Boone County law enforcement committee focuses on animal abuse

Wednesday, May 8, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:24 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 8, 2013
A coalition formed last year to focus on animal abuse in Boone County has helped save dogs and find them proper homes.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the last name of Molly Aust, Columbia's animal control officer.


COLUMBIA — When 13-year-old Jolie was the first dog to the finish line at the Jim Devine Memorial 5K Dog Walk in April, she had far more energy than the human clinging to her leash.

The tan pit bull mix showed no signs of the abuse she'd suffered. The family that adopted her when she was a puppy left her tethered in the backyard without food, water or heartworm medication, said Valerie Chaffin, executive director of Columbia Second Chance.

Then, last summer, Columbia Animal Control rescued her and Columbia Second Chance took her in. She was wearing a 4-inch bark collar around her 8-inch neck, and prongs from the collar had to be surgically removed.

Jolie’s owner, Theresa Shettlesworth, pleaded guilty in June 2012 to animal neglect or cruelty, a misdemeanor, and was sentenced to two years probation. As part of her probation, she is not allowed to own animals or live in a residence with animals, and Columbia Animal Control is allowed on her property without notice.

Jolie is lucky. Most dogs abused to that degree never make it to Second Chance or other organizations, Chaffin said. If they don’t die, their injuries can be too severe to treat. They don’t end up getting adopted as Jolie did on April 26.

Boone County Chief Prosecutor Dan Knight — Jolie's biggest fan, Chaffin said — was a driving force in bringing her owner to justice, in large part because of the Animal Welfare Law Enforcement Committee he started last year.

Knight is close to the cause. He has two dogs of his own: Snap, an Australian Shepherd mix, and Rocky, a Rat Terrier mix.

The committee comprises officers from Columbia Animal Control, the Columbia Police Department's Domestic Violence Enforcement, or DOVE, Unit — which focuses on domestic abuse — the Boone County Sheriff’s Department, the Hallsville and Sturgeon police departments and the Columbia City Prosecutor’s Office.

The group meets every other month to discuss current animal abuse cases and animal-abuse related issues that may involve multiple departments. 

Columbia Animal Control Officer Molly *Aust said the meetings are an opportunity to educate police about animal control issues.

"We are good at animal law, and that may be where police departments and sheriff's departments are lacking," Oust said. "It brings the two together."

Major Tom Reddin of the Boone County Sheriff's Department said it gets everyone "on the same sheet of music." It gives the group time to review cases, see how they were handled and talk about how they might have been handled better. 

To further their education, the committee has brought in guest speakers, including Christopher Cox, an attorney from the St. Louis area who works extensively on animal abuse cases. Knight said a police officer involved in the high-profile Michael Vick case — Vick, an NFL quarterback, pleaded guilty to sponsoring a dog in an animal-fighting venue — is coming to Columbia from Atlanta, and will talk to the group. 

Another guest speaker, Mary Pat Boatfieldexecutive director of the Central Missouri Humane Society, talked to the group about the proven link between animal abuse and domestic abuse, which she has worked to raise awareness about locally and nationally. 

Studies, such as one from the American Prosecutors Research Institute, show that violence against animals is often a predictor of other crime, and that prosecuting animal abuse leads to safer communities.

“We see it here in Boone County,” Knight said. “The majority of people involved in these crimes of animal abuse have also committed violent crimes against humans. Maybe in the past, maybe concurrently with the animal abuse, or we see it happen later.”

Knight cited the example of William Dean Smith, who is currently facing animal abuse charges in Columbia for allegedly beating his dog, White Girl, to death. He is facing additional domestic abuse charges.

Oust said whenever Columbia Animal Control officers go into a home, they’re always looking at the human factor. 

“When we go into that home and see an animal that is abused, we're going to look a little bit closer to the kids who are there and the spouse,” she said.

Oust said Columbia Animal Control will alert law enforcement if officers see any signs of abuse.

Knight also expressed worry that witnessing animal abuse can have adverse effects on other members of the household. He said sometimes it leads to people putting themselves in danger.

“It’s heartbreaking to think you have these situations where maybe a child is putting herself or himself in harm's way to protect a pet,” he said.

Detective Randy Nichols of the DOVE Unit said before the committee was created, DOVE didn't work directly with Columbia Animal Control, although they would often see information about animal abuse in reports of domestic abuse. He said being able to collaborate with other agencies face-to-face has been beneficial to his work.

Knight is also reaching out to the public to encourage people to report animal abuse either to Columbia Animal Control, police or anonymously through CrimeStoppers. 

“The animal control officers don’t nearly have the personnel — the ability — to go and examine the living conditions of all pets that are all over Boone County,” he said.

Jolie is a clear example of how an animal's environment can affect its personality, Chaffin said.

"A dog can be exposed to the worst human conditions — which is what happened to Jolie — then she was rescued and placed in a loving, nurturing environment, and what came out is Jolie's natural tendency to be a loving dog," she said. 

It's clear Jolie is in a happier place. She has been known to tackle a stranger to the ground just to bestow excessive kisses. Her new collar warns: "I'll lick you to death."

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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