The New Jersey SPCA is putting more people behind bars than ever before for animal cruelty and dog fighting -- and the I-Team got a rare look at how this specialized police force combats neglect and abuse.
"We’re here to speak for the animals who can’t speak for themselves," said Corporal Frank Rizzo Jr.
The SPCA operates in all of the state's 21 counties and its 60 officers respond to more than 5,000 cases a year while also maintaining other full-time jobs. The body -- which shouldn't be confused with nonprofit organizations like the ASPCA in New York -- investigates cases of animal abuse and can arrest and prosecute abusers. And they do it all without state funding: the NJ SPCA relies entirely on private donations and officers pay for their own protective vests.
"A lot of people think we’re dog catchers, and we’re not," said NJ SPCA president Steve Shatkin. "We call in animal control officers to take care of the animals, and it’s our job to handle the humans who mistreat them."
Chief Frank Rizzo Sr. -- who is Rizzo Jr.'s father -- said they've implemented a sophisticated tracking system which allows officers to respond to all cases within 24 hours.
The cases range from welfare checks to complaints about hoarders and vicious maltreatment. Most of the calls, however, come from inner-city neighborhoods where dog fighting is prominent.
That's where they often find so-called "bait dogs" -- pups that are used to train fighting dogs and often found with mangled ears and muzzles along with other signs of attacks and abuse. In one case, the I-Team saw bait dogs recovering at the Associated Humane Societies Shelter in Newark.
"They get abandoned and they’re in terrible condition because they’ve spent their life just getting beaten up by fighting dogs," Rizzo Jr. said.
In one case, the I-Team saw bait dogs recovering at the Associated Humane Societies Shelter in Newark.
They also handle other cases of abuse. The I-Team met a puppy that had miraculously survived after being thrown out a window. Officers are still looking for the owner.
"She tortured an animal by throwing it out of a two-story window into the street in front of her complex," Officer Michael Capano said.
Often animals are used as pawns in domestic abuse disputes. According to a study conducted by the American Humane Association, 71 percent of women sampled at a domestic abuse safe house claimed their partners had threatened, hurt or killed a pet. Another survey showed that animals were abused in 88 percent of homes where child physical abuse was present.
Candace DeStefano told officers she found her lifeless cat in her home after an argument with her boyfriend.
“I tried to give him CPR myself but it wasn’t working,” DeStefano said. “I grabbed him, put him in the car, and started giving him heart palpitations on the way to the hospital.”
Officers believed the cat had been choked or strangled. DeStefano’s mother said she was devastated at the death of the family pet.
“How could anyone could hurt an animal, a baby, it’s only a year old,” said Dorothy Demeraski. “I don’t know what he would do with my daughter so I really want him put away, that’s the best I can tell you, I want him in jail.”
Officers said they were searching for the boyfriend to question him. Officer Tim Kennedy said domestic violence cases often begin with abuse of an animal.
"The animals obviously don’t have a voice, so we are their voice, their advocate,” he said.
For more information, check out the website: www.NJSPCA.org.