On April 10, 1866, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded by an affluent New Yorker named Henry Bergh in New York City. Ten days later, as the head of North America's first humane organization, Bergh effectively lobbied the New York State Legislature to pass the nation's first anti-cruelty statute. This law allowed the ASPCA to investigate complaints of animal cruelty and make arrests.
In 1867, the ASPCA established and operated the nation's first ambulance for horses. As the innovator and pioneer in the humane movement, the ASPCA quickly became the model for over 25 humane organizations in the United States and Canada. As humane organizations began to incorporate throughout the country, they named themselves SPCA. Today the SPCA name continues to be widely used, however, these SPCAs operate independently from the ASPCA.
The ASPCA Humane Law Enforcement agents investigate and enforce animal-cruelty laws in New York state only. Animal-cruelty laws vary from state to state and the agency responsible for investigating cases may vary from county to county. Cruelty can range from neglect (failure to provide food, water, shelter or necessary medical care) to intentional abuse, torture or death.
HLE agents, operating out of the ASPCA headquarters in New York City, are New York State peace officers possessing full power to arrest. The 14 uniformed and plainclothes officers investigate more than 4,000 cases per year. The department has participated in several joint operations with the New York City Police Department and the New York State Parole Board to apprehend suspected animal abusers, including the organizers of cock- and dog-fighting rings.
In 2000, over 33,000 calls and inquiries were received by HLE of which 4,262 were cruelty complaints for investigation. There were 55 arrests made, 30 summonses issued and 537 animals seized. HLE agents appeared in various courts throughout the city to testify at pretrial hearings and trials. Of the 27 cases that were adjudicated in the local criminal courts in 2000, 13 resulted in convictions for misdemeanor animal cruelty while the remaining led to guilty pleas on lesser charges. In every adjudicated case, the court issued orders prohibiting the defendants from owning or having any contact with animals in the future. In addition, all defendants were sentenced to perform community service, pay monetary fines, forfeit any owned animals or pay restitution to the ASPCA.
Due to their specialized responsibilities and the inherent risks taken, the HLE agents receive intensive training, which includes the use of firearms. In 1999, the HLE department established training contacts with the NYPD Police Academy. Previously, the academy was open only to NYPD detectives, but HLE agents are now eligible to attend courses. ASPCA HLE agents have been trained at the NYPD Police Academy in proper protocol when responding to cruelty investigations and complaints. Likewise, the Humane Law Enforcement Department hosts training seminars for police officers and employees of other humane agencies.