How to Investigate A Case of Animal Cruelty or Neglect

Note: Also see Animal Emergency Guide: An action plan for when animals are suffering and you think the law is being broken.

Anyone who observes animals can be of use in the investigation and prosecution of animal cruelty cases. In New Mexico there are a limited number of animal control officers, sheriff deputies and others charged with enforcing animal cruelty laws. They are often charged with enforcing these laws over large geographic areas of the state and the time they can allocate to animal cases is sometimes limited. Therefore, citizens who can observe and report abuse or neglect are vital to protecting both the wild and domesticated animals in New Mexico. Set out below are considerations and suggestions for use by anyone who may observe an animal in distress.


Animal hoarding is a common problem where "collectors" will have dozens of animals kept in unsafe and unsanitiary conditions. See our Animal Hoarding section for more info. Photo by: Santa Fe Shelter & Humane Society.

In conducting cruelty investigations, it is a frustrating reality that what might seem cruel to an observer may not be determined cruel by a court of law. A classic example is a dog who is left alone almost all the time, and is kept chained up outside during all seasons, with only a doghouse. Many people would say that in their opinion this constitutes neglect and/or abuse. While most animal advocates would not treat their companion animals in such a fashion, the conditions may not rise to a level which can be prosecuted under the criminal statues or animal statues of New Mexico. The difference between the conditions we wish all animals lived under, and the conditions which are the type of abuse or neglect that can be pursued under the law, can be extremely frustrating. However, always err on the side of caution, and report what you see if you believe it is abuse or neglect. Try to discuss your concerns with an educated prosecutor.

Animal cruelty cases deserve major attention in their own right. But in addition, studies revealed by the Humane Society of the United States have shown there is a direct correlation between abuse of animals and the potential for future violence against people, including domestic violence. Animal abuse is frequently a first step towards future criminality. Serial murderers such as Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer began their violent behavior first with hurting and later killing animals.

If you witness animal abuse caused by a young person, it is just as important to report that as it is to report such abuse by an adult. For children who abuse animals, early intervention may save them from being more violent in the future. Abuse of animals within the home is often tied to domestic violence. Adults who abuse children or other household members will frequently hurt animals in the home as a threat or warning to the other members of the household. In addition, children who commit animal abuse may themselves be abused by an adult.


What you observe during you normal daily activities is key. Consider what you see as you walk or drive around your neighborhood. Most reported cases are based upon observations of neighbors.

Signs of Neglect


Photo by: Santa Fe Shelter & Humane Society.

Some people think that abuse or neglect exists only when they see an animal who is injured. People believe they see abuse only if they see broken limbs or oozing wounds. This is not true. Animals deserve to live in humane conditions. Abuse and neglect can take many forms. Something as simple as an animal being out in the sun with no possibility of shade from our hot summer heat can be neglect. An animal left without water for eight hours while a person goes to work can also be neglect.

Look for the following things as potential signs of neglect:

• lack of adequate food or total lack of food
• lack of sufficient shelter from sun or heat
• exposure to extreme cold, rain, snow, etc.
• lack of sufficient water
• insect or other bites
• untreated skin sores, such as caused by rubbing of harnesses, ropes or anything used to restrain an animal
• any signs of untreated injuries
• signs of fighting injuries

Document Your Observations

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If you observe what you believe to be abuse or neglect, it is important for you to document your observations. If the conditions later lead to a case, your documentation can prove vital to successful prosecution.

First begin by taking good notes. In those notes, be sure to document all the important facts. Write down as much detail as you can. There is no such thing as too much detail. But lack of detail and specifics can cause problems for the possible prosecution of a case. Experienced investigators often carry a hand-held tape recorder with them so that detailed descriptions can be captured while driving. Later, these verbal observations can be put into written form.


Photo by: Wendy McEahern Photography

The most basic information you should gather is:

Who is at the scene? Who can confirm what you have seen? You need the names of all the people who may have witnessed anything related to the animal about whom you are concerned. This includes the owners of the animal or anyone else you know has seen things. It would also include the names of any police officers or animal control officers you speak with about the case.


Write down in detail what you see that you believe to be abuse. Be particularly thorough about documenting injuries. Describe any injuries in detail, noting their size, color and location on the animal. Note how long you think the injuries may have been present.
Documenting the animal’s living conditions is also crucial. Note whether the animal has shelter (and if so, what kind), food, water, and what the area surrounding the animal looks like. Note if there is excessive filth, excrement, droppings, trash, dangerous materials or substances in the animal’s living area.


Note the date and time of day you make your observations. Be specific about the weather conditions. Record whether it is snowing, raining, hot, cold, etc. If possible, note the actual temperature.

Write down the exact address of the animal’s location. If it’s in a rural location, note road names, cross streets, landmarks, etc. Also specify the place on the property where the animal is located, i.e. the front yard, back yard, alley, barn, porch, etc.


Describe what you believe to be a violation of the law. Also state how you happened to be there and made your observations.

Write down everything that you did at the scene. Also, if you observe actions of others at the scene, write those down as well. Capture the details, such as:
• who you spoke to
• what they said
• what you saw
• the detailed condition of the animal

Make notes regarding the attitude of the animal. Is he/she afraid, friendly, shaking, aggressive, etc. Also note how the animal reacts to the “owner”.

Keep all the notes you make for future reference. Don’t discard them. You may see a sign of abuse and then nothing else for several months. Then you may see abuse again. It helps to have your notes to establish a pattern of abuse if one develops over time. CAUTION: Never surrender your original notes or photographs to anyone, even law enforcement. Things can get lost. Always make copies of your notes and photos, and only turn over copies to others.


It is a truism that a picture is worth a thousand words. This is especially true if a case goes to a jury. Being able to see the actual scene and condition of the animal is the best evidence.
Photographs do the best job of convincing a judge or jury of the animal’s true condition.

Photographs also help avoid the problem of “he said”/”she said”. They give an actual image to show what the problem is. There is little left open to interpretation.

If you happen to have access to a video camera, use it to document the conditions that you see. Such a video would be very valuable as evidence in a court case.

It is best if you can take photographs of things in “plain view”, such as from a public location like a public road or sidewalk. The term “plain view” means anything that you can see from a public vantage point.

In the law there is also a term “exigent circumstances”. In the context of animal cases, this means that if an animal is in peril of imminent death, you can intervene to save the life of the animal. One example would be an animal hanging by the neck from a chain and choking. If you do not release the animal, he/she will choke to death. Saving an animal in that circumstance would not affect the viability of the case.

Be aware that if police or other law enforcement officials enter private property without a warrant, they may not be able to use any evidence they find. So if they enter barns, private lands, houses, etc. and seize evidence without a warrant, such evidence may be suppressed and the case could be ruined. Try to get a warrant issued in order to allow the law enforcement officials to obtain the evidence they need.

Always be careful that in your pursuit of a case that you do not break any laws. If you break the law, that will likely make people question your testimony. Your credibility will be an issue if the case actually goes to court.

Reporting the Abuse/Neglect

Once you have your documentation ready, call your local animal control officer, police, sheriff, or whomever has jurisdiction in the area of the abuse. Know where the abuse is located and who has jurisdiction (i.e. municipal animal control, county animal control, county sheriff, state police, etc.). Try to have your case handled by local law enforcement in your community. You should be a witness, not an enforcer.

Note: If the conditions are extreme, do not wait to document. Call for local law enforcement help immediately.

Other Important Considerations

If in your investigation you find dead animals, make every effort to get a local veterinarian to come to the scene and see the animals and the surroundings in which they expired. If the death was caused by neglect or abuse, proving the cause of death can be very important. Contact animal control or your local shelter to find out how to get a necropsy (animal autopsy) done. This is the ultimate way to prove cause of death. It would be important to be able to establish the cause of death in a criminal case.

Resources and Help

If you have questions on a case, contact Animal Protection of New Mexico, Inc., your local animal control department or an animal-friendly prosecutor. Prosecutors who handle animal cases and have experience in proving them in a court of law can be an invaluable resource to you.

If you have a serious case, try to get advice as early as possible. Waiting to seek advice can mean the loss of valuable evidence. Also consult APNM's Animal Resources Guide for information.

Remember the goal is to help save and protect animals from harm.

Also see Animal Emergency Guide: An action plan for when animals are suffering and you think the law is being broken.