Why Pittsburgh’s Humane Society suspended animal neglect and cruelty investigations

State-sanctioned training is only offered once a year.

Courtesy Animal Friends
Sarah Anne Hughes

Updated 1:30 p.m.

In January, officer Ed Mitchell got a call about an underweight dog in Homewood.

At the time, Mitchell was the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society’s law enforcement officer, a role sanctioned by the Pennsylvania government to investigate cases of animal neglect and cruelty. With Pittsburgh Police officer Christine Luffey, Mitchell later located the starving pitbull and rescued her from an apartment in Wilkinsburg.

They took the dog to the Humane Society on Western Avenue in Chateau, where she was given medical care — and the name Effie.

Effie and her case attracted national media attention and brought new focus to Angel’s Law, a bill under consideration in the Pennsylvania legislature that would make animal cruelty punishments tougher for both first-time and repeat offenders. The dog’s owner was found guilty of animal cruelty and sentenced to probation this summer, and a healthy Effie eventually found a new home: with Luffey.

Left: Effie shortly after she was rescued. Right: Effie with officer Christine Luffey and Luffey's daughter

Left: Effie shortly after she was rescued. Right: Effie with officer Christine Luffey and Luffey's daughter in September.

Courtesy Western Pa. Humane Society

But nine months after its officer helped rescue Effie, the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society had to suspend investigating animal neglect and cruelty.

Mitchell retired in September, and the organization has been recruiting someone to take his place since then.

“We are in the process of looking to hire a humane police officer who is certified by the PA Federation of Humane Societies,” said Caitlin Lasky, WPHS’ communications manager. “It’s a very small pool of people, but we are working to get eligible candidates now.”

Per Pennsylvania law, a person may only become a humane police officer if she or he has lived in Pennsylvania for the previous 12 months. Applicants must also undergo 60 hours of training. Not an unreasonable or onerous task in and of itself, but the training is only offered by the Federated Humane Societies of PA once a year, usually in the spring. It costs almost $1,000 per person.

“It’s not economically viable to conduct this two-week training more often than once per year,” a spokesperson for the Pa. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement, told The Incline

That’s left pet adoption and education organization Animals Friends — another nonprofit in Allegheny County that has a humane investigations unit — with just one officer and months and months to wait before its new hire can go through training. Only then can that person be appointed by the county Court of Common Pleas.

Officers from WPHS, an open-door shelter, and Animal Friends, which has a facility just outside of the city in Ohio Township, are tasked with responding to calls from around Allegheny County for everything from a dog left outside in the hot sun without proper shelter to serious cases of cruelty.

Both organizations fund these positions like they fund everything else: through donations.

Shannon Tremblay, director of communications for Animal Friends, said they depend on county residents to call in tips, since their officer, Rob Fredley, “can’t be everywhere.”

In 2015, Animal Friends’ two officers handled 796 cases that involved 2,176 animals. The number was similar in 2014: 778 cases.

Tremblay said their officers “try to provide education and supplies as much as possible” to the pet owners they meet on calls, but they have to remove animals when conditions have severely deteriorated.

The Pittsburgh Police Department, which is facing a staffing shortage, doesn’t have a unit focused on animal cruelty cases. It’s really just Luffey, who has been on the force for 24 years and has specialized in animal cruelty cases for the past 19.

“Prior to me coming on, there was no one to investigate those crimes,” she said. A commander who knew Luffey had a special love for animals put her on a cruelty case almost two decades ago. “It kind of grew from there.”

Luffey gets an average of three calls a week, in addition to her other duties. “I’m kept very busy,” she said. “It’s a tremendous amount of work.”

She can ask for assistance from other officers, but “these cases are very complex and very specialized,” Luffey said. “It truly takes a lot of time to learn.”

“We need to do more educate more officers,” she added.

Animals Friends has taken steps to do just that. Last year, the organization offered training to Pittsburgh Police officers who wanted to learn more about animal cruelty. At least one officer from each of the city’s six police zones attended, Tremblay said.

WPHS, too, works to assist the police. “Our senior manager of shelter operations, Mary Withrow, [helped to implement] a few ordinances that they must enforce,” Lasky said. Withrow, on her own time, said she met regularly with former Pittsburgh Director of Public Safety Stephan Bucar.

Withrow plans to meet with current Director Wendell Hissrich in the future to discuss a training “to decrease the number of dogs shot or shot and killed by law enforcement.”

Luffey regularly works with humane police officers from both organizations. “Our goals and mission are the same: to fight against animal cruelty and neglect,” she said.

They’ve teamed up on some of the city’s most severe cases.

In 2001, for example, she and humane officer Kathy Hecker, who retired from Animal Friends in early 2016 after 24 years, handled a case that involved a cat who had been shot with a pellet gun. Luffey said they made fliers and knocked on every door in the area. Eventually, Luffey found the person who had shot Rowdy: a 16-year-old boy.

That’s one of the reasons Luffey thinks the city needs to focus additional resources on animal cruelty cases. Cruelty toward animals can be an indicator other problems, like violence in the home.

Violence toward animals, Luffey said, “should not be ignored.”

This story has been corrected to state that Mary Withrow met with former Pittsburgh Director of Public Safety Stephen Bucar in meetings unrelated to her work with WPHS.