After more than 20 years of working to care for and protect animals, Tim Rickey, senior director of field investigations and responses for the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), says there’s one case of abuse that stands out above the others. It came early in his career when he was working as an animal control officer in his hometown of Joplin.
Someone called in to have an officer pick up a dog that was dying, recalled Rickey, who now lives in rural Franklin County with his wife and two daughters.
He assumed the call would turn out to be a stray animal in need of help, but arriving at the address, he found the dying dog underneath a shed and knew immediately it was no stray — it had been neglected and abused for some time.
“The dog’s collar was embedded in his skin,” said Rickey, explaining that’s almost always the result of neglect — an owner who doesn’t adjust a dog’s collar as it grows. “I could see he’d been chained up his whole life.”
At the time, Rickey didn’t have any formal training in how to investigate animal abuse, but he knew that if he went to talk with the neighbors, whose yards all backed up to the dog owner’s, he could get an accurate picture of how the animal had been treated.
Rickey was able to gather the information needed to prosecute the case, and in the process, set a new course for his life.
“That was a turning point for me,” he remarked. “It’s what keeps driving me.”
After that case, Rickey’s job with Joplin’s animal control became pursuing abuse cases and developing a program in the community to educate people that animal abuse is wrong and should be prosecuted. He took the message to children in the local schools and to the media.
“Neighbors would see this (abuse) and not report it,” said Rickey, noting his job and hope was to turn that mindset around.
“Neighbors need to step forward and report this to law enforcement . . . Someone who would abuse an animal is not above abusing a child, a spouse or the elderly. It doesn’t mean they would, but it means they have no compassion for life.”
Wanted to Do More
In his 11 years with Joplin Animal Control, Rickey saw mostly cases of “mid-level” abuse — animals that were given no shelter and were somewhat emaciated.
But there also was a fair amount of “aggressive” abuse, too, he said — animals that were severely emaciated or that had mange to the point that they were bleeding or hairless.
Seeing so much abuse made Rickey want to do more to help animals. So in 2002 he took a job as an investigator with the Humane Society of Missouri. There he was exposed to the then-flourishing puppy mill issue and also cases of animal hoarding, which he describes as “one of the most horrendous types of abuse” and also one of the most sad because the owners themselves are ill.
Rickey also began working animal rescues related to natural disasters, like Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“That’s an experience I hope I never see again,” said Rickey. “So many animals died . . . because the owners thought they would be able to come back, but they couldn’t . . . My heart broke for those owners.”
The Rickeys moved to Franklin County in 2005, when Tim accepted a job with the Humane Society of Missouri as director of the Animal Cruelty Task Force and Disaster Response team, a role that required him to be closer to the office in St. Louis.
The family purchased 15 acres in Franklin County where they keep their own menagerie of rescued animals — a cat, three dogs, three horses, four goats and 17 chickens.
Then two years ago, Rickey joined the ASPCA to tackle animal cruelty and disaster response on a national level. Now he and his field investigations and response team work with local law enforcement and animal welfare agencies throughout the country to rescue animals from life-threatening situations and provide them with the essential care they need.
Hurricanes, Floods, Tornadoes, More
Over the years, Rickey has helped lead recovery efforts following Hurricanes Rita, Gustav and Ike, as well as major floods in Iowa and multiple Missouri incidents including ice storms, floods and tornadoes, including the EF-5 that hit his hometown of Joplin in May 2011.
“That was the longest drive ever,” said Rickey, who still has family and friends in the community.
Within a few days, over 1,300 animals had been brought to the emergency rescue shelter. Rickey and his team set up a system to reunite pets with their owners, when possible.
“It was an emotional roller coaster,” he remarked. “I spent 49 days on the ground there from start to finish.”
The effort ended on a positive note when the 600 pets who weren’t able to be reunited with owners spurred an adoption event that drew 5,000 people from 24 states.
Most recently, Rickey helped hundreds of animals affected by Hurricane Isaac and found homes for nearly 300 cats rescued during an animal cruelty investigation in Florida.
‘Highlight of My Career’
In addition to overseeing the ASPCA’s disaster response efforts, Rickey has responded to various animal cruelty cases involving animal hoarding and dog fighting investigations.
In July 2009, he helped lead one of the largest dog fighting raids in U.S. history when more than 500 dogs were seized in one day. The ring spanned eight states — Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Nebraska and Mississippi.
As a result of his contributions, Rickey was one of four recipients of the ASPCA’s “Law Enforcement Officer” of the Year award in October 2009.
“We expected it to be three or four months and limited to Missouri, but once we got inside, we realized how big it was . . . it could have gone on indefinitely,” said Rickey.
In the end, over 100 defendants were prosecuted.
“It continues to be one of the highlights of my career because dogfighting is one of the worst forms of animal cruelty, the most barbaric because it’s intentional,” Rickey remarked.
When Rickey joined the ASPCA, one of his goals was to build a blood sport division that would combat animal fighting and provide in-depth training to law enforcement so the raids like the one in 2009 can be “duplicated many times over.”
‘No Pet Store Puppies’
Another issue that Rickey feels equally as passionate about is puppy mills. Many Missourians may believe the issue has gone away, but that’s partly a result of the market being dried up as a result of the ASPCA’s educational campaign, “No Pet Store Puppies,” that raises awareness about puppy mill cruelty and urges consumers to take a pledge not to shop at pet stores that sell — not adopt — puppies.
“This has always been a consumer-driven issue,” said Rickey, so if the law won’t put puppy mills out of business, the ASPCA decided to go about closing them from another angle.
The ASPCA commissioned a national study and discovered that the public is largely uninformed that puppies sold in pet stores and on websites come primarily from puppy mills. And nearly 80 percent of adults said they would not purchase a puppy at a pet store if they knew the puppy came from a puppy mill.
The No Pet Store Puppies campaign takes the message further by also encouraging people not to shop for anything — food, toys, etc. — at pet stores and websites that sell dogs.
To date, more than 100,000 consumers have signed the No Pet Store Puppies pledge.
“There’s still a lot of abuse that goes on and animals are raised in horrendous conditions — living in 2- by 2-foot wire cages and constantly bred over and over again — but right now it’s not illegal in Missouri,” Rickey noted. “So the most effective strategy to end puppy mills is to let people know, let them see what really goes on in puppy mills.”
The ASPCA website, www.aspca.org, has detailed information about what a puppy mill is, what it looks like inside one, raids and investigations, even the story of a puppy mill survivor. People also can sign the pledge.
Founded in 1866, the ASPCA was the first humane organization in the country, and its mission, as stated by founder Henry Bergh, has always been “to provide effective means for the prevention of cruelty to animals throughout the United States.”
Rickey feels proud to be carrying on that mission today.
“Our goal is to be a resource to people in the community,” he remarked.