Lancashire Police’s Rural Task Force's east division launched an investigation after two boys were seen on March 17th last year on an estate in Burnley encouraging a dog to attack a cat. The cat, later identified as a pet called Gatsby, was rushed by his owners to the vet but died from his injuries on route.
The incident was filmed by a witness and passed to police. Officers alerted the RSPCA and the charity’s Special Operations Unit (SOU) became involved.
Police executed two warrants under the Animal Welfare Act on 10 April 2021 at addresses in Burnley.
Mobile phones were seized which revealed images and videos of dogs being used to attack animals and hunt badgers, deer, rabbits and birds, prompting two further warrants in the same area.
At one address Ryan Hancock’s two lurcher-type dogs, called Ace and Cassie, were seized and taken into RSPCA care. A further crossbreed, called Storm, was seized from Marcus Leverett’s home. They were all later signed over so they could be rehomed.
The investigation - named Operation Ratchet - saw a number of mobile phones examined revealing 182 videos that showed graphic cruelty to animals, some of which had been set to music and edited for use on video sharing social site, TikTok.
A vet who reviewed videos from the case said, in his report: “A number of pieces of video footage detail various events involving dogs, a cat and wildlife which raised concern for the welfare of the animals involved.
" In my opinion, a number of animals involved in this case have been caused to suffer.”
Appearing at court this week, Marcus Leverett (19) of Harold Avenue, pleaded guilty to two offences under the Animal Welfare Act while Ryan Hancock (18)) of Prestwich Street, pleaded guilty to 11 offences under the Animal Welfare Act and Protection of Badgers Act.
The pair were sentenced at Blackburn Magistrates’ Court on Tuesday. Leverett was sentenced to 12 weeks custody, suspended for 18 months, concurrent on all charges. He was ordered to pay £1,000 in costs and was disqualified from keeping all animals for 10 years.
Hancock received 18 weeks in prison on 10 of the 11 offences - to run concurrently - as well as being disqualified from keeping all animals for 10 years.
A third teenager, who cannot be named due to his age, was sentenced in youth court after pleading guilty to two offences under the Animal Welfare Act and two under the Protection of Badgers Act.
He was sentenced at Blackburn Youth Court on Monday to a 12-month referral order. He was disqualified from keeping animals for 10 years and his family was ordered to pay £500 costs plus a £22 victim surcharge.
The prosecutor told the court that the level of offending was ‘off the scale’.
After the sentencing, RSPCA SOU officer Jason Bowles, who led the investigation, said: “This group of lads was targeting animals on the council estate they lived on as well as wildlife in the surrounding area.
“We found awful footage on their mobile phones that showed extreme cruelty to animals. Many of the photos and videos had been set to music and edited for sharing online.
“Not only did the animals they attacked and killed suffer, but their own dogs also suffered from injuries in the confrontations and fights.”
Jason added: “If anyone notices dogs, such as terriers and lurchers, suffering recurring injuries like cuts and wounds around the face, then we’d ask them to contact the police or RSPCA to report their concerns.”
PC Matt Hartup, part of the Lancashire Police Rural Task Force in the East of the county, said: “This operation – known as Op Ratchet – shows how closely we work in partnership with other agencies to tackle all sorts of crime, and bring offenders to justice.
“The glamorisation of this type of violence is barbaric and serves no purpose in the countryside; it promotes horrendous suffering and abuse of animals – including the lack of concern for the welfare of the dogs used for these crimes.
“We hope the court results over the last two days sends a strong message to those looking to commit crime in Lancashire, that it will not be tolerated and it will be acted upon.
“We would like to thank the community for bringing it to our attention so promptly, and it’s good news to know the dogs have been safely rehomed.
“We would encourage anyone who may be witness to, or have information about this sort of crime, to report it to us online at www.lancashire.police.uk or via the RSPCA by calling 0300 1234 999.
“Our thanks go to the officer from the RSPCA for their tenacity in working with us on this case to bring these offenders to justice, and we will continue to act on information provided to us to safeguard our rural communities.”