On Jan. 1, 2016, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) began collecting detailed data from participating law enforcement agencies on acts of animal cruelty, including gross neglect, torture, organized abuse, and sexual abuse.

Prior to that date, crimes that involved animals were lumped into an “All Other Offenses” category in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program’s annual Crime in the United States report, a survey of crime data provided by about 18,000 city, county, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement agencies.

Unless these crimes are brought to the attention of law enforcement, nothing can, or will, be done to save the victim or bring the perpetrator to justice. The community views a shelter or rescue as an authority on animal welfare issues and looks to them for advice on reporting animal cruelty. The shelters and rescues look to the public to be the eyes and ears and to report offenders.

Familiarizing yourself with local laws will help you support concerned citizens and protect animals from harm.

Police, whether state or local, are generally the principal law enforcement agency charged with investigating complaints of animal cruelty, animal fighting or any other crime relating to animals.

Some states also grant authority to animal control officers, peace officers or agents of humane societies to investigate cruelty complaints, execute search warrants, and arrest suspects. Here’s a general overview of what people should keep in mind when reporting animal cruelty suspicions.

Report the Right Information

If possible, citizens wishing to make a cruelty complaint should be prepared to provide law enforcement with a concise, written, factual statement of what they observed, giving dates and approximate times whenever possible.

If it can be done without entering another person’s property without their permission, they may wish to photograph the location, the animals and the surrounding area.

Have names and contact information for other people who have first hand information about the abusive situation or the animal fighting activity.

Keep Track of the Right Information

You can instruct citizens that if they are suspicious of animal cruelty, they should be sure to keep a careful record of exactly whom they contact, the date of the contacts and the content and outcome of any discussions.

Never give away a document without making a copy for your own records.

Know How to Be Credible 

Make it clear to the officer that you are very interested in pursuing the case, and that you are willing to lend whatever assistance you can.

Although law enforcement agencies must pay attention to anonymous reports of serious crimes, including animal cruelty, they are more likely to follow-up on cases where there are credible witnesses willing to stand behind the report and, if necessary, testify in court about what they may have witnessed.

Know When to Follow Up

If community members do not receive a response from the officer assigned to their case within a reasonable length of time, suggest they make a polite follow up call to inquire about the progress of the investigation. As a last resort, and only if they are reasonably certain that no action has been taken on their complaint, they may wish to contact a supervisory officer or a local or state government official to request action.

Community members should keep in mind that most law enforcement agencies operate with limited personnel and resources and most of these agencies are doing their best to conduct timely and efficient investigations. Being respectful of the challenges they face and giving them the benefit of the doubt when appropriate will likely get concerned citizens much further than premature complaints to the law enforcement agent’s superiors.

Acts of cruelty against animals are now counted alongside felony crimes like arson, burglary, assault, and homicide in the FBI’s expansive criminal database.

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