How Animal Detectives Work

Animal detectives work to protect the well-being of animals. See more pet pictures.
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The stench of urine permeated the air around the house. A chorus of desperate mews could be heard from across the street. When officers were called to the scene, they found dozens of malnourished and neglected cats living in appalling conditions inside the home. These officers are animal detectives and when the safety and welfare of an animal is on the line, they're on the job.

Animal detectives are known by many names, including humane law enforcement officers, animal cops and cruelty investigators. These professionals, trained and certified in the state in which they work, assist hurt or neglected animals, enforce animal cruelty laws (many of these people have the power to make arrests) and educate others about proper animal care. These detectives also investigate dogfighting rings, illegal hunting and­ poaching, testify in animal-related trials, inspect pet stores and research facilities, and investigate countless types of animal cruelty complaints.


As law enforcement officers work to keep people safe, animal detectives do the equivalent for animals.

Get ready to learn how animal detectives do their jobs, how a forensics laboratory was created to solve crimes committed against animals and how you can become a detective. But first, let's learn about the animal anti-cruelty laws investigators uphold and the authority they have to enforce these laws.

Animal Welfare Organizations

Failure to provide proper living conditions is a part of U.S. anti-cruelty laws.
Failure to provide proper living conditions is a part of U.S. anti-cruelty laws.
© kraker

Before we talk about how animal detectives enforce the law, let's find out what those laws are and which animal welfare organizations help support these investigators.

There are acts of Congress in place to protect animals. One such act is the Animal Welfare Act, instated by Congress and enforceable across the United States and all U.S. territories. The Animal Welfare Act protects any live or deceased dog, cat, monkey, guinea pig, hamster, rabbit, or other such warm-blooded animal, excluding livestock. Pets, research animals and animals used for exhibition must be provided humane treatment and care under the act.


There are organizations across the country, including three national animal welfare groups that you may be familiar with: The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), The American Humane Society and The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). All three of these organizations are on animal-protection missions and advocate on issues such as animal adoption, protection of pets and livestock, rescue and shelter resources, consumer education programs and anti-cruelty legislation.

The ASPCA, founded in 1866, was the first animal welfare organization in the United States. The group successfully lobbied to pass the first anti-cruelty statute in the country and nearly 150 years later, it continues its fight.

The American Humane Association was founded in 1877, shortly after the ASPCA, with a mission to create a more humane society. While American Humane's mission includes stamping out animal cruelty, its aim is to end violence committed against both animal and child.

HSUS is currently the largest animal protection organization in the United States. Its mission for more than 50 years has been similar to the ASPCA's -- to advocate against animal cruelty, abuse and neglect [source: The Humane Society of the United States].

To enforce animal anti-cruelty laws, many animal officers/detectives carry badges, wear uniforms and are granted similar authority as police officers. While specific authority differs by state, most animal detectives have the power to make arrests, serve search warrants, use reasonable force against perpetrators and may be authorized to carry firearms (with weapons training).

Every state establishes and enforces its own anti-cruelty laws as well, and 45 states enacted felony-level penalties as of July 2008 [source: The Humane Society of the United States]. Animal anti-cruelty laws can be broken down into two basic categories: intentional acts, when a person knowingly harms an animal, and failure to act, when someone fails to provide food, water or shelter to an animal. The types of violence officers respond to include neglect, torture, organized animal fighting, animal hoarding, poisoning, shooting, illegal hunting/poaching, ritualistic abuse, bestiality and "crush videos" (videos, usually found on the Internet, of small animals such as kittens, being stepped on or otherwise crushed).

A person found guilty of severe animal abuse may find him or herself in jail. For example, a serious crime committed against animals in the state of Alabama can carry felony status and put someone behind bars for up to 10 years (one of the strictest punishments in all 50 states) [source: The Humane Society of the United States]. Many cases of abuse end in counseling or fines, but violators may also be subject to seizure of the animal(s) and limitations on animal ownership or community service, depending on the circumstances.

Next, let's learn how forensic science is applied to animal victims and take a look inside the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory.

Animal Forensics

A bird skeleton sits in a jar at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory as investigators examine evidence.
A bird skeleton sits in a jar at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory as investigators examine evidence.
Stephen Ferry/Getty Images

Investigators examine bone fragments, a pool of blood and other details of a crime scene. The puzzle they're putting together might sound like an episode of "CSI," but these detectives are using forensic science to piece together a case of alleged animal abuse.

The ASPCA was one of the first organizations to get on board with animal forensics as an investigative tool, launching a veterinary forensics unit and dispatching the first animal crime scene mobile unit, equipped with X-ray machines, computers, examination tables and video equipment.


The U.S. Department of the Interior is also doing groundbreaking work in animal forensics. Its work started in the 1970s when Terry Grosz, a special agent of the Division of Law Enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was assigned to coordinate all endangered species investigations around the country. How? Grosz envisioned a forensics laboratory similar to that of an FBI laboratory that studies physical evidence from human crime scenes -- except these victims would be animals.

The forensics laboratory in Ashland, Oregon is the only lab of its kind in the world.
The forensics laboratory in Ashland, Oregon is the only lab of its kind in the world.
David McLain/Aurora/Getty Images

His vision began to take form when Ken Goddard, a former police crime laboratory director, was hired by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to set up such a program. In 1988, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory opened in Ashland, Oregon. Today, the laboratory is still the only one of its kind in the world.

The laboratory's mission is to help federal and state law enforcement officers and inspectors in all 50 states, as well as 173 countries. The forensics team conducts crime scene investigations, determines cause of death and if a crime occurred, and examines physical evidence in an attempt to link victim and crime scene with suspect. Laboratory specialists can also provide expert testimony in court.

The laboratory is organized into seven branches: administration, chemistry, criminalistics, genetics, morphology, pathology and digital evidence. Currently, a team of 33 people handles roughly 900 cases every year [source: Pahl].

Scientists here work with items such as bones, blood, hair, feather, fur, teeth, tusks, talons, poisons, strips of leather and any other part of an animal's anatomy. These branches use chemical, instrumental, microscopic and other high-tech techniques to study specific crime scene evidence in an effort to determine a piece of the puzzle. For example, forensic scientists in the pathology branch examine carcasses, wounds and even stomach contents in an effort to determine cause of death. Their counterparts in the genetics branch are able to identify a victim's species and gender from a drop of blood or piece of tissue, based on protein and DNA analysis.

Let's leave the forensics laboratory and find out what it takes to become an animal detective on the next page.

Becoming an Animal Detective

Officer Willie Cirone of the Humane Society of the United States works to save an abandoned dog in New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina. Animal detectives investigate crimes like neglect or abuse.
Officer Willie Cirone of the Humane Society of the United States works to save an abandoned dog in New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina. Animal detectives investigate crimes like neglect or abuse.
Omar Torres/AFP/Getty Images

One of the most recognized examples of people working to solve animal-related crimes is in New York City, where 14 uniformed and plain-clothed Humane Law Enforcement (HLE) agents operate. These agents were made famous on Animal Planet's "Animal Precinct," and maybe their work has inspired others to join their ranks.

There isn't one defined path to becoming an animal detective. Some people study criminal justice or animal sciences in college, while others capitalize on their prior law enforcement skills to make a career change. Any experience in law enforcement, in a veterinary clinic or at an animal rescue shelter puts you at an advantage for a career in animal protection.


Becoming an animal detective or law enforcement officer usually requires a degree or related experience, in addition to training, background checks, and certification (such as National Animal Control Association certification). For example, the state of California requires U.S. citizenship, fingerprints and training in animal care and the state's humane laws, as well as training by the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training. Some officers in California also complete training to make arrests [source: State Humane Association of California].

Every state has its own criteria and courses for those wanting to become animal detectives. Individual states offer programs specific to their laws and focus on public health and safety, law enforcement skills, intervention skills, and written and verbal communication. In Wisconsin, humane officer training courses cover topics like the role of animal investigator, search and seizure rules, evaluation of cruelty, crime scene procedure and collection of evidence, interview and interrogation, crisis intervention, civil liability and Wisconsin law [source: Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection]. Additionally, formal animal cruelty investigations training, available in locations around the country, are almost always required for the job.

As with any training, there are associated costs. These costs vary by state and typically include course tuition, and testing and certification fees.

For more information about current legislation and the work being done to prevent animal cruelty, visit the related resources below.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


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