County prosecutor cited for animal defense work

County prosecutor cited for animal defense work

Lycoming County Assistant District Attorney Melissa Kalaus holds the award she received for being named one of The Animal Legal Defense Fund’s Top Ten Animal Defenders, specifically for her work to save a puppy named Luke from a potentially abusive home.

Lycoming County Assistant District Attorney Melissa Kalaus holds the award she received for being named one of The Animal Legal Defense Fund’s Top Ten Animal Defenders, specifically for her work to save a puppy named Luke from a potentially abusive home.

When a local man filed an appeal to have the puppy he was alleged to have abused returned to him after a frustrating trial ended in acquittal, Lycoming County Assistant District Attorney Melissa Kalaus reached for the phone and started working to find a way to prevent it.

Kalaus was named one of The Animal Legal Defense Fund’s Top Ten Animal Defenders nationwide recently for her career and for using a unique legal move to free the pitbull-type dog, named Luke, from an allegedly abusive home.

Luke was 4 months old when his owner was alleged to have thrown him against a wall on Oct. 10, 2014.

Luke sat in pain overnight without treatment until someone else took him to an emergency clinic, according to court documents.

After the animal was seized by a humane society police officer, Luke’s owner was charged with cruelty to animals, based on statements given to investigators by his girlfriend.

But when it came time to testify to those statements during the owner’s trial in September of 2015, the woman’s testimony was “completely lacking,” according to court records.

The court was forced to acquit the owner of the charges because his girlfriend’s testimony didn’t reinforce what she initially told police.

After the charges were dismissed, the owner argued that Luke be returned to him.

Instead, Kalaus began searching for options.

For those without a voice

Kalaus always has had a deep connection with animals and defending them has shaped her work as a prosecutor.

She’s been involved in well over 100 cases involving animals.

“It’s a big part of why I went to law school,” she said. “I care so strongly for these animals. They need a voice and they need someone to fight for them.”

After two years as an assistant district attorney in Snyder County, Kalaus came to Lycoming County, where she was able to take on more animal defense work.

“When I came to the county and explained my interests, the district attorney was more than happy to let me do this type of work,” Kalaus said.

In Pennsylvania, animals commonly are treated as property, which can create a toxic mentality for animal defense and advocacy work.

“They are sometimes seen as not having feelings or emotions, but returning an abused animal to the abuser is like putting a child back into an abusive home … and we are very fortunate to have judges that are so willing to hear these types of cases. Because that isn’t true in other places.”

Reaching out

After Luke’s owner filed an appeal to have him returned, Kalaus decided to reach out to The Animal Legal Defense Fund and began exploring options to stop what often is a difficult legal situation.

“I’ve been a member of the organization for years and knew they were very good at helping attorneys with complex legal issues,” Kalaus said. “They are so willing to work with anyone and help. The day I called, an attorney got back to me within 24 hours and things moved very quickly from there.”

The legal method Kalaus and the organization decided to fight the owner’s appeal with is something that isn’t used often for this type of case, she said.

The legal technicality is simple: Contraband is property that simple possession of is a crime within itself.

Luke wasn’t legally considered contraband, so the owner appealed to have him returned after criminal charges were dropped, Kalaus said.

Unlike conventional contraband, a different classification called derivative contraband refers to property that is innocent in itself but has been used in perpetration of an unlawful act. The owner wouldn’t be entitled to having property that is deemed derivative contraband returned.

There was no doubt that the dog had been injured, said Victoria Stryker, executive director of the Lycoming County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

“Reports said that the puppy whined and cried all night long until the mother of the owner took the dog to the veterinarian,” Stryker said.

The dog was taken to the Animal Emergency Center in Watsontown, where veterinarians determined he had a fractured leg and needed surgery, she said.

But the owner had argued during the trial that he wasn’t directly responsible for the injury, although he admitted that it happened while Luke was under his care.

Kalaus’ argument was that the unlawful violation occurred when the owner ignored his responsibility to take Luke for medical treatment after he knew the dog was injured.

“So, at this point, Luke was considered derivative contraband and wasn’t returned to the owner,” Kalaus said.

The legal method is a recently effective approach to relocating abused animals, but both Stryker and Kalaus said they’d like to see it used around the state more often.

A happy ending

For her work with Luke’s case and her overall prosecution career with animal defense, Kalaus was named one of 10 Top Animal Defenders from all over the nation.

Kalaus found out she was named a national defender via an email, she said.

“I was shocked,” Kalaus said. “Through working as a prosecutor, I became aware of the overwhelming amount of work the SPCA has and how great they do enforcing animal cruelty laws. A lot of work from many different people goes into these … hours and hours and hours went into this case. That kind of time goes into all of the animal cases I do. I am just really honored to have received this award.”

Luke was in the care of the SPCA from Oct. 15, 2014, to Nov. 20, 2015.

Cruelty cases sometimes can take longer than a usual situation of adoption in the very common occurrence that the abusive owner won’t sign the animal over, Stryker said.

The legal process can be lengthy, but the 13 months Luke spent in the SPCA’s care was longer than average.

After being in his new adoptive home for over a year and being honored by the fund as the mascot for the National Justice for Animals Week, Luke has settled into his new life.

Kalaus even got to meet Luke at an SPCA event this past November.

“It was a very great experience,” she said. “I usually don’t get to meet the animals.”