RICHMOND – Attorney General Mark Herring announced Thursday that his office is creating a unit to train and guide local law enforcement and state agencies on how to pursue cases involving animal welfare or abuse.
Local prosecutors and police often seek help from the attorney general’s office on how to investigate and prosecute such offenses, Herring said.
“For the importance of these issues, what I have done is created the nation’s first Attorney General Animal Law Unit,” Herring told a crowd of animal rights supporters on the steps of the state Capitol.
Herring specifically discussed animal fighting, saying it is often associated with other crimes like illegal gambling, drug distribution and the possession of illegal alcohol or guns.
For instance, a joint state and federal investigation into one of the largest cockfighting rings in the region resulted in two Virginians being found guilty on charges related to animal fighting. In addition, three out-of-state residents were found guilty of similar charges.
The cockfighting ring was on a mountain in McDowell, Ky., and allegedly had a full-service restaurant for spectators and sold antibiotics for fighting birds. The ring drew spectators and competitors from Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland and Georgia, Herring’s office said.
The animal law unit will consist of four attorneys led by Michelle Welch, an assistant attorney general with nine years of service, including work on animal-related cases. Welch has won awards from the Humane Society of the United States, the Animal Welfare Institute and other groups.
Herring said the power to initiate an investigation or prosecution will remain with local agencies. But some of those agencies may not be aware that the state provides help for combating crimes of animal cruelty.
“So by creating this animal law unit, what I hope to do is increase the awareness of the great specialized work that these lawyers do in this area,” Herring said.