The job description says you must have experience in overseeing cutting off dairy cows’ tails for sanitary reasons, as well as familiarity with regulations around keeping egg-laying hens in horribly cramped battery cages. But the job description also says you need experience in removing animals from abusive situations and prosecuting abusers. In addition, the application states that it would be desirable if you were familiar with the link between animal abuse and domestic violence because you will be working with child protective services on that very issue.
Wait a second. What job is this? How can someone oversee what society increasingly considers to be archaic and cruel farming practices and also be responsible for recognizing the connection between animal abuse and domestic violence and child abuse? Welcome to the Connecticut Department of Agriculture commissioner’s job.
How did we get to a place where an agency has such clearly conflicting missions?
It started in 1881 when a young woman, Gertrude Lewis, who was a senior at Hartford High School, founded the Connecticut Humane Society because of her concern about the callous treatment of children, livestock, wildlife, and pets (and remember this was before women even had the right to vote). For an astonishing 84 years Connecticut Humane was the only statewide organization offering protective services to children. Finally, in 1965, the state recognized it should be taking a more robust leadership role in child protective services and created the Department of Children and Families. With that state involvement, Connecticut Humane’s primary focus shifted to animals.
While Connecticut Humane’s focus shifted to animals, for reasons that remain unclear it decided to remove a key section of its original mission statement, deleting as one of its core purposes: “to promote humanity and kindness and to prevent cruel treatment of people and animals by helping to prosecute offenders and by encouraging justice and humanity”(emphasis mine).
So how does the Department of Agriculture fit into this picture? When Connecticut Humane shifted away from cruelty prevention and actively pursuing cruelty cases, the state decided to shoehorn that job into the Department of Agriculture’s portfolio. For a department that was founded “to foster a healthy economic and social climate for agriculture,” the new task made less than no sense–it was clearly contradictory.
Add to that the evolving field of animal sentience and the studies indicating that animal cruelty is not only an act of violence but a big red flag for such future violent behavior as child abuse, elder abuse, and school shootings and you have a serious mixed-mission problem.
That’s why in 2011 as a state legislator I worked with both animal and child welfare advocates to pass a bill that calls for the cross-reporting of child and animal abuse. That is, if Department of Children and Families workers see potentially abused animals when checking out child welfare cases there is now a mechanism to report that to the Department of Agriculture. Similarly, if an animal control officer is called in on an animal abuse case where they see or suspect a child’s welfare may also be at risk, they have a mechanism to report that to the Department of Children and Families.
But a current case in Hebron highlights a serious problem: Almost two years ago an animal control officer investigated and reported to the Department of Agriculture a clear case of animal abuse at a home where a child was also living. The department did nothing until this spring, and only because it was prodded into action by media attention. Unfortunately there are many instances where the Department of Agriculture has not responded with anything like urgency in such clear cross-reporting situations.
Could the conflicting mission of the Department of Agriculture have anything to do with that?
Fixing this mixed-mission problem is simple: we need to remove animal welfare from the Department of Agriculture and get Connecticut Humane to recommit to its original mission statement by exercising the authority granted to it decades ago by the Connecticut General Assembly.
That statute—Chapter 530a, Section 29-108—allows the Connecticut Humane Society in partnership with the state to be the agent of domestic animal protection in Connecticut. We already have 15 such quasi-public agencies in the state. In essence, the state and Connecticut Humane work together under the auspices of an oversight board to protect domestic animals and children from abuse.
I’m sure we’d get plenty of applicants for the job of heading up a quasi-public agency with the clear mission of recognizing and taking seriously the link between animal cruelty and violence against children.
With a $46 million endowment, it’s not like Connecticut Humane doesn’t have the resources to rekindle the absolutely prescient mission set out for it by Gertrude Lewis. It’s time for the Department of Agriculture to step aside and Connecticut Humane Society to step up; the safety and well-being of Connecticut’s kids and animals depends on it.