BREAKING BAD: Washington County’s Award Winning Animal Protection Team
The police found her bloody, bruised, and cowering in a
corner of the garage. The man of the
house literally had blood all over his hands. Eventually, Brandon Nagy was convicted and sentenced
to jail. His victim has started a new
life, and while she has healed physically, she will always bear the invisible
scars of being attacked, kicked, and thrown.
As this is a pet magazine, you’ve probably correctly surmised that the victim in this case was a dog.
One of the saddest truths about this story is that the object of such horrific abuse could just as easily have been — and often is — a person. Animal abuse and domestic violence are tightly linked. But it wasn’t until just a few years ago that, in Washington County, justice and solutions to these crimes became linked as well.
Whitney Kubli was a regular volunteer at the Bonnie Hays Animal Shelter in 2008 when Kahlua, the brutalized Pit bull seized from Nagy’s garage, was brought to the shelter. In addition to her other injuries, Kahlua’s tail was so mangled it had to be amputated.
Kubli, who at that time also worked as a victim advocate at the Washington County District Attorney’s office, says she was well aware of the connection between domestic violence and animal abuse. She was often the conduit through which the DA’s office would get updates on animals involved in criminal cases, including Kahlua.
“She was at the shelter for nine months while the case was pending,” says Kubli. “[Kahlua] actually ended up spending more time behind bars than [Nagy] did.”
It was that injustice, as well as other high-profile abuse and neglect situations involving both pets and people, that motivated Kubli to explore whether Washington County’s various law enforcement, social services, and animal services agencies were open to working as a team on the issue.
A Breakthrough Idea
Debbie Wood may look like your favorite perky auntie, but make no mistake: she’s a warrior for pets. As the Animal Services Manager for Washington County, Wood has overseen a renaissance of sorts at Bonnie Hays — and she was more than enthusiastic about Kubli’s proposal.
“Whitney basically took the concept of a multi-disciplinary team that already existed for other kinds of serious situations — where they cross issues of social service and law enforcement — and said there should be an animal multi-disciplinary team,” says Wood. “It made instant sense to me because it was about solving a problem.”
How have things changed since the creation of the Animal Protection Multi-Disciplinary Team (APMDT)? Wood explains the answer to that question has several parts.
“One side of what we do is the domestic violence side. One of the first things the MDT did was work with Monika’s House shelter in Washington County and made it pet-friendly. It is one of only three domestic violence shelters in Oregon that are pet-friendly, and the only one in the Portland Metropolitan area.”
Another big piece was getting a full-time veterinarian at Bonnie Hays. “Part of the exam in a potential abuse or neglect case is a forensic exam,” explains Wood. “[The veterinarian’s] job is to be an objective evidence collector, and be ready to testify in court.”
The largest, most effective aspect of the APMDT is education and sharing of resources. Wood says animal services, law enforcement, and social services now know what to look for when out on a call, so it’s easier for multi-victim abuse crimes to be identified, prosecuted, and hopefully, stopped.
“There have been some informal situations before where they’ve had animals,” says Wood. “But what the APMDT has done is make it clear, make it a process, make everyone aware of what to do and how to do it to make animals safe.”
A Way to Break Free
Imagine someone wanting to hurt your beloved dog or cat, maybe even kill it. Chances are you’d throw yourself between the attacker and the animal without hesitation. That’s what happens in many domestic abuse situations with pets in the home.
According to Red Rover, a nonprofit providing funds for pets in crisis, it’s estimated that up to 65% of domestic violence victims delay or refuse to leave their abusers for fear of what might happen to their pets if they go.
Monika’s House is Washington County’s shelter for those fleeing domestic violence. As a result of the APMDT’s work, the shelter now has five outdoor kennels for housing dogs, and is working to obtain funding for an indoor shelter to accommodate cats and other smaller animals.
Kendra Moon, Day Advocate at Monika’s House, says that opening the shelter to animals empowers those in abusive situations to leave and get help. “Particularly for survivors, it’s important that they be able to maintain the relationship with their pet.”
Wood adds that it’s often that bond, between the human victim and their animal, that makes an abuser target the pet. “They use it to control, they use it to hurt. I mean, what would hurt you more than hurting your animal? The abuser gets that.”
Those at risk who don’t seek refuge at Monika’s House are encouraged to find alternate housing for their animals, such as a boarding kennel or with friends and family. But if that’s not possible there are other options, thanks to the efforts of the APMDT. The Bonnie Hays Animal Shelter or one of its partnering nonprofits will provide safe harbor for an animal if there is no alternative.
What excites Moon the most is the increased awareness the APMDT has brought to all parties involved. “There’s lots of training and outreach for first responders to look further in and see if there’s also child abuse, or if a child has witnessed animal abuse.”
Breaking The Cycle
The Animal Legal Defense Fund states that an abused pet is often the first visible sign that a family is in trouble. About a third of domestic violence victims report that their children have already hurt animals.
“Kids who just witness animal abuse are more likely to become violent offenders and harm people in the future,” says Kubli. “There’s a huge connection there.”
So strong is the link that the State of Oregon has passed a law making animal abuse a felony if committed in the presence of a minor. This is another part of the APMDT mission — to prosecute offenders and interrupt the vicious cycle created and reinforced by their actions.
“Officers know that when they’re pursuing these things they’re going to make a difference,” says Wood. “They know how to properly collect evidence for these cases, and they know there will be consequences for the bad guy. Since the establishment of the [AP]MDT, we have a hundred-percent conviction rate, with at least half of those people doing some jail time.”
But halting the perpetuation of abuse doesn’t end with convicting offenders. One participating organization, doing the important work of helping affected minors, is “The Little Dog Laughed,” a therapy program founded by Linda Keast that gives children tools to interact with animals in positive ways.
Earlier this year, the efforts and success of the APMDT were recognized by Washington County’s Vision Action Network, which presented the group with the prestigious Cameron Award. The honor is given to organizations and individuals that epitomize a commitment to solving problems by collaborating with multiple sectors of the community.
Wood was thrilled to see the APMDT get recognition. “What the Cameron Award did is a big deal. It shines a light on the great things that have been done by people on the front lines.”
That said, it’s clear that everyone involved in the APMDT is even more gratified by its success in helping animals — including the woman who first proposed the idea. “I hope it will inspire other counties to form MDTs and take action,” says Kubli. “Here we are, three-and-a-half years later, and I think it’s getting better each year.”
Wood agrees. “Instead of animal protection being a sad black hole, we’re winning,” she says, her eyes sparkling. “We’re winning!”
Michele Coppola is a Portland-based air personality for 99.5 The Wolf and copywriter for Entercom Radio. When she's not talking, writing, or pursuing quality couch time with husband Bryon and their dogs, Cindy and Lucy, she's also a proud volunteer for Fences for Fido and Family Dogs New Life Shelter.