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NORTHAMPTON — The Northwestern District Attorney’s Office has launched an Animal Protection Task Force to help strengthen animal welfare efforts across Hampshire and Franklin Counties.

The task force, which first convened in the fall, works to bring together local animal control officers, animal welfare agencies, representatives of private animal shelters and county sheriffs’ offices, police, mental health professionals and prosecutors to prevent animal abuse create response protocols sensitive to the needs of animals.

In an announcement to the public about this task force, the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office stated that their office covers 47 communities, many of which do not have fulltime animal control officers, which means animal welfare cases sometimes do not receive the attention they need.

Additionally, there is only one dog shelter in the entire district and no cat shelters.

According to Assistant Northwestern District Attorney Erin Aiello, the leader of the initiative on behalf of the district attorney’s office, the task force has many primary goals to address limited resources in this realm, but one of the major ones is to provide training to municipal animal control officers and community partners who are part of the task force.

According to Aiello, who has prosecuted animal cruelty matters in some capacity since 2010, the task force will spearhead five different training programs during the upcoming year that are pre-approved by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources as continuing education credits for animal control officers.

Aiello said she receives five to 10 calls a week from animal control officers or local police seeking help from animal cruelty investigations, so these trainings are important tools that help close an informational gap.

For instance, Aiello said they have a training that familiarizes animal control officers with the Fourth Amendment and there is also a training about how to approach investigations that involve animals since animals at a crime scene are often placed in an awkward situation.

“I’ve found that sometimes animals are in this weird position in the respect of, you know, you have your human victims and then you have your cases that involve property crime and animals are kind of in the middle, and sometimes I think people forget about that,” she said. “You have to treat animals as evidence, but at the same time, they’re not a bag of drugs, they’re not a gun. They require food, water, shelter; so we really want to highlight that in the training.”

The trainings are also important because many of animal control officers in Hampshire and Franklin Counties — particularly in the hill towns — do not work full time and usually get paid through a limited stipend, so conducting the trainings close by eliminates travel expenses.

“It’s great to be able to provide trainings as continuing education credits for animal control officers and it’s also great way for our local officers to get trainings without having the expense of traveling,” Aiello said.

Aside from spearheading the trainings, the task force is also a vehicle for better coordinating the work of animal welfare professionals and doing so by connecting various entities within the region, like police officers, mental health professionals, animal welfare agencies and others.

The goal, according to Aiello, is to have police officer and one animal control officer from each community in Hampshire and Franklin Counties represented on the task force since each can provide valuable information that the other might not know.

“We’re trying to close those gaps so that each animal control officer has a police officer they can go to if further criminal investigation is necessary,” Aiello said. “But then, on the other end, you have a lot of animal control officers and animal welfare investigators that have a lot of knowledge with regard to animals that law enforcement may not have.”

The task force is also working with outside agencies like animal welfare organizations or other agencies that many would not equate with animal welfare, like probation courts.

Aiello said having that connection with the latter is important because many animal cruelty cases have connections to violent crimes like intimate partner violence, school shootings or child abuse, so it is important to have those resources at the task force’s disposal, as well.

“I have found that a lot of these cases go hand in hand and by helping animals, you’re actually helping humans,” said Aiello, who handles high risk domestic violence cases as a prosecutor in the domestic violence and sexual assault unit at the district attorney’s office.

A longer-term goal of the task force, according to Aiello, is to educate the public about the state of animal welfare, including what is expected of an animal control officer nowadays and what resources are currently available in the animal welfare realm.

“I think first is educating people about how there are limited resources and then eventually, as a task force grows from the ground up, we can educate people about the resources that are available,” Aiello said.

In the meantime, though, the goal is to get community partners trained.

According to the district attorney office’s announcement, Aiello and Sgt. William Loiselle, an animal cruelty investigator with the Law Enforcement Division of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, provided a training on the basics of animal cruelty investigations and report writing at an Animal Cruelty Task Force meeting on Feb. 8 at the Sunderland Police Department.

Loiselle has over three decades in law enforcement, at the Northampton Police Department and the Massachusetts State Police. He continues to be a mentor in policing, particularly around providing guidance and support to law enforcement and animal control officers in animal cruelty investigations.

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