Pennsylvania SPCA’s Humane Law Enforcement Officers: What They Do and Why

While many people assume all SPCA’s are related, the truth is that humane societies are usually independent of each other.

This is true of the Pennsylvania SPCA, which was founded almost a century and a half ago and is one of the oldest and largest in the country.

The SPCA does more than just care for abandoned animals—they also have officers who respond to situations of animal neglect and cruelty. They investigate dog fighting rings, intervene in cases of animal hoarding, and deal with abused animals. They are out there to give animals a voice.

We talked to Sgt. Nicole Wilson, Humane Law Enforcement Officer for the Pennsylvania SPCA, to find out what it’s like to join the department and fight for those without a voice.

THK: What do Humane Law Enforcement officers do?

Sgt. Nicole Wilson: Humane Law Enforcement Officers investigate criminal complaints of animal cruelty and prosecute or assist in the prosecution of these criminal cases. The process starts with our dispatch team receiving a call about an animal concern. These range from an individual’s concern that an animal doesn’t have shelter to severe cases of abuse. Our officers investigate these complaints based upon the priority level, which is based upon the severity of the issue and the age of the complaint. There is a wide range of the types of complaints to which officers respond.

Last month, 1% of investigations involved a death, maiming, or torture, 7% were abuse investigations, seven percent of cases involved unsanitary conditions, 63% involved a lack of shelter, water, or food, 12% involved a lack of veterinary care, 1% were hoarding cases, 1% were animal fighting, and 7% were abandonment concerns.

The length of an investigation varies greatly based upon the type of complaint. For example, it is rather obvious whether a dog has a shelter or not but a thorough investigation involving an animal that has been beaten or that involves animal fighting can take significantly longer.

THK: How common are cases of animal hoarding? Can you give us a little insight into these type of situations?

NW: Hoarding cases involve a great deal of challenges from both the number of animals usually involved and the severe conditions in which the animals are often found. The cases range from exclusively hoarding animals to the combination of object and animal hoarding. Although hoarding cases only accounted for 1.4 percent of our cases in the last quarter of 2015, the number of animals removed from these cases accounted for 41 percent of the total number of animals removed by our officers.

During removals, officers often struggle through foul living conditions including feces, severe flea infestations and dangerous structural issues. It is important to note that the fleas often stay on officers beyond the work day resulting in an officer’s animal(s) having to be on flea preventative all year round to prevent an infestation in the officer’s home. The cost of rehabbing these animals is often significantly higher due to the long term neglect and disease associated with animals from hoarding cases.

THK: Dog fighting is a major problem in many areas and the Humane Society has played a huge role in fighting the issue. Can you tell us a bit about it?

NW: Animal fighting is a significant problem in Pennsylvania. Animal fighting in Pennsylvania is most prevalent with dogs and roosters (game cocks). These types of cases demand a great amount of resources both in conducting these investigations and then caring for the animals during the prosecution. Officers often must survey these locations for extended periods of time, gathering the evidence necessary to obtain enough probable cause for a warrant and charges. Officers must balance decisions regarding gathering of evidence with a sense of urgency to remove the animals from a home as soon as possible before they suffer further abuse.

Due to the felony grading of animal fighting, cases take a significant amount of time to work through the judicial system during which time the animals must be held. We had a case that we were investigating for over a year before obtaining enough probable cause to obtain a search warrant. Once the warrant was executed we had enough circumstantial evidence to charge the suspect.

In another case we knew the street name of the fighter for years before being able to identify the real identity of this fighter. Once identified after a few weeks of surveillance and an informant tip, we were able to catch this individual while he was fighting one of his dogs. This involved some of our officers working over 32 hours straight. This one case led to nearly 20 people being successfully prosecuted for fighting.

Photo courtesy Pennsylvania SPCA

Photo courtesy Pennsylvania SPCA

THK: What kind of education/training is required to become a humane law enforcement officer?

NW: The training for Humane Law Enforcement Officer is outlined in the statute. The statute requires 36 hours of training in the legal aspects of investigations and criminal procedure, and another 24 hours on normal agricultural practice and animal husbandry. After each portion, officers must pass an exam on each section of training.

Once a sworn officer, there is also a continuing education component required every other year. Additionally, if an officer carries a gun, the officer must first meet the requirements of [Pennsylvania’s Lethal Weapons Training] Act 235. These are the statutory requirements.

The Pennsylvania SPCA requires additional trainings of our officers. This training includes tactical training, equipment specific training and internal officer procedural training. For example, under the statute, an officer trained in April and May could be sworn as soon as his/her exam results are received but our trainees often do not perform solo investigations for another 3-5 months depending upon his/her progression.

THK: Do you have your own shelter and veterinarians so you can deal quickly with serious cases? How does this work and what kind of cases do you take into your own shelter?

NW: We accept all cases of animal cruelty. Depending upon the condition of the animal in question, we do use specialty services for animals when it is the most appropriate course of action in a given case. For example, if the animal has a severe break and needs orthopedic surgery, we will take that animal to an orthopedic specialist for this treatment. We have never walked away from a case due to its excessive size or due to challenging medical conditions of the animals.

We approach the use of our veterinary forensic team in one of two ways. In most cases we remove an animal either by use of search warrant or voluntary surrender and then transport the animal(s) to our shelter in Philadelphia where our forensic team does a complete evaluation documenting the animal’s condition upon intake, both through written medical notes and/or photographs. Once the evaluation is completed, treatment begins. If a treatment is required which cannot be completed on site, the animal is transported to the most appropriate veterinary hospital for completion of the required treatment.

Then animal is then held in the custody of the shelter pending the completion of the criminal proceedings. While it remains in our custody, we continue to provide all necessary care for the animal until we are awarded the animal through the courts. Depending upon the type of case, this may take a matter of months but may be for a period of years.

THK: How do you deal with the emotions connected to the job? It can’t be easy to see abuse and cruelty on a regular basis.

NW: Each officer has their own way of dealing with the emotions attached to the job. Officers view daily animals subjected to cruelty. The severity of that cruelty can vary greatly. Some officers cannot handle the strain and, over time, burn out. The officers who tend to be successful are those officers who concentrate on the good they can do versus the bad that they see. We, as officers, are in the best position to improve an animal’s life. With owners who want to do better, we provide them the tools to do so and with owners who refuse to do better, we can stop them from continuing the abuse.

Meet the Author: Diana Bocco

Diana Bocco is a full-time writer and avid adventurer. She's gone hiking in Siberia, snorkeling in Thailand, and canoeing in the Mekong River. She also loves caves and has been known to get lost in one or five around the world. Diana's work has been published in the Discovery Channel website, Yahoo!, Popular Mechanics, and more. You can read more of her work on her website at

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