It was early December when the first cat went missing. Feral cats come and go, so Mary Witty didn’t worry at first, but within two weeks, all except one of her regulars was gone. Suspecting foul play, she formed a group dedicated to the seven missing cats, Astoria7. She circulated petitions and contacted public officials. Soon reports of other disappearances poured in. By May, she had tallied more than 240 missing cats across four boroughs, all in the space of six months.
Initially the 114th Precinct turned her away, Witty said, but after she drummed up support, Inspector Kevin Maloney appeared to take on the case of Astoria’s missing cats. “It was getting media attention, so for a brief time he was helpful, and after that he was not,” Witty said. “Obviously the local precinct has other things to attend to besides this.” After all, the NYPD has human victims too. Maloney could not be reached for comment.
Before this year, animal victims in New York City were protected by their very own team of law enforcement agents at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). The ASPCA had been granted the power to enforce animal cruelty laws by New York State in 1866, thanks to lobbying by founder Henry Bergh. Just like real police, modern day ASPCA agents had guns, uniforms, and the power to arrest. In fact, several were former cops. In the 2000s, they starred on Animal Precinct, a show that ran on Animal Planet for seven seasons and had multiple spin-offs. But its golden era would soon come to an end.
In July 2007, a New York Times story slammed the 18-person unit as ineffective and overwhelmed by the volume of complaints. A few months later, Animal Planet announced it was cancelling the show. Then over the next few years, the ASPCA laid off the unit’s leaders, Dale Riedel and Annemarie Lucas, and finally, in December last year, most of the remaining agents. On January 1, all enforcement duties were handed over to the NYPD.
Now that police have been on the job for nine months, are they actually looking out for the city’s animals, or have animal investigations fallen by the wayside as police focus on crimes against humans?
“It was a sad day for animals when they made that decision,” Lucas said. “To take all of that expertise and throw it all away is a real crime against the animals.”
The ASPCA disagrees.
“The partnership plays to each organization’s strengths,” said Natasha Whitling, an ASPCA spokesperson. “The NYPD has always had the authority to enforce animal cruelty laws, but they have a much larger force than our humane law enforcement.” The ASPCA still helps collect evidence that supports NYPD investigations and provides care for animal cruelty victims.
Yes, having the NYPD investigate cruelty investigations makes sense—if they actually do it, said David Favre, an animal law expert at Michigan State University, but he notes that animal-related crimes have not historically been prioritized by police.
Yet fears that the NYPD would under-investigate animal crimes were somewhat allayed in July when the department launched a dedicated animal cruelty squad. Local precincts still handle animal cases, but the new squad assists on big ones and provides guidance more broadly. The NYPD did not respond to requests for comment.
“Through June 30th, there were 70 arrests and nearly 200 animals rescued and treated by the ASPCA, an increase of nearly 160 percent and 180 percent, respectively, over the same period last year,” the ASPCA wrote in a press release. Whitling was unable to provide details about these figures, but arrest data from the Division of Criminal Justice Services do suggest an uptick. In less than eight months this year, there were 65 arrests across five categories of animal cruelty crimes, rivaling the whole-year average of 68 arrests for the last five years. In the same period, however, there were 5,966 calls reporting animal abuse to 311, meaning that at most 1.1% of animal abuse calls resulted in arrests in these crime categories. Using the ASPCA’s numbers and the January to June timespan, the proportion of calls resulting in arrest is still only 1.6%.
Law enforcement should take animal cruelty seriously, if not for animals, then for humans, according to Jarret Lovell, professor of criminal justice at California State University, Fullerton. “Often what happens is that where there is animal cruelty there is child abuse and domestic violence,” said Lovell, “so investigating animal cruelty often reveals these types of crimes.”
Lucas agrees that the NYPD should be involved in humane enforcement, but doesn’t understand why ASPCA agents couldn’t work alongside them.
Witty said neither the ASPCA nor the NYPD were of much help to her. When she called in December, the ASPCA hotline repeatedly disconnected.
She now counts at least 300 missing cats across four boroughs, and keeps track of where cats went missing and who reported the incidents in a detailed spreadsheet. Her numbers are estimates, she said, since from time to time different people might report the same cats missing.
Whitling declined to comment on the missing cats, but Lucas said such numbers are beyond anything she saw during her time at the ASPCA and of real concern. Given the volume of cases, however, she understands that the NYPD would prioritize crimes with tangible evidence–bodies and witnesses. Her agents would have done the same.