How the Syracuse Community is Working to Prevent Animal Cruelty

By: Amari D. Pollard

As humans there are certain things, we’re willing to overlook. For some that may mean brushing off climate change because snowless, relatively warm Syracuse winters are quite enjoyable, while for others, it means walking passed a lost looking pedestrian on the street instead of offering assistance. However, there are those unquestionable situations where people feel compelled to intervene, where it’s not possible to just walk away. With a strong animal rights community in Syracuse, animal cruelty is one of those things many can’t ignore.

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Longtime animal advocate Stefanie Heath-Higgins has been deeply involved with animal welfare in and around Central New York for years, helping to reshape the relationship’s people and their communities have with animals. By teaching humane education to children in local school districts, partnering with the DeWitt Animal Shelter, and providing abused dogs with voices through attorneys (yes, actual attorneys!), The Humane Society Food Policy Coordinator and Cuse Pit Crew Founder has helped turn Syracuse into a hub for animal cruelty prevention.

Here are some ways the work she does with Cuse Pit Crew is helping protect the community’s animals:

Humane Education in Schools:
One of the many goals of Cuse Pit Crew is to show children how they should treat animals and reverse the methods used to introduce them to animals, if in a negative way.

The organization offers free lesson plans to school districts in the area that allow them to go into classrooms and talk to students from grades K-12. Each lesson is catered towards a specific age group and serves to break the cycle of damaging animal introductions. “Animals are not here for us to hurt or for our family members to hurt, and humane ed is able to really show [students] that,” said Heath-Higgins. “They have interactions with therapy pit bulls that we’ll bring into the classroom, so they really get a good experience with them.”

A Rewards Program:
Along with the DeWitt Animal Shelter, Cuse Pit Crew has created a rewards program where they are able to go into communities and hang up reward fliers if an animal abuse case is reported to the police, and the department is unsure of who committed the crime. Heath-Higgins says this is a great program because it garners a lot of media attention for unsolved cases and targets the community that the abused dogs come out of, that way they know people are watching.

“Not only does it help find the person who committed the crime, but it also sends a message out to that neighborhood: If you’re going to hurt an animal, we’re going to find you,” explained Heath Higgins. She believes the program to prevent abuse cases from happening altogether because people are now aware of how seriously they’re taken.

Sending in the Behaviorist:
Sometimes dogs find themselves in shelters because their owners didn’t want
them anymore or just let them loose, but a great majority of dogs do end up there due to behavioral issues. So, Cuse Pit Crew has developed a program where certified animal behaviorists go into people’s homes for free to help them work with their dogs and teach them to connect with them. They learn how to manage their behaviors and practice patience with their pets, that way they don’t resort to abuse as a result of frustration. Heath-Higgins says, “when it comes to animal abuse, animals feel just like we do; they feel physical pain and emotional, mental pain.” She also credits humane education for helping to improve the way humans interact with each other, because when people learn treat animals better they treat each other better.

Lawyering Up:
Until the Michael Vick case in 2007, when more than 50 dogs were removed from the NFL quarterback’s Virginia home because of a dog-fighting operation, it was unprecedented to hear of dogs being provided attorneys by the court. When Heath-Higgins saw animal representation happening in the courtroom, she thought that was something that needed to happen everywhere. After meeting Syracuse lawyer Nicholas DeMartino, the two developed a program called CNY Law Guardian Program, where DeMartino and other local lawyers act as dog attorneys for animal abuse cases. Heath-Higgins says programs like this are essential to communities because dogs are the true victims. They “languish in the shelters during court proceedings” and are oftentimes re-victimized, but at least by assigning attorneys to dogs, they can find their voice, or in their case, rediscover their barks.