Investigations of animal fighting, hoarding, puppy mills, and other cases of animal abuse unveil instances of the most shocking brutality. The length and extent of the torture these animals endure is difficult to imagine.... Thankfully, there are people like our award recipients who show us every day that we’re also capable of great compassion, and that it’s that compassion that can bring an end to cruelty and injustice.
-- Laurie Robinson, Assistant Attorney General at the Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, speaking at the Albert Schweitzer Medal Award ceremony, Nov. 14, 2011
Albert Schweitzer once said, “... all of us must feel the horror that lies in thoughtless torturing and killing.” In November, at the Hill Center in Washington, D.C., AWI awarded the Albert Schweitzer Medal to three state prosecutors who not only feel the horror, but aggressively confront those responsible - meting out justice to individuals who cause animals to suffer via acts of willful maliciousness, severe neglect, or the more organized and systematic brutality of animal fighting. These three attorneys - Michelle Welch, Assistant Attorney General for the Commonwealth of Virginia, and Raj Prasad and Amy Slameka, Assistant Prosecuting Attorneys for Wayne County, Michigan (which encompasses Detroit) - each received the Albert Schweitzer Medal in recognition of their unflagging pursuit of criminal convictions against perpetrators of animal cruelty, as well as their pioneering efforts to call attention to these crimes and establish strong animal cruelty and animal fighting prosecutorial programs within their jurisdictions.
Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson, head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, presented the medals. In introducing Robinson, AWI President Cathy Liss noted that “Under her leadership, the Office of Justice Programs has become a potent force in combating interpersonal violence and illegal activities that endanger our communities, by addressing illegal activities that victimize animals - activities that often go hand-in-hand with or serve as a precursor to crimes against people.”
In her address to the crowd before presenting the awards, Robinson spoke of the need to “instill in practitioners - law enforcement officers, victim advocates, animal control officers - a heightened sense of urgency about violence against animals.” She reminded those present that what is at stake goes beyond the individual cases: “[T]he cooccurrence of animal abuse and some forms of criminal behavior demands that we make understanding this link part of our approach to fighting crime in our society. And in moral terms, beyond the association with interpersonal violence, our actions to condemn and end violence towards animals serve as a kind of barometer of how far we’re willing to go to bring an end to suffering in this world.”
Amy Slameka and Raj Prasad
Listening to Amy Slameka and Raj Prasad talk, it is abundantly clear that they care deeply about their work and the abused animals who make it necessary. Slameka told a Detroit Free Press staff writer who interviewed the pair in connection with their receipt of the award that, “‘We take each case to heart. We take each case of animal abuse very seriously.... We’re very passionate and compassionate about it.’” Prasad added that “‘These animal cases tug at your heartstrings; you have these truly innocent victims ... who can’t speak for themselves.’” Slameka and Prasad have made it their mission to make sure these victims do not suffer in silence.
One case in particular brings up a wellspring of outrage and emotion for them: In 2010, a case was presented to them in which two young men were captured on video (taken via their own camera phones, in fact) burning alive a pit-bull mix dog in front of several witnesses and children. On the video, one of the defendants pours gasoline or lighter fluid on the dog. The other ignites her, then runs after the dog laughing as she races frantically to escape the flames and howls in pain before collapsing to die. Slameka and Prasad saw to it that both men went to prison, rather than receive probation or less stringent jail time. The case ended successfully, but the vision of the tortured dog lingers on in their psyches.
Slameka joined the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office (WCPO) in 2001. Prasad came on in 2005. Currently, Prasad is the chairman of the Prosecutors Committee and serves on the Legislative Committee for the State Bar of Michigan’s (SBM) Animal Law Section. Slameka serves as a council member for the SBM Animal Law Section, and serves on the SBM Character and Fitness Committee. She is also a board member of the Grosse Pointe Animal Adoption Society.
On their own initiative, Slameka and Prasad teamed up in 2008 to form the Animal Protection Unit (APU), a potent animal crimes division within the Prosecutor’s Office that coordinates efforts to bring animal cruelty cases to the fore and make sure they are given the attention and resources they merit. The APU assists in the investigation and prosecution of all crimes in Wayne County involving animals, and also evaluates situations in which animals are injured during the commission of other crimes such as home invasion and domestic violence.
A central focus of the APU is to combat the underground criminal community that breeds, trains, houses and sells fighting animals. The same year the APU came into existence, a prime opportunity presented itself to put the unit to the test. In 2008, the Wayne County Sheriff Department Narcotics Enforcement Unit received information that a sizable dog fight was going to take place in Detroit. The Department was able to place an undercover officer in the midst of the action. Slameka and Prasad advised on preparation of an anticipatory search warrant that was executed seven minutes into the fight.
When over 50 arrests were made in connection with the incident, the Prosecutor’s Office swung into action. To date there have been approximately 45 convictions. That conviction-to-arrest ratio for the APU is no anomaly. Since its inception, it has achieved an eyepopping 98 percent conviction rate. Today, the APU is staffed by four assistant prosecutors who juggle their time handling cases within the unit with their responsibilities in other divisions - making the conviction rate all the more impressive. Their work not only ensures that cruelty to animals is recognized as a priority law enforcement issue in Wayne County, but also serves as a model and inspiration for other jurisdictions around the country.
If you have an animal law question in Virginia, your best bet is to get in touch with Michelle Welch. Chances are, she’ll know the answer. In her role as assistant attorney general in charge of all animal lawrelated issues in Virginia, Welch dispenses training and advice to a lot of people - including local law enforcement authorities, animal control officials, and prosecutors throughout the Commonwealth. She speaks frequently at vet schools and to many other groups, and is in demand at conferences both in and out of Virginia, including those of the Virginia Animal Control Association, Virginia Federation of Humane Societies (for which she is a board member), and the Animal Law Conferences of the American Bar Association (for which she serves as vice-chair of the Animal Law Committee).
Welch provided advice to U.S. Attorney’s Office lawyers in the sentencing phase of the high-profile Michael Vick dog fighting case. In the aftermath of the case, Welch was a part of the team in the Virginia Attorney General’s Office that provided leadership for a new comprehensive animal fighting law. As a result, the legislature passed one of the toughest animal fighting laws in the nation, outlawing everything to do with animal fights and also making organized cockfighting a felony in Virginia.
Welch’s dedication to the defense of animals does not stop at the office door. In addition to her leadership roles in the Virginia Federation of Humane Societies and the American Bar Association, she is also the vice president of the Virginia Animal Fighting Taskforce, a non-profit organization whose mission is to protect the animals in the Commonwealth of Virginia by assisting in enforcement of animal cruelty and fighting laws, providing resources and personnel especially to jurisdictions in particular need, and organizing animal rescue and transport services during natural disasters and other large scale emergencies throughout the entire country. On top of that, she’s a senior faculty member for the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (APA), chairs the APA’s Animal Law Curriculum Advisory Committee, and teaches animal law on an adjunct basis at the University of Richmond Law School.
In accepting the Albert Schweitzer Award, Welch spoke of her favorite children’s book, Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney. The story is one in which a young girl takes to heart her grandfather’s admonition to make the world more beautiful. “In my world view,” says Welch, “everyone is supposed to do one thing: make the world a better place. I strive to do that by making sure that hunting dogs have full bellies, roosters don’t have to fight; by taking pitbulls away from dog fighters and making sure every animal is protected. This award inspires me to keep doing what I love to do: protecting the animals.”