 65 percent had been charged with battery-related violent offenses.

In Anchorage, a person commits animal cruelty when that person, with criminal negligence:

• Maims, mutilates, tortures, kills or abandons an animal.

• Injures, torments, poisons, provokes or otherwise abuses an animal.

• Maintains an animal in an inhumane manner, including failure to provide adequate food, water, housing and care.

• Keeps an animal on vacant property or in an unoccupied structure, unless the animal is cared for in a humane manner.

• Has an animal within, on or attached to a motor vehicle under conditions that may endanger the health, safety or welfare of the animal, including extreme temperatures. A police officer is authorized to remove an animal under such conditions.

• It’s illegal for the driver of a vehicle involved in an accident that injures an animal to fail, with criminal negligence, to stop the vehicle as close to the scene of the accident as possible and inform the animal’s owner of the injury, or, if the owner is not ascertainable, inform a police or animal control officer of the injury.

• It’s illegal for any person, with criminal negligence, to use any type of trap, such as a steel jaw trap, snares or spring traps that might physically hard an animal, to capture animals for noncommercial reasons. Any humane-type trap used to capture animals shall be monitored at least once every 12 hours; any animals captured shall be cared for in a humane manner and returned to the animal’s owner or handed over to animal control.

Those convicted of animal cruelty are subject to a fine of up to $10,000, imprisonment for up to one year, or both, and are prohibited from owning or maintaining another animal for as long as the court determines. Additional penalties, including covering costs and community service, maybe also be imposed.

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