Seymour officer earns animal cruelty investigation certification

Seymour Animal Control Officer Chuck Heiss received an anonymous call about gross neglect and abuse of a dog.

Upon arriving at the home on the west side of the city, he found the dog chained inside a pen in the backyard.

The person reporting the incident said the dog had been losing weight and deteriorating, and Heiss said the dog was nearly starved to death.

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“It was horrible,” he said.

He immediately took the dog from the property and contacted the owner, who claimed the dog had been left there and wasn’t his. Heiss, however, knew the dog had been there for several months.

He charged the owner with animal cruelty, a Level 6 felony.

“Last I knew, there was a warrant out for their arrest, and he left the area,” Heiss said. “There’s an active warrant out for that charge.”

In another case, a Seymour woman was reunited with her dog after it had gotten out of her apartment and a man put it in a dumpster. He was arrested and faces Level 6 felony charges of animal cruelty and theft.

Just recently, Heiss wrapped up a neglect case where a dog was in good physical shape but lived in deplorable conditions. He submitted the case to the prosecutor’s office in hopes of bringing charges against the owner and is making a referral to code enforcement about the home.

Heiss said he has no problem filing charges against someone because he is all about the well-being of animals.

“If the animal is suffering, if the animal is being neglected, if the animal is being abused, I have no hesitation to charge them,” he said. “The biggest part of this job is ensuring health, safety and welfare.”

After nearly two years on the job, Heiss said he realized there was something he was missing.

He learned about a three-part course through the University of Missouri Law Enforcement Training Institute that he could take to become an animal cruelty investigative expert.

After talking to Seymour Capt. Carl Lamb and Chief Bill Abbott, they were on board with Heiss applying. He received a $3,000 grant from the university and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that covered half of his tuition. The other half was paid by the police department.

In February, Heiss went to Tulsa, Oklahoma, for the basic animal cruelty investigators course. The second part was the professional animal cruelty investigators course in Tucson, Arizona, in March. The final part was the expert animal cruelty investigators course in Kansas City, Missouri, in April.

The classroom lectures covered everything from constitutional law to dealing with sovereign citizens to the emotional trauma that comes along with finding an animal in a bad situation.

“For people that are in this business for a long time and this is their first exposure to the law enforcement community, it can be pretty traumatic,” Heiss said.

Fortunately, he had 30 years of law enforcement experience before he landed the job in Seymour. That included serving five terms as the sheriff of Johnson County, Missouri, leading a homicide squad for 18 years, being a founding member of a cybercrimes task force and serving on a victim services unit and a SWAT team.

“I have seen people kill each other every way and kill themselves every way imaginable,” he said. “If they are capable of doing that to another person, they are certainly capable of doing it to an animal. You come to grips with it, and you understand that people are people and not everybody shares the same views that you and I share when it comes to providing care for your animals.”

The course also included hands-on opportunities, including going to an ASPCA hospital, a cattle ranch and an equine ranch.

Each course ended with a written exam with 80 to 100 questions and doing a body condition evaluation of an animal. Heiss said he graduated with a 96 percent score.

“I think it’s a huge step forward,” he said of being Seymour’s first animal control officer with that type of certification. “I think it has been a huge advantage to the city and will continue to be a benefit to the city.”

Heiss said he has received positive reception from the police department, county prosecutor’s office, Humane Society of Jackson County and local veterinarians.

“It has been an eye-opener for some folks because it’s new,” he said. “They’ve never experienced somebody willing to take a case and go with it all the way through to criminal prosecution. There are cases that merit prosecution. If I file it, you can bet your bottom dollar it merits criminal prosecution.”

Dr. Steve Sunbury with Seymour Animal Hospital said the police department has always been good to work with regarding possible cases of abuse or cruelty.

“Having an officer specifically trained to investigate these cases is a wonderful thing for the people and animals of Seymour,” Sunbury said. “Chuck’s training will allow him to better serve the area not only as the animal control officer but to help ensure that the animals of Seymour are treated properly.”

Sunbury said data suggest a person who abuses animals is more likely to abuse humans, too.

“So having Chuck’s expertise and authority not only helps protect the animal population but could make a big difference for our human population,” Sunbury said. “Seymour is lucky to have someone with this type of training serving our community.”

Heiss said there are several steps involved in his investigations, and it varies from case to case.

First, he looks at the condition of the animal and sees if it has an adequate supply of water, food and shelter.

“An animal has to have a constant supply of water,” Heiss said. “An animal will die of dehydration a lot faster than it will of starvation. Particularly with dogs, what happens is they get dehydrated, and the body starts to consume itself, fat deposits and minerals and things like that.”

If he sees an issue, he begins documentation, takes photographic evidence and talks to the owner and neighbors. If the pet owner isn’t there, he has to track them down so he can learn as much as he can about the animal.

He also checks the animal for a microchip, which provides its history and information about the owner. That helped him track down the owner of the dog found in the dumpster.

If he seizes the animal, he takes it to a veterinarian to be checked out. If it’s determined the animal has been abused or neglected, he begins the process of filing criminal charges.

Heiss said neglect could include not providing shelter, food or water or allowing an animal to run loose, while abuse and cruelty go hand in hand. That could include keeping an animal locked up without socialization, not providing proper veterinary care, overtly hitting, injuring or torturing an animal or bestiality.

“I operate from the perspective that if you take an animal, you have three responsibilities: You have a legal responsibility, a moral responsibility and an ethical responsibility,” he said.

Heiss said the most common call he responds to relates to lack of care.

“A lot of people just quite frankly believe that dogs are outdoor pets,” he said. “For the most part, they can be, but when they have an outdoor dog, it’s got to have adequate shelter, it’s got to have a constant supply of fresh drinking water and it’s got to have food.”

He recently found a dog tied to a trampoline, which is not adequate shelter, and there was no food or water.

“I didn’t doubt the dog was healthy. I didn’t doubt the dog was being fed, but it had no clean water, and it was hot,” he said. “I couldn’t in good conscience leave that dog in that condition, so I took the dog and left a notice.”

Heiss keeps green notice cards in his van that he will fill out and hang on the door of a home explaining why he was called there, what he saw and where the animal was taken.

“If they get one of those, I get about an 80 percent response rate,” he said. “Some people will ignore them, and if they ignore them, then that’s a huge red flag to me that, ‘OK, we’ve got a situation here that merits more investigation, it merits more attention.’”

A fine can be issued or charges can be filed, depending on the severity of the case.

“I’ll try to do most of what I have to do through education,” Heiss said.

He said he has always loved animals, so the job is the perfect fit, and he plans to stick with it as long as he can.

He retired from law enforcement in August 2014, but when his wife, Chrissy, was called to serve as principal of Zion Lutheran School in Seymour and they moved here, he met the former animal control officer one day and found out he was leaving in two weeks.

Heiss decided to apply for the job and got it.

“This job, to me, is fun. I enjoy this,” he said. “If it ever gets to the point where I stop enjoying it, I will go tell Bill Abbott I’ve had enough. I have no intention of going anywhere.”

At a glance

If you suspect an animal is being abused or neglected in Seymour, contact Animal Control Officer Chuck Heiss at 812-522-1234.

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