Martha Parkhurst, MSPCA Law Enforcement Officer
April 1, 2010

1. What are some of the things that you do as an animal law enforcement officer in your day-to-day work?

I investigate animal cruelty and neglect cases that are called into the MSPCA Law Enforcement Department.  There are currently 6 officers that cover the entire state.  Each officer has an area that they are assigned to – mine is the North Shore and parts of Boston and includes 65 cities/towns.  The day to day involves a lot of driving to investigate allegations of cruelty/neglect.  The majority of my day is spent educating the public about proper and humane pet care and what their legal obligations as owners are.  Criminally charging people is not the first course of action. Many of the cases involve owner ignorance and not malice, the owners don't understand that their animal needs to have shelter from the elements or they can’t afford vet care and don't know where to turn. In some cases, educating an owner can be just as important as charging them.  The same goal is attained: Getting a better life for the animal in need.  It may just take more information to change the owner’s behavior. 


However, there are always those individuals who ignore our advice or the conditions of the animals are so egregious that further action is required.  That action may be removing animals with a search warrant, having animals surrendered and/or charging people with criminal offenses.  I strive to interpret and enforce the existing laws and to educate people about animals needs in cases where the law does not provide adequate protection.  I believe that educating the public is the best way to change expectations and in the end create more comprehensive animal protection laws.


2. How did you become involved in this line of work?

I received my BS in animal Science and had been thinking about becoming a veterinarian. However, I was also interested in law enforcement so when I saw an ad for a Law Enforcement officer, in 1985, for a humane organization, I thought it would be a perfect way to combine my passion for both animals and law enforcement. 


3. Since you began working in this field, what changes have you seen in animal law enforcement?

I have noticed many positive changes in how animal cruelty is viewed, not only by the general public, but also by the justice system.  It is rare for me to hear comments of “it’s just a dog” as I frequently did when I began my career.  Effective enforcement of animal cruelty laws is increasingly seen as an important component of community oriented policing.  It improves the quality of life not only for the citizens but animals as well.

There are now approximately 100 law schools that offer animal law courses; the American Bar Association, as well as several state bar associations, have law committees; many states now have regional task forces that specifically address crimes against animals; there are better resources available for investigations and prosecution of animal cruelty; training on the investigation of and response to crimes against animals is included in some police academy training and the number of states with felony level animal cruelty laws has grown dramatically.  

However, we still have a long way to go and the wheels of justice turn slowly.  Although we will never end animal cruelty and neglect, it is possible to reduce needless suffering.  This will be accomplished by your efforts: contact your government representatives, support non –governmental agencies whose mission it is to prevent animal cruelty and neglect, educate your children, family, friends and co-workers on the importance of preventing animal cruelty and neglect, and support businesses whose practices and missions are to reduce harm to animals.


4. What do you think the difference between cruelty and neglect is?

The term animal cruelty is used generically to describe a wide range of behaviors such as failing to provide proper food, water, shelter or a sanitary environment to causing malicious torture or killing of an animal.  Animal cruelty is both the intentional act to harm an animal, and the failure to act when there is a duty to act. The failure to act often involves neglecting to provide the animal with proper food, water, shelter, a sanitary environment or necessary sustenance. 

Under the Massachusetts anti cruelty statue (Chapter 272 section77) cruelty and neglect are considered the same - a person can be criminally charged with animal cruelty whether they have committed a passive act of cruelty  - neglecting to provide the animal with proper food, excessive matting, etc. or committed an active form of cruelty such as beating an animal, abandoning an animal or things of that nature. 

Cruelty to animals is the malicious or criminally negligent act that causes an animal to suffer pain or death.  Neglect is a form of cruelty.  Neglect is not necessarily intended to cause pain (although the result can be just as cruel and painful as an intentional act to harm an animal) while the result of cruelty is usually done to inflict some sort of harm.


5. What is the best part about your job?

The best part of my job is when I am able to get an animal out of a bad situation and they find a new forever home.  It is also very rewarding to be able to work with a family and I am able to educate them that some of the things they were doing may have been neglectful and they change their behavior and make the life of the animal and the family better.


6. What kind of training do you need to work in your field?

A degree in Animal Science or Criminal Justice is preferred and as much animal experience as possible. In Massachusetts we attend a Municipal Police Academy for 24 weeks and upon graduating are commissioned as Special State Police Officers with the authority to enforce the anti cruelty statues throughout Massachusetts.  We are authorized to make arrests, obtain and execute search warrants and criminally charge people with violations of the anti cruelty statues.


7. What advice can you give to kids interested in animal law enforcement?

Get all the animal experience that you can get and volunteer at an animal shelter.  Learn all you can about animal welfare.  You also want to make sure you enjoy not only working with and helping animals but also you like dealing with people.  Most of this job is educating people to affect change for animals.  You need to be able to have people skills as well as animal skills to be effective.


8. I’m sure you encounter many sad cases in your line of work. When you go home at the end of the day, do you do something special to put those out of your mind so you can relax?

It is easy to get cynical and tainted and it can be very difficult to "forget" about the animals at the end of the day so it is important to have healthy outside activities so you can recharge. I spend time with my animals, enjoy outdoor activities, and spend time with friends.  


9. I can imagine that this can be tough work and is certainly not for everybody. Do you think there is a certain type of person best suited for your job?

You need to be able to balance your emotional feelings regarding animals with the authority given to you by the government laws and the agency you work for in regards to animal welfare, neglect and abuse.  Even though an officer may personally wish they could have done more in a particular situation, you need to set your professional priorities as to what would be best for all animals within the confines of law.  You have to reign in your emotions and stay focused in order to help the animals.  You also need to have empathy not only for animals but for people as well.


10. Do you think animal law enforcement shows, like “Animal Cops,” accurately portray your job?

These shows have brought a lot of awareness to the public concerning animal welfare issues and that there are law enforcement authorities specifically trained and authorized to enforce animal cruelty laws.  I think they also evoke compassion in people and make them realize that animals have the ability to feel pain and that animal cruelty can and does occur anywhere.  However, they can also create unrealistic expectations of what can be done to protect animals or that it is easy to get animals from neglectful situations.  People are not aware of the amount of time that is spent investigating some of the animal abuse cases and it is much more involved and time consuming than what is seen on television.  Laws differ from state to state - not only the anti -cruelty statutes but also what authority the animal welfare organization possesses, assuming there are humane organizations in the state with law enforcement powers.  In Massachusetts we are fortunate that MSPCA Law Enforcement Officers are commissioned Special State Police Officers authorized to enforce the anti animal cruelty statues throughout the state of Massachusetts.


11. Do you have any pets at home?

I have a dog that was part of a cruelty case I handled and a horse.


12. You’re probably doing a job which you wish was not necessary. If all the animals were safe and people didn’t neglect or abuse them anymore, what other job might you pursue?

It is hard to imagine doing something else and unfortunately I think there will always be a need for people doing my job, but if I were to do something else I would like to be a personal trainer or a physical therapist.