Animal cruelty on the rise

KINGSLEY — Despite its scope, the animal abandonment case discovered in Kingsley in July, in which at least 38 animals were removed from a Voice Road residence and two people were arrested, is not an anomaly according to state and local records.

Incidences of animal cruelty reported to the Michigan State Police rose 575 percent statewide between 2016 and 2017, the latest year for which figures are available, according to the MSP’s 2017 Quality Assurance Report.

Of the 98 crime categories tracked by the MSP, only three — fraud hacking/computer invasion, narcotic equipment violations, and possession of burglary tools — had a higher increase.

Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Bob Cooney says animal cruelty cases are on the rise locally, too. In 2015, two cases were referred to his office for prosecution; in 2016 it was 20 cases; in 2017 it was 18 cases; and so far this year Cooney said his office has already investigated 15 cases.

“I know, as a prosecutor, the amount of public concern over these cases,” Cooney said. “The public gets really upset if an animal is abused.”

Cooney said that depending on the level of cruelty, the number of animals involved, and whether the alleged abuser has previous convictions, animal abuse cases can be prosecuted as a felony.

Since becoming prosecutor in 2012, Cooney said he or his staff have prosecuted a variety of animal abusers, from a Louisiana man who was hunting in the Williamsburg area and had “coolers and coolers full of squirrel carcasses,” to an Acme man who shot and killed a golden retriever after it ran into his yard.

Cooney, a dog owner, said that like most people, animal suffering repels him, but once someone is arrested for neglecting or abusing their pet, he immediately has additional concerns.

“People who abuse animals tend to take it to the next step,” he said.

By “next step” Cooney was specifically referencing domestic violence, something Sue Bolde, executive director of Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center on Chartwell Drive in Traverse City, has dealt with in her work as a clinical psychologist specializing in children and teens.

“Where there is animal abuse, there is often a child or family in danger,” she said, in a an article published on the center’s website titled, “The Direct Link Between Animal Abuse and Child Abuse.”

In Leelanau County, prosecutor Joe Hubbell said he has not seen as dramatic a rise in such cases.

In 2014 and 2015 there were no cases referred to his office; in 2016 there were three cases referred, in 2017 one case and none so far this year. Hubbell did say, however, that the cases he has prosecuted over the years have been particularly dire. Dozens of sick and injured horses, badly neglected sheep, and a puppy kicked to death, for example.

In Benzie County, two cases were referred to Prosecutor Sara Swanson in 2017. She said when pets are found to have been neglected for economic reasons, those cases are thoroughly investigated but not always referred to her office for prosecution.

“Animal Control will ask to take possession of the animals, we find them new homes, and if people aren’t fighting that then these kinds of cases tend to be handled more out of the court system.”

According to Shanon Banner, MSP spokesperson, animal cruelty was added as a stand-alone offense category in 2016, after the Federal Bureau of Investigation deemed it a “crime against society.”

Authorities say economic hardship, an increase in substance abuse, a lack of funding for spay and neuter programs, and the growing willingness on the part of the public to call Animal Control when they see an animal being neglected or abused could also be contributing to the dramatic increase.

The June 29 firing of Grand Traverse County Animal Control Officer, Deb Zerafa, after an investigation showed she falsified time and mileage records and entered property without a warrant, complicated matters. Zerafa has vociferously disputed these claims and two Animal Control officers remain on staff and available to investigate reports.

“There are so many moving parts to this issue,” said Heidi Yates, executive director of the Cherryland Humane Society. “From people who have too many animals and can’t take care of them, to people who do things we just can’t understand. That’s why it is so important to call Animal Control if you see something. Animals can’t speak for themselves. We have to speak for them.”

Another reason for the dramatic rise in incident reports could be increased awareness by law enforcement. In May, the CHS, which serves Grand Traverse and Leelanau Counties, worked with the Michigan Humane Society to offer a one-day training for law enforcement. Representatives from the Traverse City Police Department and the Grand Traverse Tribal Police attended the “Animals in the Field Law Enforcement Training” program, which covered human violence and animal cruelty, animals as evidence, and Michigan animal law, among other topics. The MHS started the course in 2015 and has trained more than 400 officers statewide to recognize animal cruelty cases.

In the Voice Road case, a married couple, Joseph Lewis Plowman, 39, and Lacie Lee Plowman, 37, were arrested in July on charges of animal abandonment or cruelty involving more than 10 animals, a felony publishable by up to four years in prison, according to court documents.

They did not live at the Voice Road residence, are currently free on $10,000 bond, and being represented by Traverse City criminal attorney, Gerald Chefalo.

At a probable cause conference for the Plowmans on July 27 in 86th District Court, the couple waived their right to a preliminary hearing and the case was bound over to circuit court.

Joseph Plowman pleaded guilty to the charge against him Friday. Lacie Plowman is scheduled for a final conference Wednesday with a trial in October.

Of the 38 animals the Plowman’s allegedly neglected and abandoned, five died or were deceased when law enforcement officers responded to the scene and 32 — 19 dogs and 13 cats — were surrendered by Animal Control into the care of the Cherryland Humane Society.

Yates of CHS said return visits by investigators to the residence found more animals, some deceased and some roaming the property. The animals in the care of CHS were bathed and groomed by volunteers, and assessed by CHS staff.

Seven of the dogs and eleven of the cats have already been adopted, additional animals from the case are at the shelter and available for adoption, while CHS is currently taking foster home applications for four dogs who need additional socialization before they can be cleared for adoption.

“They’re just great dogs and I simply cannot say enough about the humane society and what care they take in putting the right dogs in the right homes,” Anita Scussel said. “Evie was so underweight you could see her ribs poking through, and when I put a bowl of food out she’d grab a mouthful and then run into a corner to eat it. But that only lasted a couple days. We just came back from the dog park where she played and played. Lady is more reserved but that’s just her personality.”

Those interested in fostering or adopting a rescue animal from CHS can fill out an application on the organization’s website, cherrylandhumane.org. If you suspect an animal is being abused or neglected, call your local Animal Control office. In Grand Traverse County that number is 995-6080; in Traverse City, it is 995-5150; in Leelanau County, 231-256-9829; in Benzie County 231-882-9505.

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