The task force charged with studying Baltimore's animal cruelty problem recommends that the city teach the public how to spot abuse, start a low- to no-cost program to spay and neuter pit bulls, and launch a campaign with signs and bus advertisements to encourage people to report violence against dogs and cats.
The Anti-Animal Abuse Task Force's final report, presented Friday to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, includes the group's assessment of the cruelty problem in the city and its best ideas to, if not stop it, at least reduce it.
The 45-page report is a sober, unflinching look at the grim reality in Baltimore — dogfighting, cases of abuse, no law enforcement dedicated to tracking down and prosecuting abusers, and an animal control department stretched thin. Even so, the report includes dozens of suggestions for improvement, many of which would cost nothing.
"We continue to persevere in an ongoing quest to stop a crime that has humbled us by its severity and frequency," task force chairwoman Caroline Griffin wrote in the introduction. "While we may never eradicate animal abuse entirely, the task force strives for a time when Baltimore is no longer the target of negative press, but rather a model for the nation in terms of the protections it offers its most vulnerable crime victims. That goal is within our reach."
Then-Mayor Sheila Dixon appointed the task force last summer after a series of highly publicized cases. First, someone doused a pit bull puppy with gasoline and set it on fire in Southwest Baltimore. The dog, which came to be known as Phoenix, suffered extensive injuries and was euthanized. People raised more than $26,000 to find out who hurt her. Teenage twins were eventually charged in the case.
A few weeks after Phoenix's death, two cats were found within two weeks in a Northwest Baltimore neighborhood, burned, beaten and tied to a school fence.
Responding to the public outcry, Dixon created the panel and filled it with representatives from city offices, the police, the state's attorney's office, animal welfare organizations and residents.
The group's report includes dozens of suggestions, including:
• The city should educate the public about the signs of animal neglect, abuse and dogfighting. The task force created a laminated bookmark that can be distributed to Citizens on Patrol groups, and receommended that the city print 10,000 copies of the bookmark and distribute them to municipal agencies, utility companies and students. The cost: About $2,500.
• The staff at the city's animal shelter should be trained to spot and handle evidence in potential cruelty cases. The shelter should have access to veterinarians or veterinary pathologists who are qualified to perform forensic necropsies in cruelty cases and are willing to testify in court.
• In lieu of assigning police officers to animal control, significantly more police should receive training in forensic investigations in dogfighting and animal cruelty cases. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is willing to provide training at no cost.
There are also many recommendations about requiring counseling for anyone convicted of abuse, naming a "cruelty czar" for the city, and for tougher laws to crack down on animal abusers.
Rawlings-Blake has been supportive of the task force, and she attended its last meeting.
"She is getting the report today and will be reading through it — thoroughly," the mayor's spokesman, Ryan O'Doherty, said Friday. "She's pleased with the recommendations and looks forward to meeting with the group to discuss the report in the coming weeks."
Aileen Gabbey, executive director of the Maryland SPCA and a task force member, had high hopes for a number of the panel's suggestions, including the creation of an anti-cruelty czar and the idea of funding animal control through the citations its officers write — money that now goes to the city's general fund.
"Personally, I've been a big proponent of the anti-cruelty czar who can ensure that agencies are coordinating with each other on these serious cases," she said. "It would be tragic for any perpetrators to fall through the cracks.
"I think people often feel helpless and hopeless when confronted by these awful cases. There is much that the city and its citizens can do to help animals. The recommendations as a whole serve to create a culture of diligence that we can't afford to lose."