FIVE teenagers were arrested in dawn raids this morning as part of the largest investigation into animal cruelty ever to take place in Darlington.
A team of 19 RSPCA officers and more than 40 police officers from across County Durham carried out the raids as part of Operation Merlin following four months of investigating and intelligence gathering by the RSPCA and Durham Police.
Simultaneous raids were sprung at 7am today on properties in the Firthmoor area of Darlington, and the men, four aged 18 and one aged 19, were arrested for offences under the Animal Welfare Act and are currently in custody.
One was also arrested on suspicion of cultivating cannabis at his home, while a sixth man was arrested for possession of cannabis.
Eight dogs – two Labradors and six Lurchers – were seized and have been taken into RSPCA custody. Two of the dogs were found to be living in squalor, while one was found with a tear wound and skin loss.
The joint operation, which was led by RSPCA Inspector Garry Palmer and Chief Inspector Chris Reeves of Darlington police, took place following a number of reports from the public of dogs being used to hunt and kill wildlife, livestock and domestic pets in the Darlington area.
Insp Palmer said: “These are not your normal poachers, they are criminals. There is a network of about 25, but the net is slowly closing in on them.
“It is sadistic and they will kill anything; foxes, badgers, sheep, cats and deer. They are not treating their own dogs’ injuries either - it is a miserable life these dogs have got.”
Mobile phones, computers and paraphernalia associated with hunting were also seized in the raids.
RSPCA Chief Inspector Mark Gent said: “A number of exhibits were seized and we are looking into these and doing further investigations.
“Where we have evidence that offences have taken place we will take action to bring the individuals involved before a court.
"I hope this sends a message to anyone involved in this kind of deliberate, abhorrent cruelty – we are actively seeking you and the next knock on the door could be us.”
Deputy Chief Constable Michael Banks said the force is committed to protecting its rural communities and tackling rural crime.
He said: "Animal welfare is an issue at the heart of those communities and we hope that this morning’s raids reassure people that activities involving animal cruelty will not be tolerated.”