Prosecutor builds reputation as animal welfare advocate

Prosecutor builds reputation as animal welfare advocate

FINCASTLE, Va. — If you spend an afternoon in Fincastle, walking along its hilly downtown streets past the county courthouses, chances are you’ll spot a prosecutor and her poodle.

Gillian Deegan moved to Botetourt County in 2004 to take a job as an assistant commonwealth’s attorney. She’s called the county home since, and she’s made no plans to leave the locality.

“I love it here. I really do,” Deegan, now a deputy commonwealth’s attorney, said in a recent interview. “This is home. This is where my people are. I think a lot of people don’t find that. And when you find it, you don’t leave.”

Deegan has a national reputation as an animal welfare prosecutor. She has always loved animals and has lots of pets at home. The newest addition to her family is a standard poodle, named Seamus.

The pup has been working with Deegan in Botetourt County’s General District and Circuit courts as an emotional support animal for victims and witnesses.

“The state legislature, several years ago, codified being able to use dogs in the courtroom,” Deegan said. “The court is not a fun place. It’s very stressful. I’ve always been an attorney who has wanted to give more to victims and witnesses to make the experience a little less painful. With my love of animals and my passion for the underdogs and the shelter dogs, I really wanted to do it with a shelter dog.”

Deegan found Seamus on the Angels of Assisi website this spring. The independent, nonprofit animal welfare organization serves southwest Virginia and West Virginia.

“They had just pulled him from the Regional Center for Animal Care protection,” Deegan said. “On the first meeting, he was just phenomenal. He wasn’t overly exuberant, but he wasn’t at all shy. He came right up. He wanted to be petted. And I thought, if there’s ever going to be a dog, he’s going to be it. He’s going to be the one that can do it. And hence, we started our journey.”

Seamus is not yet certified to sit on the stand alongside witnesses, but Deegan said she’s already seen the poodle make a difference in the courthouse.

“The difference he has made with some of the child victims has been just within seconds. You can see the body language change. They’ll start talking,” Deegan said. “You can just see it when he comes in, and he looks at you with those eyes. And he’s just like, ‘Pet me.’ It’s really phenomenal to watch it when it happens. It really is.”

Before Deegan worked in Botetourt County, she had a private law practice in Salem, where she did worked a lot of “guardian ad litem” cases, representing a child’s best interest.

“I had a bloodhound and Great Pyrenees at the time. They weren’t trained as therapy dogs, but I used them,” Deegan said. “I found, especially with the big dogs, if a little kid can just kind of wrap their arms around them, they’ll talk to the dog. They’ll tell the dog everything. And I can sit over here and just write it down.”

While Deegan prosecutes a variety of criminal cases in Botetourt County’s courts, she is most passionate about the cases in which “you have victims that can’t speak for themselves,” including animal welfare cases.

“The more you learn about animal welfare cases, the more you figure out that it’s also closely tied to the way humans treat humans, as well,” Deegan said. “Oftentimes, the mistreatment of animals is the first step into the escalation of violence in humans. I’ve always felt like it was important to take these cases seriously, to handle them seriously and hopefully get people off that path.”

Deegan was raised in Salem and attended Roanoke College, where her father was a professor. She had an interest in being a police officer and believed that spending time in the U.S. Army Reserve would “be good training.”

“I got out of college, went in the reserves, did all my active duty training for that, and came out of that and got hired by the Roanoke County Sheriff’s Office,” Deegan said.

During her time in the sheriff’s office, the county organized its police department, and Deegan transitioned into a job on the county’s police force as a uniformed patrol officer.

“After that it was probation and parole,” Deegan said. “I worked as a probation and parole officer in Roanoke city for two years. And then it was law school.”

After three years studying law in North Carolina, Deegan returned to the Roanoke Valley.

“When I was waiting to see if I was going to pass the bar exam or not, I took a job working in a vet clinic cleaning kennels,” Deegan said. “I ended up doing that for 10 years.”

Once she passed the bar exam, Deegan opened her private practice for five years.

“I did that, but I still worked at the vet clinic, because I really loved that,” Deegan said. “I started working a little bit as a vet assistant. I would hang out a lot, just watching and learning.”

That knowledge helps Deegan as she prosecutes animal welfare cases now.

“I know just enough to make myself dangerous,” she said.

In 2004, Deegan landed her first job in Botetourt County. In February, she’ll celebrate 19 years in the commonwealth’s attorney’s office.

When Deegan first started prosecuting animal welfare cases, “it seemed like all of a sudden Botetourt was a hotbed of animal cruelty,” but she’s since found that “it’s everywhere.”

Deegan said educating communities about how to properly care for animals can make historical differences.

“The really cool thing with being in Botetourt for as long as I have been is you can see the generations,” Deegan said. “So much of animal cruelty is severe neglect, because people don’t have the resources. They don’t know any better. Growing up, if their dog had fleas, their daddy put motor oil on it. And you have to educate people that that’s not the way you do it.”

Deegan said she’s happiest when she hears people’s habits changing.

“I am seeing, generationally in Botetourt, people whose granddaddies and daddies I charged and convicted,” Deegan said. “Botetourt is a small community. And I hear, ‘So-in-so just took his hunting dog to the vet.’ And I’m like, ‘Really? Victory.’”

Deegan’s office started an unofficial partnership with Angels of Assisi in 2009 that helps facilitate that education for owners and care for seized or neglected animals.

“They had the same vision that we do, which is not everybody is bad. And just because you can’t afford heartworm medication this month doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be allowed to have an animal,” Deegan said. “Animals bring so much to people’s lives.”

Sometimes instead of seizing animals or charging their caretakers with neglect, Deegan and Angels of Assisi work with those caretakers to make sure they have the right resources.

“And it has worked so well,” Deegan said. “In the almost 19 years I’ve been out here, to just be able to watch that difference has made me feel like I’ve done my job, I’ve done something good and I’ve contributed to what’s happening in this community, making it better going forward.”

Deegan said she wouldn’t be able to commit so much time to animal welfare cases without the support of her boss, Commonwealth’s Attorney John Alexander.

“A couple of years ago, Nottoway County called and wanted me to come up and help with a big case up there. And he was like, ‘Pack your bags. You’re out of here,’” Deegan said. “He’s the best ever.”

Deegan said Alexander supports her work with Seamus, too. One morning, Alexander greeted the poodle before greeting Deegan.

“He sees Seamus and he says, ‘Hey, buddy, how are you?’ And then — I’ll never forget — he said, ‘Thank you so much for coming to work today,’” Deegan said. “He’s just been phenomenal. When I have to take Seamus out for a walk, he considers that part of the job.”

Two years ago, Alexander endorsed Deegan for a judge’s seat on a juvenile and domestic bench in the Alleghany Highlands. But, Deegan said, “it fell on deaf ears.”

“Judicial appointments are so political. And I am so not political,” Deegan said. “As long as I’m doing my job here, I’m not going anywhere. Let me do my job, and let me do it competently. I’m still very much interested, but I don’t think I have the political clout to ever get there.”

In addition to her work in Botetourt County, Deegan serves on the National Animal Cruelty Advisory Committee under the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

“We meet once a year up in D.C. and talk about the national trends, what we’re seeing, how to combat whatever we’re seeing,” Deegan said. “Once a year, we have a big animal cruelty conference that encompasses forensic veterinarians, law enforcement, animal control, and prosecutors. And we move it around the country. Last year, we were down in Baton Rouge. This December, we will be in Nashville.”

Deegan also teaches classes through the Commonwealth’s Attorney Service Council.

“That is an organization that sets up the training for all the prosecutors across the state,” Deegan said. “I serve on their curriculum committee. We meet once a year up in Richmond to plan three conferences for the next year.”

The prosecutor also occasionally serves as a consultant on animal welfare cases across the country. She said one day she’ll “walk out of the courtroom and never look back.” But she doesn’t have plans to retire yet.

“After years of doing this, my dream job would be to get in a kayak early in the morning, paddle out into the middle of the lake and count birds and never have to talk to anybody,” Deegan said. “I can go in four years, but we’ll see.”

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Prosecutor builds reputation as animal welfare advocate

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