Walton earns animal defense award

Published 9:35 pm Monday, February 20, 2012

Suffolk prosecutor Susan Walton, seated, has been named one of the nation’s Top Ten Animal Defenders by the Animal Legal Defense Fund. She is surrounded by Bennett’s Creek Veterinary Hospital staff Dr. Brandon R. Wichman, Dr. Robert M. Johnson Jr. and Caren Barber, Animal Control Officer Nicole Munro, and abused dogs Lieutenant Dan, left, and Jada, right. Walton prosecuted the abusers of both dogs.

A Suffolk prosecutor is being honored this week as one of the nation’s Top Ten Animal Defenders.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund named Susan Walton to the top-10 list for National Justice for Animals Week, which runs Feb. 19-25. The week is an annual event dedicated to raising awareness about how citizens can work within their communities to achieve justice for animal victims of crimes and honoring law enforcement, prosecutors and legislators who give teeth to laws protecting animals.

“It’s nice, because we don’t always get recognized for what we do in this line of work,” Walton said. “Sometimes, it’s a thankless job. We deal with so much negative, negative, negative that seeing a positive or getting an award like that is nice.”

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As a child, Walton wanted to be a veterinarian and was inspired by the work of James Alfred Wright, who wrote the “All Creatures Great and Small” series under the pen name of James Herriot. The series was a semi-autobiographical portrayal of his experiences as a veterinarian.

But Walton soon realized she did not have an aptitude for math and science, so she gave up the veterinarian idea. But she has found she can help animals as a prosecutor, as well.

She received her bachelor’s and law degrees from George Mason University, where she played NCAA Division I basketball. She then became a prosecutor in Campbell County, where she worked for seven years before coming to Suffolk 12 years ago.

Walton, whose colleagues sometimes tease her by calling her the “Doggie DA,” started taking an interest in animal abuse cases by talking to Animal Control officers about their work. Before long, all cases involving animals were getting referred to her.

She has successfully prosecuted more than 100 animal cases. Most of them involved dogs, but there have been plenty of cats, rabbits, horses, cattle, goats and chickens as well.

Walton also takes advantage of state law allowing animals that are in immediate danger to be seized, protecting them from further abuse while the case is being investigated.

“It’s not just about punishment,” she said. “It’s about providing a safe environment for not only that animal, but any future animals.”

Walton has prosecuted cases involving dogs with embedded collars, kittens beaten to death, dogs and cats set on fire and cattle that were starved to death.

One of the most appalling cases involved Jada, a 4-year-old boxer mix that was found unresponsive at her owner’s home last year. She was cold to the touch, had a short leash wrapped around her neck, had no food or water and was lying in her own waste. Her body temperature and heart rate were so low that she should have been dead.

However, she was nursed back to health by doctors at Bennett’s Creek Veterinary Care, and Walton’s successful prosecution resulted in an active jail sentence for her abuser.

“I think it says a lot for her and for the office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney,” said Kay Hurley, director of community outreach for the Suffolk Humane Society. “We’re very excited. I think there’s definitely a correlation between how we treat the most helpless and what kind of community we are.”

Animal cases are far from the only ones on Walton’s caseload. At any given time, fewer than 10 percent of her cases involve animals. She also handles violent crimes and is part of the Gang Task Force Unit.

But she feels a special calling to protect the animals, she said.

“It’s kind of the part of my job that I feel like I’m really making a difference,” she said.

Walton added that she could not do what she does without proactive Animal Control officers, veterinarians who work hard to save the animals and are willing to testify against their abusers, community members who report cases, judges that are willing to listen to the cases and a boss, Commonwealth’s Attorney C. Phillips Ferguson, who takes animal cases seriously.

“I don’t feel like it’s just me getting the award,” she said. “I feel like it’s all of us.”

Walton and her husband, Greg Johnson, have a 4-year-old son and two cats.