NEW YORK — For all its 147 years, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has been more than an advocacy group; it has served as the primary law enforcement agency for animal abuse and neglect in New York City.
That role, the first of its kind in the nation, led to a squad of uniformed agents who flashed badges, carried guns, made arrests, traveled in blue-and-white squad cars and, for years, starred in an Animal Planet reality TV show, Animal Precinct.
But now, that unit is losing its bite. In December, the ASPCA laid off most of its 17 remaining law enforcement agents. Their responsibilities will be left to the New York Police Department.
The change is one that has been sought for years by some animal advocates, who said the ASPCA's small enforcement staff couldn't handle the volume of abuse reports and was taking weeks or months to respond to calls police could probably get to in hours.
Others are concerned that without a team focused on animal abuse, it could be given a lower priority by officers dealing with human-on-human crimes.
"If they think they can just give this to regular police officers and have them handle it, they're crazy," said David Favre, an expert on animal law at Michigan State University.
Over the past few years, the ASPCA's humane law enforcement division has handled about 4,000 investigations annually and made about one arrest per week, according to the nonprofit group. Tens of thousands of additional abuse reports came in through a hotline — with tips surging from 2001 to 2008, when Animal Precinct was on the air.
The changes were put into motion in August following the spring appointment of ASPCA president Matthew Bershadker, who previously led the organization's anticruelty division. He has said the NYPD's more than 34,000 officers are simply better positioned to keep up with the huge volume of complaints.
As part of a pilot program, NYPD officers have been handling animal abuse complaints in the Bronx since September, said ASPCA spokeswoman Emily Schneider. "The NYPD has responded in a positive way that illustrates how their size and scope will allow them to enforce animal cruelty laws across NYC better than we could on our own," she said.