Caroline Griffin, long a proponent of animal rights, is chair… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
While serving an eviction notice this summer in East Baltimore, a team from the sheriff's office opened the door of vacated rowhouse to find two pit bulls left behind with no food or water — a black one waiting by the entrance, and a brown one in the living room, locked in a cage barely big enough to hold it.
A few months earlier, if they had found animals like this, they would have called animal control to pick them up, end of story. Now, however, with the dogs safe, sheriffs launched an investigation to find their owner, hoping to have him charged with abandonment and neglect.
It's a tiny victory for Baltimore's fledgling efforts to crack down on animal cruelty. But in a city that just dropped charges against a man who clubbed a small dog to death, and then, to the horror of animal advocates, ordered him to work with rescued dogs and cats, animal rights reformers say they have a ways to go.
In the year and a half since twin brothers were accused of pouring gasoline over a young pit bull and setting the dog on fire, bringing national headlines to the city's animal abuse problem, a coalition of animal rescuers, law enforcers, government workers and concerned residents has puzzled over what exactly is wrong with the way Baltimore handles cruelty cases.
A lot, they've found.
"We've got pretty decent laws," says Randall Lockwood, a forensic and animal cruelty expert with the ASPCA who is guiding Baltimore's new Anti-Animal Abuse Task Force. "It's getting [law enforcement] to know what they are and how they can be used and then getting prosecutors to give a damn and judges to know what to do."
As the task force struggles forward, encouraging officials to track abuse and trying to raise its status on law enforcement's priority list, dozens of cats and dogs in the city are still being burned and beaten, stoned and starved, and only rarely is anyone being held accountable.
There was the emaciated cat wearing a collar found in the dead of winter near Mondawmin Mall. There was the pit bull shot to death in April and dumped at the Maryland Zoo. Another pit bull was found in June, hanging from a chain near an abandoned building on the west side. A few days later, people in Cherry Hill saw juveniles stoning a cat that was nursing 4-day-old kittens.
There is little or no hope of an arrest in any of those cases, the task force says. And that's typical of the 55 cruelty cases and 70 instances of neglect that animal control has already counted in the city this year.
Police have arrested some suspects and a few trials are pending. There's a trial in progress this month for two juveniles accused of beating a puppy to death last May at the Carroll Park golf course. And after repeated postponements, a January trial is scheduled for the brothers charged with burning the pit bull known as Phoenix.
But animal advocates learned last month that even trials won't necessarily bring their idea of justice.
Police charged Derrick Chambers, a West Baltimore man, with felony animal cruelty after he confessed to beating his miniature pinscher to death with a pipe. At his Sept. 8 trial in district court before Judge Charles A. Chiapparelli, prosecutors agreed to "stet" the charges, meaning they would drop the case if Chambers stayed out of trouble and performed 50 hours of community service at the Maryland SPCA.
Officials at the shelter, who weren't contacted before the deal was made, said they were appalled that anyone would send an abuser to work with rescued dogs and cats and have rejected the move, saying Chambers is not welcome,.
Prosecutors defended the outcome, insisting it was the best they could do with the evidence presented.
"I think there's just intense pressure for people to be held accountable because they have not been," says Caroline Griffin, who leads the task force and tries to follow each abuse case that she hears about. "There's always human error that prevents a conviction. It's been so many different causes, so many different reasons."
Griffin and the task force have concluded, however, that most of the blame for flubbed cases and missed opportunities rests with Baltimore's lack of a police team dedicated to animal cruelty.
Baltimore's Bureau of Animal control, the first line of offense in cruelty cases, has no power to arrest suspects or pursue criminal investigations. Only police can. Yet the task force says police and animal control haven't been working together in anything close to a smooth tandem.
For instance, sheriff's deputies who spotted cruelty or neglect while serving warrants or protective orders would commonly call animal control, who they assumed would investigate. But animal control was only picking up the dogs or cats and ferrying them to a shelter. No one took any action. No one pursued the people who starved dogs, hoarded cats, skipped town and left their pets behind.