Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring has created the nation's first attorney general's Animal Law unit.
The small group of existing staff attorneys will spend a portion of their time working with local law enforcement and state agencies on issues involving animal welfare, animal fighting or abuse, attorney general's office said in a statement Thursday.
"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 in a statement. "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 a commonwealth's attorney or law enforcement agency, according to the statement.
"Over the past twenty years, there has been a growing realization that cruelty toward animals is a criminal act that cannot be tolerated in a civilized society. All of the evidence shows a very direct link between animal cruelty and violence against women and children," said Anthony Spencer, Caroline County Commonwealth's Attorney.
Michelle Welch, an assistant attorney general with nine years of service, will lead the team. She has worked on animal-related cases, earning numerous recgonitions for her work.
As their first project, the Animal Unit has partnered with the Humane Society of the United States to inform Virginia pet stores on consumer rights involving the purchase of animals, including new rights created by Bailey's Law, which was signed into law in 2014. The law helps ensure that customers have complete and accurate information about the health and history of a pet before purchase and gives consumers recourse if an animal is later found to have significant, undisclosed health problems.