Advocating for Court Case Animals

Confiscate, court order, cruelty, protective custody, evidence hold—these are some of the intake subtype designations used by HASS pilot shelters to notate that an animal has been impounded on suspicion that a law has been broken by a human caretaker. Sometimes referred to in the animal welfare industry as “Court Holds” or “Court Case Holds,” these are the animals that are potential victims of cruelty, neglect, animal fighting and hoarding. 

If you’ve worked in the animal welfare industry long enough, you’ve heard the horror stories of how some of these pets were treated before intervention. We’re not here to rehash those stories. Instead, we’d like to consider what we could learn about this special population of pets that enter shelters as evidence or property, and aren’t able to leave until the courts determine next steps for adoption, rescue, euthanasia or sometimes, returned to their owner. 

We suspect that this population of animals may be small in number, but that they’re likely the pets with the longest lengths of stay due to their unique circumstances. They’re also the pets shelter staff often grow the most attached to, want to advocate for, and ultimately hope get out of the shelter system quickly so they can begin new lives. 

This is the population of shelter pets that hold a special place in my heart. When I started as director of operations at a Tennessee shelter, shortly after a new CEO took over the organization, we had an entire ward full of dogs being held pending court case resolution–not uncommon in municipal or county shelters. Strict protocols were enforced to ensure only the highest level of staff and volunteers could interact with these pets. They were not allowed to be placed into foster homes. They weren’t receiving regular enrichment. However, the most concerning issue was that no one in the shelter had a clear understanding of what needed to happen in order to move these pets towards a positive outcome. These animals were seen as a population of pets that were behind a veil of red tape until the day their fate was determined in a courtroom, and there was an assumption that nothing we could do would change that.

Luckily our new CEO had connections in city and county government, and she reached out to the District Attorney’s office to schedule a meeting to start a dialogue about these cases. Little did we know, this meeting would change the trajectory of court-held pets for the better and lives were about to change.

Fast forward to today where I now work as a HASS Embedded Data & Implementation Coordinator supporting our pilot shelters and diving into the rich, animal-level data we collect and analyze to help move the industry forward. Within this data we’re able to see specificity behind the numbers that only raw, detailed data can provide, so I decided to take the opportunity to dive into metrics around my “heart population.” 

With a robust data set of over a million animal records from 22 HASS pilot organizations, operating some 45 municipal or county shelters among them, our data warehouse allows the opportunity to see the fine details of what is happening in shelters. For this project, I drilled down into intake type and subtype, then filtered for records of animals brought in by field services for confiscation, seizure, custody, court order, dangerous dog, evidence hold and investigation. Filtering the data to these specific types of intake yielded records for 9,047 animals in the period from January 2019 through October 2023. 

In the grand scheme of things that really isn’t very many animals. In fact, court case hold pets represent less than 1% (.68%) of the animals in our pilot shelters, but this small group has a very big number attached: length of stay. Animals in our pilot shelters for reasons associated with court case holds stay on average nearly twice as long (48 days) as animals entering as stray (26 days) or owner surrender (24 days). That’s a big deal. In the current overcrowding many of the nation’s shelters are now seeing, length of stay plays a significant role. What can we possibly do to reduce the bottleneck in even a few of our kennels, and the outsize influence this can have on managing shelter populations?

Let’s head back to Tennessee, circa 2017. Our new CEO, lead veterinarian, and I met with the DA’s office to review all of our current court case animals. As we reviewed the list of animals that had been in our care for 1, 2, even 3 years, we were shocked to hear that several cases had already been resolved, but word never got back to our organization that those animals were free to leave. We were ashamed, but it inspired us to do better going forward.

We asked the DA’s office how the shelter could get more involved in these animal’s cases, if for no other reason than to ensure we never miss learning of an animal’s change in custody from their previous owner to our organization. We were encouraged to improve communication with our animal control officers and their leadership. (At the time we didn’t oversee the contract for field services). We were invited to attend any and all court dates involving animals in our care, and told that we may be able to have better results collecting restitution and getting owner surrender agreements if we were proactive in our invoicing. Our team was elated: we can do these things! We weren’t powerless!

With a clear path ahead, our team started providing timely invoices to the DA. We made sure we always had a shelter representative present for all court dates related to animals in our care. We began to repair relationships with field services officers and their leadership through professional, positive and productive communication. All of these actions changed the system for our court case animals, and it happened by simply asking the right people: how can we make things better for the animals?

Today that shelter maintains a much smaller population of court case hold animals, most of which are thriving in foster homes that have been specially vetted and trained to care for pets under sensitive circumstances. The pets that can’t go to foster have individualized enrichment plans to ensure their needs are met or exceeded every day. They are fast tracked to an outcome the moment they are released from protective custody so they don’t have to wait any longer than necessary to close the sad chapter of their lives that landed them in the shelter. 

One of the HASS pilot shelters that had been noting a rise in the number of court hold cases and increasing length of stay for them used their data to learn more about it, and presented their findings, along with recommendations, to the local board of supervisors as a first step towards change. That shelter mapped where court hold cases are coming from in their community. They have found a possible relationship between the density of cases and lower incomes as well as less available vet care in the same zip code areas. Using such detailed data may even suggest avenues for addressing the problems that lead to court cases proactively, even before animals land in their shelter.

Today, the HASS pilot shelters are caring for 519 court hold pets in total, an average of 24 per organization, and their length of stay ranges from mere days to over 5 years. In total, this group of pets in HASS pilot shelters have spent an astounding 219,294 nights in care. The HASS pilot shelters are just like yours, and just like the one in Tennessee. They’re municipal shelters and nonprofit organizations with government contracts; shelters with annual intake numbers ranging from under 3,000 to over 40,000 animals. They’re shelters that excel at navigating every avenue available to help court hold pets find resolution, and they’re shelters that have felt they are powerless over these pets’ circumstances. No matter a shelter’s size, type, or court case population, empowerment is an option. 

Whether your next step is to schedule a meeting with your local DA’s office, strike up a conversation with an animal control officer, or simply run an inventory report in your shelter software to see what your court hold population looks like, the power is yours.


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