New Mexico's Pet Resource SUMMER 2002


ANIMALS AND THE LAW

SHOULD I GO TO THE PRESS ABOUT ANIMAL CRUELTY?

It is often frustrating to report a case of animal cruelty and not get the official response that you feel is appropriate. A question I am often asked by people is whether or not they should go to the press about abuse or cruelty. There are many considerations in this regard.

The first thing to be aware of is that the press can be a valuable, incredibly powerful tool to bring attention to issues relating to the mistreatment of animals. The press loves animal stories and is eager to respond in this area. Nothing attracts viewers or readers like pictures and stories about animals. In fact, television stations prefer to have these stories as lead-ins for their broadcasts as they are guaranteed attention-getters. However, to be truly timely, television stations want to have the story as soon as possible after the event with accompanying video footage, if attainable. Depending on where you live, you may be able to get the attention of a newspaper reporter who will take the time to investigate your report.

The good point about press coverage is that often when your complaints bring no action, calls from the press can get results. However, this can work two ways. On one hand, a pushy reporter may be able to get a reluctant public official to respond and take action on your issue. The reverse can also be true. The added attention may make an official dig in his or her heels and refuse to go forward. If the case is important to you it may be worth taking the chance.

When speaking to the press, you have to make it clear that what you say is "on" or "off" the record. If you go on record, you will be identified and probably quoted. You have to consider whether you want the abuser to know who you are. This is particularly a concern if you are neighbors. If you talk off the record your identity should be protected. Always discuss this before you speak with any member of the press. At the end of the conversation, you can't say, "By the way, this is off the record," and expect the interviewer to honor your request. It has to be part of the initial conversation. I never have had a reporter violate a confidence if I've made it clear up front that I am not speaking on the record. Some reporters will not take a story from you if you are not on the record. This is a choice you have to make.

Remember, you have to be careful about what you say to the press. A prosecutor or police official can make statements and have immunity from suit if their comments are spoken within the scope of their duties. In contrast, a layperson is subject to lawsuits from what they say. You have to be clear and state what you have actually seen versus what you have only heard or assume. If you accuse a person of animal abuse and the allegations are not true, you could later be sued for liable and/or slander by that person. Truth is a defense to such a charge. But speaking out could result in a lengthy and costly legal battle.

There are many considerations when dealing with the press. I have worked successfully with reporters in both the print and television media for many years. I have had cases where the media attention actually helped with prosecution of the case. However, it doesn't always work in your best interest. You need to be cautious when attempting to use the media. The wisest course of action is to discuss this option with the person handling the case in their official capacity. But if all else fails, the media can focus attention and get results where the layperson is ineffective. Carefully weigh the pros and cons and then proceed in a manner most comfortable to you.

Theresa Welch is a former criminal prosecutor with 20 years’ experience in animal cruelty cases in New Mexico and California who was instrumental in the passage of the 1991 felony cruelty law. She continues to advise people on issues related to animal cruelty.


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