Suspect an animal is being abused or neglected? Here’s what you should do.

One of the area’s most shocking animal abuse cases, the starvation deaths of 22 horses and one dog on a southern Wake County farm, resulted in felony cruelty charges against Janet Burleson of Cary this week and raised questions about what might have been done to prevent such a tragedy.

Although the details of the Fanny Brown Farm Road case are still emerging, Eric Curry, a spokesman for Wake County, said the arrest came “after days of interviews and help from the public.”

Many people are unsure of what to do if they suspect someone is abusing or neglecting an animal, so we reached out to Wake County Animal Services for advice.

Dr. Jennifer Federico, Wake County Animal Services Director, said in an interview on Thursday that calls from concerned neighbors are vital in abuse cases.

“The community is our eyes and ears, so we need them to let us know to check things out,” she said.

How to report suspected abuse

A North Carolina statute makes it a crime to harm or kill an animal, or to cause harm or death to an animal through the withholding of sustenance. So no matter where you live in the state, abuse should be reported.

In Wake County, exactly where you call to report abuse depends on where you live. Raleigh, Cary, Garner and Holly Springs have their own numbers for reporting, and there’s a separate number for all other Wake County residents.

But Federico said not to stress too much about who to call. “If you call the wrong one, they’ll send you to the right place.”

Tell the dispatcher you’d like an animal welfare check and tell them what you saw, Federico said, noting that the agency gets tips from neighbors, workers and postal employees. Once they get a tip, an officer will go check things out.

“It’s important to not be afraid to call,” she said.

And in Wake County, you can remain anonymous.

“If you’re worried and you don’t want your neighbor upset with you, just say you’d like to remain anonymous. We’d rather people call and have us check it out,” she said. “Don’t talk to neighbors about their pets unless you’re comfortable doing that.”

In cases of serious violence, Federico advises calling 911.

“Absolutely call 911 if you see violence,” she said. “If animal control can’t get there, in some situations they will send deputies out first, depending on the situation. If you see that and can’t remember the number and someone is abusing, beating or setting an animal on fire, call 911 because that needs immediate intervention.”

Document everything

Mondy Lamb is the vice president of philanthropy for the SPCA of Wake County, a partner agency of the Wake County Animal Center. The local SPCA sometimes takes in animals involved in abuse or neglect cases and readies them for adoption.

Lamb stresses the importance of being able to document the abuse or neglect you witness.

“Document everything,” Lamb said in a phone interview. “An eyewitness account is important. You have to witness the crime. It’s important that the person witnessing it is the person who files the complaint.”

Lamb also stresses patience.

“Have patience with whoever comes out,” she said. “You may have to call several times or they may have to make several visits to properly investigate. Just be persistent and continue to call if there’s a violation. Some things take time to establish an on-going pattern. Cases of deprivation and neglect are harder to enforce and prosecute, and it requires the advocate’s patience.”

Remy, a pit bull boxer mix, is available for adoption at the Animal Protection Society of Durham after her former owner pleaded guilty to misdemeanor animal abuse. Durham County Sheriff's Office

What happens to the animals

What happens to animals in confirmed abuse or neglect cases depends on the circumstances, Federico said.

Animals are property in North Carolina and investigators must follow certain laws when deciding if an animal should be removed from a home.

“If it’s an emergency, they’ll get a search warrant to remove the animal,” she said. “If the person is not home and conditions are bad, they will leave a note telling the owner they must follow up within 24 hours.”

If the animal is removed from the home and charges are filed, the case goes into the court system. “Sometimes the owner will just surrender the pet, and we can put it into the adoption program,” Federico said. “Sometimes it’s the humans who need intervention, they may just need resources to care for the pet instead of having the county take the pet.”

Federico also doesn’t want people to not report abuse because they fear the animal will be euthanized by the county.

“The only reason we’d be euthanizing an animal is because of health or temperament,” she said.

Temperament means if the animal is a public safety danger to community, Federico explained. A health issue means it’s beyond what the Wake Animal Center or one of its rescue transfer partners can manage.

“We save the big majority of them,” Federico said. “We have digital x-rays, laser therapy, three veterinarians and a surgical unit. We also contract with a local emergency clinic if an animal comes in at night and is injured — they go there for care.

“I don’t want people to not call in because they are worried about that because it’s so not true. Don’t think the animals won’t be cared for because that’s not the case.”

The most important thing, both Federico and Lamb said, is to call if there is any question at all about an animal’s welfare.

“Some people say they didn’t want to call in because they weren’t sure what was going on,” Federico said. “It’s OK if we get there and the animals are taken care of. We say, ‘thank you, someone was advocating for your pet.’ That’s the kind of community we want to live in. And we can’t be everywhere — we need everyone’s eyes and ears to know what’s going. It’s like with children — if you think something’s going on, say something.”

“Trust yourself to know right and wrong,” Lamb said. “The worst thing you can do if you witness or suspect animal cruelty or neglect is nothing. Animals don’t have a voice, people must speak up for them.”

Who to call

If you suspect someone is abusing or neglecting an animal, call the animal control department in your area. If you witness serious violence being committed against an animal, call 911.

Raleigh: 919-831-6311

Cary: 919-319-4517

Garner: 919-772-8810

Holly Springs: 919-557-9111

Other areas of Wake County: 919-856-6911

Durham County: 919-560-0900

Orange County: 919-942-PETS (7387)

Johnston County: 919-934-8474

Chatham County: 919-542-7203

Brooke Cain is a North Carolina native who has worked at The News & Observer for more than 20 years. She writes about TV and local media for the Happiness is a Warm TV blog, and answers CuriousNC questions for readers.