Police often need the public’s assistance to solve crimes. If you can help, please contact the appropriate agency. Noell Dickmann/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin.
OSHKOSH – After a video of a young girl playing roughly with puppies Saturday in Oshkosh went viral on Facebook, commenters raised questions about Wisconsin’s animal abuse laws.
The police returned the puppies to the owner after seizing them briefly — the puppies didn’t seem injured, according to the department.
But the video looked so stomach-turning, commenters said. The 5-year-old girl appeared to throw, spin and hit the weeks-old dogs. What happened here, they asked, and how can we prevent animal abuse in the future?
Experts who talked to USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin said empathy, education and more stringent laws are key.
Wisconsin ranks fairly moderate for animal abuse laws across the country, at 29th out of 50 states in the Animal Defense Legal Fund’s annual report. Neighbor Illinois, meanwhile, has topped the ranking for 10 years straight.
What counts as animal abuse varies “wildly” across states, said Kathleen Wood, the Fund’s criminal justice program fellow. But it’s common that states require some sort of “articulable” harm to prosecute the case.
Joni Geiger, executive director of the Oshkosh Area Humane Society, would prefer Wisconsin’s laws around animal abuse to be stricter.
“We could certainly do a much, much better job in protecting animals through our state law,” Geiger said.
At minimum, Wisconsin statute and Oshkosh ordinance agree: no person may treat an animal cruelly. It’s up to the police — often with humane societies’ help — to determine that case by case.
Winnebago County Sheriff’s Office has five trained humane officers to handle animal complaints. Oshkosh does not have any humane officers, and Geiger said this weekend’s incident provides a chance for the city to consider training one.
Lt. Lori Seiler became Winnebago County’s first humane officer in 2008. She responds to welfare check calls to look for signs of abuse and neglect in animals.
“The animals don’t have a voice,” Seiler said. “We’re there to make sure they’re being treated fairly and not being mistreated.”
If law enforcement seizes an animal, it goes to the humane society and a veterinarian examines it, Geiger said. The police decide whether to recommend criminal charges and where to put the animals.
Instilling respect in children
Still, the humane society has an integral role in the process: the very beginning, when children are young and impressionable.
Cheryl Rosenthal, an education specialist at the Oshkosh shelter, said she works with children of all ages to teach them to treat animals with respect.
“I think it’s important that people understand … just like you and I have feelings and emotions, so do animals,” Rosenthal said.
She said she asks children to apply a Golden Rule-like standard. If you were a cat or dog, would you want to be poked in the eye or handled in that way?
Record or confront?
Some Facebook commenters turned their outrage to the man that filmed the video, asking why he didn’t step in to stop.
Rosenthal, who has advocated against animal cruelty her whole life, said she recommends filming instead of intervening.
“There can be so many repercussions” to confronting someone on their property, Rosenthal said. It’s better to take a video for evidence and call the police.
“Animal abuse and animal neglect is so difficult to prove unless you have facts and figures — a picture, a video tape,” Rosenthal said.
In the end, the social media critics want someone to blame, Rosenthal said, and all animal abuse situations are complex.
“I’m glad people were outraged about this, but it’s unfortunate that we may not ever know the whole story,” Rosenthal said.
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