Virginia establishes first attorney general’s animal law unit

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Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has created what is thought to be the nation’s first attorney general’s animal law unit.

A small group of current staff attorneys will work as needed as a resource for local law enforcement and state agencies on issues involving animal welfare and animal fighting or abuse, the attorney general’s office said in a statement Jan. 22.

“We’ve seen firsthand in Virginia that animal fighting is associated with other serious crimes such as drug distribution, possession of illegal alcohol or firearms, assaults, and illegal gambling,” Herring said. “There’s also evidence that abuse of animals or exposure to animal abuse, especially by young people, can be predictive of future abusive or criminal behavior.”

Local agencies will still initiate an investigation or prosecution, but the animal law unit will be available to provide assistance or handle a case by request from an attorney in the state or a law enforcement agency.

Leading the unit is Michelle Welch, an assistant attorney general with nine years of service whose work on animal-related cases has earned her numerous accolades.

For its first project, the unit has partnered with the Humane Society of the United States to send a letter and fact sheet to Virginia pet stores on consumer rights involving the purchase of animals, including a new law requiring customers to have complete and accurate information about the health and history of a dog or cat before purchase. The law also gives consumers recourse if an animal is later found to have major undisclosed health problems.