Task force takes aim at animal abuse
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The man stops talking and grabs the phone. It was the call he had been waiting for.
“He’s under arrest. What? For real? That’s great news man, really, thanks.” With a huge sigh of relief, Randy Grim, founder and director of Stray Rescue and head of St. Louis’ Animal Cruelty Task Force, relaxed back into his seat, a restful smile stretched across his face.
“That was Officer Naes,” said Grim. “I think we might be able to get a conviction.”
One dog at a time
According to Grim, animal abuse was for too-long neglected by law enforcement in St. Louis. And he took it upon himself to go out with a backpack, $400 and a clear devotion to helping animals.
“I used to wander the streets picking up strays and neglected dogs, sheltering them in my small garage,” said Grim. “I just couldn’t understand why nobody was doing anything, there were dogs roaming around in packs.”
The French-born and Washington-raised Grim witnessed horrendous cases of abuse, finding dogs intentionally abused, burnt, hung, beaten and even skinned alive.
After founding Stray Rescue in 1998, Grim worked hard to raise awareness of animal abuse in the city. In 2010, he partnered with the St. Louis City Health Department who sent people into the field to help him with abused and neglected animals. The effort recording around 3,000 cases a year.
“We found that a couple of things weren’t happening,” said Pam Walker, director of the St. Louis City Health Department. “There were often loose dogs, not necessarily strays, running around the neighborhood but pets which could be potentially dangerous, especially for young children.”
Despite writing up around 400 tickets to the municipal court a year, Grim and the health department were still frustrated with the lack of progress. If a crime went further than simply breaking a city ordinance, it needed police involvement.
Grim eventually managed to get an audience with Prosecutor Jennifer Joyce and Chief of Police Dan Isom.
“I took down about 100 pictures of tortured and abused dogs,” said Grim. “But in his mind, the human issue should remain at the forefront of policing concern.”
Remaining persistent, Grim continued to pitch the parallels between animal abuse and other criminal activities. He suggested that people guilty of committing these crimes are often associated with gang violence, drug abuse and sexual assault.
A turning point
The turning point came with the case of Darick Dashon Stallworth. Stallworth, 31, of the 2900 block of Lexington Avenue was given four years imprisonment last May for the death and mutilation of five pit-bull/terrier mixes. The dogs were found burnt, strangled, mutilated and one even skinned alive.
“What he did to those dogs, it was like the house of horrors in there,” said Grim. “I had to sit on the stairs as they brought the dogs down, I just couldn’t bear to watch.”
On the back of the publicity this case generated, Mayor Francis Slay along with the St. Louis City Health Department, Stray Rescue and the Attorney’s Office formed the St. Louis City Animal Task Force.
The purpose of the task force is to improve connections between city government, prosecutors and the police for a more fluid conviction process. One officer, Lewis Naes, was assigned to the task force to specialize in and investigate animal cruelty cases.
“My first goal as a police officer is to protect and serve the citizens of St. Louis,” said Naes. “However nobody wants to see these animals treated this way.”
Along with Officer Naes, two members of the health department have been trained to deal directly with scenes of abuse, and six animal-control officers are on stand-by if needed.
The training consists of a three level course run by the University of Missouri’s National Animal Cruelty Investigation School. Officers are taught how to correctly conduct an investigation, deal with dog fighting and assess an animal’s body condition and the extent of its emaciation.
Officers respond to Citizen Service Bureau reports, usually made by local neighbors who have witnessed some forms of animal abuse.
“I respond either directly to Randy or a CSB report,” said Naes. “Stray Rescue also has a direct hotline set up.”
Although dogs are by far the most targeted animals in terms of abuse, the task force ensures that all species are protected.
Cats are often subject to abuse as hoarders collect and hold far more than they can provide care for; and if there’s a circus in town, guidelines are in place to ensure the safety and comfort of the animals.
“We have had roosters even pigs come through this shelter,” explained Grim. “Dog, dog, dog, pig, dog,” he chuckled.
A need for education
The task force aims to do more than simply put people behind bars; if people aren’t taught the errors of their ways, they are likely to re-offend.
“I just can’t pick up strays every day, or arrest people every week, said Grim. “We need to re-educate these people with programs such as our Families With Paws; we go to the underserved communities with a lot of strays and abuse cases and offer spay, neuter, shots, chips info, one zip code at a time.”
Walker also suggests that education is a big part of the task force’s role.
“A lot of this cruelty could be prevented if people better understood what they were doing; for example leaving a dog outside in the sun is abuse, whether or not the owner is intentionally harming the animal.”
Instead of wasting taxpayer dollars, those convicted of a misdemeanor get sent to Stray Rescue for a court-mandated rehabilitation course.
“It’s such a cool thing when you see your ideas become reality,” said Grim. “To see a change in these people and for them to turn around and want to help is amazing.”
Future – how it gets better
Two cases have gone to trial, but it can be very difficult to prove abuse; a solid testimony and police report being crucial in obtaining a conviction.
“Even if there is blatant evidence of mutilation and torture, unless they say or admit they’re guilty we really don’t have a case,” explained Naes.
However Grim remains positive of the impact the task force has had so far in the community.
“It’s definitely changed the landscape; there used to be a dog on every corner,” said Grim. “We’re building a dynamic, special relationship with north St. Louis and there’s been an incredible response from the community in reporting cases.”
When asked about the future of the program, Naes said he’d like to see more training for officers regarding animal cruelty; training that would enable them to spot instances of not just dog fighting but all types of abuse.
Those who see abuse or believe that an animal is being abused/neglected, should contact the Citizens' Service Bureau by phone at 314-622-4800.