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A Pet Project : Sure, it's her job to fight animal abuse. It's also a passion. And Sgt. Sherry Schlueter will show the LAPD how it's done.

August 27, 1996|DENISE HAMILTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Even as an 8-year-old girl, Sgt. Sherry Schlueter was an animal rights activist, banishing playmates from her yard for stomping on ants.

That passion for furry, feathered, scaly and segmented creatures followed her into the police academy and a job with the Sheriff's Department in South Florida's Broward County. There, Schlueter founded the nation's first police unit dedicated to fighting crimes against animals and lobbied successfully to make animal abuse a Florida felony.

Hard work eventually won her a promotion to sergeant, heading up a special unit that investigates abuse against animals, children, elders and the disabled. The unusual blend of animal activism and hard-nosed police work has also taken Schlueter around the country to train law enforcement specialists in the field she pioneered: how to recognize, investigate and file animal abuse cases.

Today, Schlueter touches down in Los Angeles, where she and members of the Los Angeles Police Department will host a community meeting at Westminster Senior Citizens Center in Venice at 7 p.m. on how to identify and report animal abuse. On Wednesday, Schlueter will conduct a training session for the 32 officers of the LAPD's beach detail in the Pacific Division.

It's all in a day's work for Schlueter, who moves easily between the police and animal rights worlds and sees no distinction between the two.

Some folks "have a tendency to assume that I'm this bleeding-heart wacko, but in fact I teach strictly criminal procedures, and make no mistake about it, animal abuse is a crime," says Schlueter in a telephone interview from her Fort Lauderdale-area office.

She clearly has spent a lot of time thinking through her philosophy to win over her more recalcitrant brethren. She can relate to the misgiving she sees in their eyes precisely because she is one of them.

"We officers are asked to be preachers, counselors, baby sitters, everything to everyone. Officers are reluctant to take on yet another response to another victim, even if they're blameless, choiceless, voiceless victims."

Officers of the Pacific Division say they are keeping an open mind.

"I don't see that we have a lot of animal abuse on the beach, but any extra knowledge we can get from her classes that would help prevent animals from being treated cruelly is a good thing," says LAPD Sgt. Bill Frio.

Local animal rescue groups, which paid to fly Schlueter out to Los Angeles, say there is plenty of animal abuse going on in the Westside. They point out that the activist with a badge is a powerful ally in their fight to protect animals.

"It's important that this be discussed by a police person who's an expert in the field, not an outsider," says Melya Kaplan, founder of Venice Animal Allies and the driving force behind bringing Schlueter to the Westside.

Critics might wonder whether that police time would be better spent attacking crime directed against people. Schlueter says she hears this argument all the time.

"We're not taking resources away from anyone," she responds. "We're not saying these officers are only going to do animal abuse. But we're saying that we want them to know how to handle it."

Schlueter's logic is simple: Those who abuse animals often go on to abuse spouses and children. One New Jersey study found that 87% of those undergoing counseling for spousal and child abuse had a history of animal abuse.

"There's a link," she says. "Often a pet is the first victim of family violence because it's the most vulnerable and can't report the crime itself or go to school and be noticed. So if we reach animal abusers early on, we may perhaps spare a human who would have fallen victim to those predators."

While Schlueter is training only 32 officers initially, city officials and the animal rights community say the effort eventually could be expanded to other LAPD divisions if it receives funding and support.

"This is a pilot program that LAPD will evaluate for expansion," says Jeffrey Prang, press deputy for Ruth Galanter, the Los Angeles councilwoman for the 6th District, which includes Venice. "Ideally we'd like to see every officer in the LAPD have this type of training." Galanter on Wednesday will present Schlueter with a commendation before the City Council.

So how exactly does one detect and handle animal abuse? Schlueter says it's not always as obvious as reporting a beaten dog.

Police officers have to know how to confiscate an abused animal and ensure it doesn't languish forgotten behind bars long after the owner has plea-bargained his way out of court. Conversely, since animals are considered property under the law, an owner can sue for damages if his pet dies. So the confiscating officer must be sure that the animal will be cared for properly.

There have been times, Schlueter says, when she has been willing to plea-bargain away cases so a pet doesn't return to an abusive home.

"It's worth it to me," she adds. "My concern for animals goes very much beyond the normal."

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