It stands for Helping Our Pets through Education, and it’s a different approach to combating animal cruelty before it starts.
Meet Hope, a black and white border collie, with one blue eye and one brown. (She’s pictured at right and below.) She’s my family dog. She has no special training or certifications, and she can’t do any tricks. She’s just a special little girl with an incredible story.
In 2007 Hope was wandering the Trinity River bed in East Texas with another dog, a large black lab, when a man pulled out a shotgun and shot her three times: in the face, in the chest, and through her left front leg. The man also struck the lab in the head with a machete before getting into his truck and driving away. We don’t know whether this man was abandoning the dogs or just out for a day of “target practice,” but it was a moment that changed my life—because a week later, my husband and I went into a store for cat food and there Hope was, her front left leg barely held together with a flimsy cast and her teeth shattered, in the care of an animal rescue organization trying to find her a home. As we stopped to hear her story, Hope literally dragged my husband out the front door, as if to say, “It’s about time you got here. I have been waiting for you to come pick me up and give me a ride home.” What choice did we have? She needed a chance and she somehow knew we were it.
At the time, I was a felony prosecutor handling violent crimes against people, but I had no idea people could be so cruel to animals. Not only had Hope been shot three times, but when we removed her bandages for amputation, we found an iron-shaped burn on her back, and she was as thin as a rail. She had been through a lot. At the time, I tried to tell myself that what happened to her was an anomaly, an isolated incident from a depraved heart. Years later, however, as I transitioned into prosecuting animal-related cases exclusively, I realized how prevalent animal cruelty is and how devastating it can be. I also had a rude awakening as to how much our youth bear witness to and, worse, participate in animal cruelty cases.
That’s why one particular week in my career stands out in my mind. That week, I received three animal cruelty cases involving teens that were particularly upsetting. One group of teens beat a dog and buried it alive. Another group put a propellant agent on a dog and lit it on fire. A third group of kids glued a kitten’s mouth shut and drowned it. Despite enduring many challenging cases in my career, as an animal lover, it was a week I wish I could forget.
I know, as prosecutors, we’ve all seen terrible things. We learn to compartmentalize what we see in order to survive, but when we really sit down and think about the things we deal with, I think we all wonder how the world got so dark and when the work we do will have a long-term impact and make it better. But time and time again, we simply react to what has already occurred with little thought about how we can make a change for the future. Granted, as a prosecutor, our primary role is to seek justice for victims after a crime has already been committed. But there comes a time when we have to wonder if prosecution alone is enough. I don’t think it is.
Article 2.01 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure reads, “It shall be the primary duty of all prosecuting attorneys, including any special prosecutors, not to convict, but to see that justice is done.” Each of us takes our oath seriously and we strive to do that each day, but if you read the statute carefully, does it not also challenge us to do more? Isn’t part of seeking justice also trying to reach out to the community, teach what the laws say, and help prevent crimes before they occur? Some may disagree, but the more challenging cases I see, the more I think we do have this obligation. Prevention is part of justice.
How do we prevent animal cruelty?
As prosecutors we are uniquely positioned to reach people. Most adults in other careers are intrigued by what we do, and if you have ever participated in a career day at a school, you know kids are even more fascinated. Not only are they are sponges, soaking up information from all around them, but they are also “mockingjays,” repeating anything they hear to anyone who will listen.
When I was thinking of ways to combat animal cruelty, my first instinct was to get into the schools and talk directly to our youth. I wanted to teach them how to properly care for animals, recognize that every animal experiences pain, and understand the consequences of being cruel to them. Even more importantly, however, I wanted to plant the seed of empathy. I wanted to show them, not just tell them, how amazing animals can be and to provide a positive interaction with an animal that they may otherwise never experience. It was my hope that these young people would learn how to care for animals properly and teach others to protect animals too. It became my mission to create an animal cruelty education program for elementary schools.
To get this mission off the ground, I knew I needed to get into the schools to reach students of all backgrounds and ensure that those who were not learning these concepts at home would have a chance to learn them at school. But I knew I could not get into the schools by myself. I needed a sponsor or the support of an agency with a good reputation, an interest in animal-related laws, and an earnest passion for the protection of animals and people. In seeking support, I initially considered myriad organizations but ultimately began to look for another angle. In the summer of 2014, it dawned on me to run the program through my employer, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. This, to be sure, would be an unconventional thing for a prosecutor’s office to undertake, but it occurred to me to present the idea to my boss, District Attorney Devon Anderson, and seek permission to pursue the program as an ADA and animal cruelty specialist. I am grateful that without even a moment’s hesitation, Devon agreed. It was time to transition this idea into a reality.
My initial list of tasks to get this program going included the following: 1) develop a program name; 2) coordinate the animal component; 3) create a logo; 4) find an audience; 5) develop and maintain a budget; 6) coordinate the curriculum and create an interesting slideshow; and 7) spread the word to the public. How I tackled each element is outlined below.
Crossing off the to-do list
Even the best program or seminar can fail without a strong title that draws the attention of potential attendees. I preferred an acronym that is catchy and would convey the purpose behind the program. At first this seemed difficult, but I kept thinking about my dog, Hope, who had been through so many of her own challenges. I recalled how deeply and emotionally she impacts everyone she meets and everyone who hears her story. After that, naming the program was easy; we would name the program after her: HOPE, which stands for Helping Our Pets through Education.
To instill empathy in students attending this program, the animal component of this program is critical—but it was also the most challenging. I originally planned to coordinate this component with local rescue organizations and have a different animal brought over for each class. This seemed like a win-win idea because it would showcase the animal for adoption and provide an inspiring story at each presentation. However, the more planning I did, the more nervous I got about the demeanor of random animals in an unfamiliar environment and how well they would react to large numbers of children interacting with them at the end of each program. Obviously, if one of the kids got injured during a presentation, beyond the obvious tragedy of seeing a child hurt by one of the animals, the underlying goal of invoking empathy in these children would be a failure. It goes without saying, too, that the liability for our office, the rescue organization, and the school district would be huge. Ultimately, these concerns led me to reconsider using random animals and I decided to use my own. Hope loves kids, is extremely socialized, has demonstrated no adverse effects or aggression from her own history, and has never met a stranger. Plus, we were already using her name—why not use her as the mascot too? Turns out she is perfect for the job. Hope loves to “go to work,” and kids are fascinated by her and her story.
If you have a creative person in your agency that can create a logo for you, I would strongly suggest seeking his help. For me, this person was Juan Manuel De Anda Jr., a computer graphics and multimedia specialist in our IT Department. Within days of telling him about our program, Juan came up with our logo, which we immediately loved. It identifies our office as the sponsor and clearly displays the purpose behind our program.
Like many of us, I have spoken at several elementary schools on different occasions throughout my career. I used those contacts to develop a list of schools that might invite us to their campus. In addition, my summer intern, Adrianne Norman, did some serious cold-calling to various school districts to explain the program and find additional interested teachers. We also created a page on our website for teachers and principals to contact me and schedule a presentation date. While I was worried we might not generate much interest, these methods have been very successful. We announced the program in September 2014, and I have already spoken to more than 1,000 students. We are still receiving requests from schools as the program’s first school year winds down. In addition to elementary schools, we have been contacted by museums to speak at summer programs and by other school districts to attend parent information sessions and community meetings. The volume of invitations alone is an indication that others are recognizing the need to underscore and discuss animal cruelty in our communities.
This program, perhaps surprisingly, is not costly. It can be as simple or as extensive as you want it to be. For our version, we went simple. We ordered shirts with the logo for anyone assisting or speaking at the schools, a collar and leash for Hope with the name of the program embroidered on both, and stickers for the kids with the logo. We also print certificates to hand out to the students upon completion of the program, and I bring demonstratives, such as a pet bed and water dish, to show the kids what animals need. I paid for the shirts, demonstratives, collar, and leash myself, but most agencies can cover these modest expenses, as well as a prosecutor’s mileage and the printed materials, out of the agency’s discretionary funds.
While developing a curriculum is time-consuming, it was not particularly difficult. A few years ago, I established a Responsible Pet Ownership course for adult offenders on probation or deferred adjudication for an animal cruelty offense in Harris County—such a course was previously non-existent in Harris County or any of the surrounding counties. Based on that, I generally knew how to put curriculum together and merely altered that material to make it youth-appropriate. In planning, I focused on a fifth-grade audience but made the curriculum appropriate for any age depending on the needs of the neighborhood, time constraints of the school, the questions the students ask, and the stories that are shared. The topics generally covered include: 1) the objective of the program; 2) how to care for pets, such as proper nutrition, veterinary care, exercise, attention, and shelter; 3) animal cruelty laws in Texas; 4) consequences of animal cruelty for the offenders and animals; 4) the link between animal abuse, child abuse, and domestic violence; and 5) how to speak up for animals and report animal abuse. At the end of the presentation, students take an “oath of kindness,” swearing to be kind to animals and report animal cruelty when they see it. Obviously, some of these topics take longer to explain than others, especially if a school requests more information regarding specific neighborhood problems, such as dog-fighting, cock-fighting, or animal abandonment. But the curriculum is flexible enough to allow and foster discussion of such problems. Even if the students do not remember all of the topics, they will remember the program as a whole, especially the direct contact they have with Hope.
Marketing this program is not my expertise, but our office is fortunate to have Camille Hepola in our Public Relations Department. Camille was instrumental in writing a press release regarding the HOPE program and scheduling a press conference where all of the radio stations, television stations, and written media reporters around the county were invited to learn about the initiative and share the information throughout the community. Hope attended the press conference, and we shared her story and the objective behind HOPE. We also invited and discussed other animal cruelty victims in Harris County to promote the benefits of a preventative program like HOPE. Several media members attended and willingly published the information via print and broadcast media, directing additional schools to our website for further information and registration.
Is it working?
While it is difficult to quantify the success of this program, I am confident it is making a difference because the students are undoubtedly responding. Their curiosity, stories, smiles, strength, and commitment to being part of protecting animals is unlike anything I have ever experienced. Several students have reached out to me afterwards and explained how they now want to become police officers and prosecutors.
Other stories are difficult to share without a few tears, but one is particularly on point. One boy was frightened when it was his turn to interact with Hope. When I asked him if he wanted to pet her, he hesitated and told me he had never touched an animal before. I promised him she was gentle and would love the attention. As he started petting her, you could see his confidence increase and after a few minutes, he raised his head with a glowing look and enthusiastically shouted, “That was awesome!” This is exactly what I hoped for when starting this program. Now, whenever that boy gets close to a dog, his first reaction will most likely be positive rather than fearful or negative. And while I cannot guarantee he will never hurt an animal, I am confident that his experience with Hope has created a sense of empathy for animals that will never be lost.
Statistics will likely never determine the impact of a program like this, but we do know that every person has the potential to interact with hundreds of animals over the course of his life. So if we can reach even one kid in a positive way, we can save hundreds of animals. That’s how I define success!
Many reading this article may still be hesitant about starting a program like HOPE. Whether dockets are too time-consuming or you are skeptical about having the resources to keep an intervention program going, rest assured: If you can get it off the ground, you can keep it going. Various prosecutors throughout our office have volunteered to help with the program as needed, and community members have offered their assistance for presentations. Retired teachers have contacted me to volunteer their expertise in teaching, should the need arise, and teachers at the schools themselves are a great resource to carry the message further in their classrooms. If you are interested in starting any type of crime prevention program, I would strongly encourage it. As you progress through the process and see the result, I think you will find the more you do, the more you feel like you are seeking justice in ways you didn’t realize were possible.
I have never been so grateful for the opportunity to be creative and stretch my career beyond the normal expectations. It has been so rewarding because it reminds me there is still a lot of good in this world. I would encourage any prosecutors with the desire to implement a similar program to go for it. Kids really are our future and if we take the time to invest in them and give them information and tools they need to make good decisions, they will move forward with confidence to protect their fellow citizens, both furry and human alike.