Deputy fights animal cruelty

By Sharna Johnson: Freedom New Mexico

They approach her in stores or wherever they happen to see her,
pointing out hidden atrocities tucked away in back yards and homes
across the community.

A rope snaking through a yard to an oversized collar on the neck of a bony, shriveled dog too weak to move.

Another dog’s skin deformed by thousands of ticks covering and mutilating her, literally sucking the life-blood out of her body.

The conversations often start out the same:

“Can you come look at my neighbor’s dog? They aren’t feeding him…
There’s this horse in a field near my house and he looks bad, he’s
starving…”

Those conversations often result in criminal charges and a turning point in the life of an abused or neglected animal.

Curry County Sheriff’s Deputy Erica Romero said it started with a
horse in the fall of 2007, seized from his owners amidst fears his
hollowed frame lacked the reserves to withstand the harsh cold of the
coming winter.

It was a learning experience, she said, one that she “stumbled through with a lot of help.”

On one front a court case was waged, the owners charged with felony
animal cruelty. But behind the scenes, veterinarians and volunteers
waged a battle for the horse’s life.

A year and a half later, formerly dubbed “Confiscated Equine”, or
“CE”, the once near-death “Jhett Blue” is a transformed animal, working
for his new owner as a school horse giving riding lessons to young
children.

Jhett Blue’s case served as a lesson in the complexity and
challenges of pursuing animal cases. Chief among them, how to justify
seizing an animal, what to do with it once it’s removed from its owner
and how to successfully build a case for prosecution.

After the success, Romero — with the blessing of the sheriff’s
office — attended classes and seminars to learn more. She’s now skilled
in topics ranging from animal law to photographic documentation, search
and seizure, scoring body condition, exotic animal investigations,
ritualistic animal abuse, hoarding and more.

Romero is now working towards national-level certification in animal cruelty investigation.

Romero is also now the lead investigator in animal cases for the
sheriff’s office. She has seized 25 dogs, levied criminal charges in 15
cases and continues to receive information on new cases regularly.

And news of her specialty is growing. Often residents seek her out
to give her tips. Other law enforcement officers from agencies across
the region seek her advice when they encounter animal abuse on the job.

It has been surprising how many cases are out there in the
community, Romero said, with neglect topping the list of reported
crimes against animals. It has made her more aware than ever of the
deficiencies in the region when it comes to the way people sometimes
care for the animals that depend on them.

“Animals are not provided adequate shelter, they’re not given
adequate food… Some people are either ignorant and don’t know how to
take care of their animals, or they just don’t care,” Romero said. “I
think the area needs more education. People just don’t get it.”

Undersheriff Wesley Waller said Romero’s interest in pursuing
justice for animals was something she initiated. The department quickly
came to encourage and support her pursuit of advanced training and
certification.

When she would return from the field with photos of the condition
animals had been found in, Waller said there was no doubt a crime had
been committed.

“Most of these cases that she handles are severe, and when you
actually go and see the animal for yourself, it’s shocking,” he said.

“Sometimes it’s surprising that the animal is still standing there alive.”

With no mechanism in the area to care animal victims once they’re
removed from their abusive conditions, Romero has garnered the support
of residents, veterinarians and animal welfare groups in the community.
All have offered their assistance in caring for, rehabilitating and
finding homes for abused animals.

And the sheriff’s office has footed the bill in cases where the costs exceeded available support.

Waller said to his knowledge, Romero is the first law enforcement
officer in the region to pursue advanced training and make a concerted
effort to find criminal justice for animals.

And the knowledge Romero has gained, she has shared with the entire
department — educating and preparing other deputies to deal with issues
of animal abuse as it manifests in a variety of locations from domestic
violence calls to drug houses.

“It has been a learning process for everyone involved and Deputy
Romero’s advanced training has definitely benefited those types of
cases,” Waller said.

The sheriff’s office is on the cutting edge of a revolution
throughout the state, according to Steve Suttle, special counsel with
the New Mexico Attorney General’s office.

In March the attorney general’s office is sponsoring statewide animal cruelty training for the second time.

Suttle said turnout to the training seminars has been high, with
agencies coming from the largest to the smallest communities in the
state to hear from experts, veterinarians, investigators and undercover
officers on the complexities of animal cruelty cases and successful
prosecution.

Animal cruelty is a hot-button issue in the state and lawmakers are
working to update and strengthen state laws to protect animals from
cruelty and neglect.

And, Suttle said, the reason is fairly simple.

“If this government can’t protect children, animals and elderly
people then we need a different government. The manner in which a
society cares for its elderly, its children and its animals, really
says something about the civilization,” Suttle said.

“No one else can speak for animals.”

The criminal depth of animal cruelty is often surprising, he said,
as investigators responding to reports frequently uncover ties to other
types of crime.

Friday, the governor and attorney general’s office endorsed several
pieces of pending legislation aimed at increasing penalties for animal
cruelty, broadening the scope of animal neglect, protecting animals in
domestic violence cases and providing for financial recourse in cases
of animal abuse.

“We’re getting negligence defined so that it’s clear that, ‘I didn’t
know I was supposed to feed my dog’ isn’t a defense,” Suttle said.

“I think the awareness is increasing all the time and I think if we
give the prosecutors some more tools, they’ll be able to do an even
better job.”


Pending animal cruelty legislation:

• HB 82 — Adds intentionally starving or dehydrating animals to
death to the legal definition of extreme cruelty to animals, a fourth
degree felony.

Status: Located in the House Judiciary Committee

• HB 159 — Expands the definition of extreme cruelty to animals, a
fourth degree felony, to include leaving an animal in a hot car,
increasing the penalty for cruelty resulting in death or great bodily
harm, or intentional abandonment and clarifies the definitions of
mistreatment and negligence.

Status: Located in the Senate Conservation Committee

• HB 434 — Expands the Family Violence Protection Act to add pets to
domestic violence protection orders and allow for them to be removed
from a home for their own protection when domestic violence victims go
to a shelter, and to be cared for until the victims reclaim them or
decide where they should be placed.

Status: Located in the Senate Public Affairs Committee

• SB 127 — Provides the ability to recoup from an animal’s owner the
costs of caring for and rehabilitating animals that are seized in
animal cruelty cases.

Status: Passed with 40-1 vote in the Senate, currently located in House Judiciary Committee

• SB 313 — Establishes abandonment or failing to provide sustenance
to an animal in one’s care or custody as extreme cruelty to animals, a
fourth degree felony.

Status: Located in the Senate Judiciary Committee

Other legislation aimed at improving the plight of animals in New Mexico or addressing domestic animals includes:

• HB 265 — No gas chamber for animal euthanasia

• HB 593 — Animal euthanasia requirements

• HB 667 — Dangerous dog definitions and prosecution

• HB 781 — Equine protection fund

• HB 892 — Animal shelter euthanasia requirements


To track the status of proposed legislation, visit www.nmlegis.gov/lcs/BillFinderNumber.aspx and enter the bill number.