Prosecutor and lobbyist: lawyers delivering justice for animals

Ann Knef Sep. 24, 2007, 2:00pm

Ledy Van Kavage with two of her rescued (from dog fighting) pit bulls, Darrow (left) and Che. Pit bulls are "great dogs" that have gotten a "bum rap" because of negative attention, she says.

One writes the law and the other enforces it.

Two powerful Madison County attorneys are channeling their extraordinary affection for animals in to creating a society that respects creatures without voice.

"You can tell a lot about a society in how it treats animals and other dependent members of society," said Madison County assistant State's Attorney Amy Maher.

Maher and Ledy Van Kavage, one of five lobbyists for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, are having
a significant impact in animal law locally and statewide.

They both love their jobs and the fact that their "clients" don't talk back.

Maher, who's been on the job since 1989 prosecuting juvenile and felony matters, is grateful for the work because it helps pay her substantial animal feed bill.

Living the dream, Maher makes her home on a peaceful farm with her husband and a bunch of animals including horses, donkeys, chickens, ducks, peacocks, rabbits, and of course, dogs and cats. She prefers not to disclose the location of her residence, believing it might invite pet dumping.

Maher has recently dedicated almost all of her energy on cases that come into the office's Animal Cruelty Division, a relatively new criminal unit.

She said the level of outrage in the community over animal abuse reassures her that her time is well spent.

"I'm most surprised at what a chord it strikes in the public," Maher said. "We get tons of letters and phone calls. I'm surprised and relieved that people don't think we're wasting their money."

Maher said there's a direct connection between domestic violence and animal cruelty.

"A man might break a puppy's neck while beating his wife," she said. "Or cut up an animal to punish a spouse."

She said she would be the "first to recognize" that the prosecution of child abuse and neglect cases holds a greater degree of importance. But, there are similarities among abusers, she added.

"There's control, cruelty and not being bothered by suffering," she said.

Neglect is the most common type of abuse Maher comes across, but the worst cases include torture. She has seen animals that have been beaten before they were killed.

In a couple of "bizarre and disturbing" instances animals have been bound with duct tape and left on the side of the road.

"It looked like they were victims of serial killers," she said.

Those types of cases merit notifying the media so awareness is raised and "people can put their pets up," she said.

But most of the animal cruelty cases don't make the radar, she said.

She praises law enforcement officials for raising their awareness of dog fighting, and abuse in general, and making arrests in Madison County.

Maher says dog fighting still exists on a level between amateur to "fairly sophisticated."

"It runs the gamut from street fighting to semi-organized with rings, rules and referees," she said. "These are not nice guys. Some have (prior) arrests on drugs, weapons and violence."

Maher said she spends a lot of time self-educating in the ever-changing realm of animal law statutes.

She praised Van Kavage, who for eight years has spearheaded enactment of state laws that promote the humane treatment of animals.

Darrow, Abzug and Justice

The ASPSCA, which helped evaluate dogs recovered from football star Michael Vick's residence, applauded federal authorities for swiftly handling an investigation into dog fighting. It noted in a press release that it "sends a clear message to those engaged in animal cruelty-that these acts are barbaric and unacceptable in a humane community."

Van Kavage, of Collinsville, believes the best that can come of the plight of 53 pit bulls removed from Vick's Surry, Va. property is exposure to the dark world of dog fighting.

"People who are violent to animals are violent to people," she said, echoing Maher's position.

While no baseline data regarding the prevalence of dog fighting exists, Van Kavage wants offenders to face the wrath of law which has gotten more teeth since she's been on the job for the ASPCA.

As Senior Director of Legal Training and Legislation, Van Kavage has succeeded in getting legislators to pass numerous animal law bills in Illinois since 1999.

She's helped write legislation strengthening the Humane Care for Animals act, including provisions that increase penalties for animal cruelty, animal fighting and bestiality, among other things.

She has also helped push through an assortment of bills including ones that provide for low cost spaying and neutering and one that penalizes animal horders.

Right now she's trying to get Madison County officials to formally recognize the Illinois Pet Population Control Act that went into effect two years ago. The act allows low-income pet owners to have their dogs and cats vaccinated and spayed or neutered for $15, but localities have to adopt specific language in order for vets to deliver the service.

In the last state general assembly, Van Kavage and the ASPCA had several legislative successes, including a newly defined category of dangerous dog, banning the sale of horsemeat, increased penalties for animal fighting and the inclusion of animals in orders of protection.

  • On May 24 the governor signed HB 1711, which prohibits possessing, importing or exporting, buying, selling, holding or donation of any horse meat if the person knows or should know that the horse meat will be used for human consumption. The law does not prohibit the slaughter of horses for animal food.

    Last Friday a federal appellate court upheld the law's constitutionality.

  • On Aug. 17 the governor signed into law HB 9, which specifically allows a judge to include animals in an order of protection. The bill provides that if a judge finds reason to include a companion animal in the order of protection, the petitioner is given exclusive custody, care and control over the animal. The judge can order the respondent to stay away from the animal and forbid the respondent to take, transfer, encumber, conceal, harm or otherwise dispose of the animal.

  • On Aug. 31, the governor signed into law HB 822 which creates a new category of "potentially dangerous dog," defined as a dog that is unsupervised and found running at large with three or more other dogs.

  • He also signed into law HB 3614 which will increase the penalty of animal fighting to a felony. Dog fighting is already a felony under state law, but other forms of animal fighting, including cockfighting, had not been.

    She also helped push through the establishment of a task force to address breed-specific discriminatory practices by home insurers. The ASPCA claims insurance companies will sometimes refuse to insure property owners or renters, even if there has been no claim, based on the dog's breed.

    On the road most of the time teaching police and sheriff's departments about current provisions in animal law, as well as lobbying (she also works with law makers in Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa), Van Kavage appears to prefer the comforts of home.

    In a wooded, animal-friendly valley on the edge of her neighborhood, Van Kavage lives with her husband, three adopted pit bulls (Clarence Darrow and Bella Abzug, for instance), and more than 18 feral cats (one named Justice). The dogs were recovered from owners who used them to fight. Her yard is visited regularly by a young coyote that likes to eat the food left out for the cats, but she doesn't mind at all. There's also a salt lick for deer placed near a tree line.

    She devotes considerable time teaching law enforcement officials across the state on current animal law. She sometimes uses graphic images of animal cruelty to get her point across. The images of animal torture are hard to view -- cats skinned alive, dogs who've lost fights being burned to death, drown or suffocated -- but law enforcement officials "need to see this."

    She also shows police how to collect dog fighting evidence to assist prosecutors.

    "I teach police to look for trophies, videotapes," she said. "You'll have your evidence right there. Steroids, vitamin K to bulk up. They'll have dental equipment for sharpening teeth."

    Van Kavage said she often is asked by others what they can do to help animals.

    Her advice, "Be a prosecutor. Run for city council to make sure they don't enact something stupid."

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