Mathew Tully is not one to shy away from a challenge, be it creating a now-thriving law firm from his bedroom, escaping from the Twin Towers in New York City after terrorists crashed planes into them or serving overseas in Iraq with the Army.
His latest challenge, undertaken with his wife, Kimberly, was to launch the first new chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York state in 30 years.
“I love doing it. There is something about helping animals. It is very rewarding,” Tully said.
Tully hopes to have the Schenectady SPCA fully operational by June 1 and to be able to respond to calls 24/7 within a full year. His goal is to have a staff of at least 10 peace officers, all of them volunteers.
The new SPCA branch would have more peace officers than any other county in New York outside of New York City, he said.
Peace officers have the legal authority to investigate animal abuse charges and make arrests. They can carry handguns and mace, wear body armor and charge violators with crimes ranging from violations to felonies, some punishable by up to four years in prison. They may only exercise their authority while on duty, though.
Unlike police agencies, the Schenectady SPCA would not be subject to governmental control, Tully said. But its peace officers must still receive training sanctioned by the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, it must file financial reports with the IRS and it must file a charitable charter with the state Attorney General’s Office, he said.
Tully, 34, is chief of the chapter and oversees its day-to-day operations. He is a fully certified peace officer with nearly two decades of experience as a volunteer and member of local SPCAs. His wife is undergoing training at the Zone 5 Academy on Erie Boulevard to become a peace officer. Training includes 270 hours of instruction in animal abuse and cruelty statutes covered by the state’s Agriculture and Markets Law. Tully said retired police officers who want to join his staff would only have to take 56 hours of instruction.
SPCA officers receive far more instruction in these laws than do regular police officers going through the academy; the academy only provides a basic review of the laws, usually encompassing two hours, Tully said.
The nearest SPCA chapter with peace officers is the Mohawk & Hudson River Humane Society of Albany, with three on staff.
Executive Director Brad Shear said his agency investigated 50 cases last year and is on track to reach 75 this year.
Other counties have SPCAs but do not have peace officers because of the prohibitive cost of the service.
Tully’s and Shear’s agencies have authority to investigate animal abuse and cruelty complaints in neighboring counties that have SPCAs but no peace officers on staff.
Tully said the cost to fully equip each peace officer with uniforms, weapons, body armor and other equipment is approximately $2,800. He is hoping to raise $28,000 by June for this purpose and then maintain a steady fundraising effort to cover a $150,000 annual budget to operate the office.
The budget would pay for insurance, a vehicle, training, supplies, boarding animals [the SPCA will not operate a shelter] and maintaining a veterinarian on call. A veterinarian would care for abused animals seized by the Schenectady SPCA and would also provide expert testimony in court, Tully said.
Tully said he expects the Schenectady SPCA to focus on felony investigations, dealing with dog and cock fighting, and to serve as a resource for local law enforcement agencies.
“We can help law enforcement. We can work the cases through and work with law enforcement to make sure the law is being used to its fullest,” he said. “Nothing forces these agencies to turn their cases over to us. We are here if you want.”
The Schenectady SPCA will not handle dog complaints, which are the domain of animal control officers in the various localities in the county.
“If a dog barks at 2 a.m., call the police, but if the dog is left outside without food or water and shelter, call us,” Tully said.
The Schenectady SPCA has a 24-hour hot line, 755-9517, and a Web site, www.SchenectadySPCA.org.
Tully said he expects the Schenectady SPCA to be busy, calling animal abuse cases low on the totem pole in terms of priority for local law enforcement agencies.
He said these agencies are already stretched thin dealing with major crimes such as homicide, thefts and assaults and do not have the resources to fully investigate animal abuse charges.
“I guarantee you, there is no point in having an SPCA unless you increase the volume of arrests,” Tully said. “You also will see a lot of complex undercover investigations and you will see major felony arrests for dog fighting.”
Tully has already discussed his plans with Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney and Schenectady County Sheriff Harry Buffardi.
Both said they support his efforts.
Carney said Tully’s agency is unique and said the DA’s office will give his organization a fair shake on evaluating his cases.
He disputed Tully’s assertion that local law enforcement gives a low priority to animal abuse cases, however.
“We take these cases seriously. We have a track record. We will evaluate these cases if they have them as we would the same as any police department,” Carney said. “Every time that I have heard a complaint or potential investigation, police agencies do follow up on them, but there is stuff out there that police are not aware of.”
Carney added he isn’t sure whether the county needs an SPCA with peace officers: “Does this community need such an organization? I don’t know the answer to the question. Tully saw an opportunity he believes in strongly and saw a way to do it that is legal, and more power to him.”
Buffardi said he will assist Tully any way he can.
“I am in favor of any law enforcement effort that supports animal rights and protects animals. Sometimes government does not put animals first, and it stands to reason a group like this would be helpful to us,” he said.
Buffardi said he will help Tully process prisoners, answer the phone for him and allow Tully’s agency to use the sheriff’s department’s radio system.
Tully said he needs such support because even though he is building a law enforcement agency, he does not have access to these services unless through an agreement; he can’t even run fingerprints without permission from a police agency.
Buffardi said the SPCA will be able to take calls that now go to the sheriff’s department, animal shelters or police because people in the area do not know who handles animal abuse complaints currently.
“His agency would be a place to go to resolve some of these issues,” Buffardi said.
Shear said he also fully supports Tully’s efforts.
“I think it is great that they are there. I would love to see every county in the state have an active SPCA. We have our hands full with the two counties we cover,” he said.
Shear said he wishes Tully success with fundraising, an always difficult task.
“We are in a tough environment for fundraising. Donors are difficult to find, but his is an important service. Most of his officers will be volunteers, and that will keep his expenses low,” he said.
Tully also isn’t operating an animal shelter, an expensive operation, Shear said.
Shear expects Tully will be busy with his duties: “I think he will find we will have plenty to do in Schenectady. We know what is happening, but sometimes, the public doesn’t know who to call.”