If you spend an afternoon in Fincastle, strolling down the downtown streets and past the county courts, you’ll run into a prosecutor and his poodle.
Gillian Deegan moved to Botetourt County in 2004 to work as a paralegal. They’ve called the county home ever since, and he has no plans to leave the area.
“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 do, you don’t leave.”
Deegan has a national reputation as an animal welfare prosecutor. She has always loved animals and has many pets at home. The newest addition to the family is a standard poodle named Seamus.
Bala worked with Deegan in Botetourt County General District and Circuit courts as an emotional support animal for victims and witnesses.
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“The state legislature, several years ago, codified that they could use dogs in the courtroom,” Deegan said. “The court is not a place of entertainment. It’s very stressful. I’ve always been an advocate who wants to give victims and witnesses more to make the experience less painful. “With my love for animals and my respect for the underprivileged and shelter dogs, I wanted to do it with a shelter dog.”
Deegan found Seamus on the Angels of Assisi website this spring. Independent, non-profit animal welfare organization serving southwest Virginia and West Virginia.
“They had just taken him out of the Regional Animal Care Center,” Deegan said. “In the first meeting, he was just phenomenal. He wasn’t overly enthusiastic, but he wasn’t shy either. He came straight. He wanted to be petted. And I thought that if there was ever going to be a dog, it was going to be one. He will be the one who can do it. So we started our journey.”
Seamus is not yet certified to sit on the stand alongside witnesses, but Deegan said he has already seen the poodle make a difference in the courthouse.
“The difference he made with some of the victims was within seconds. You may notice a change in body language. They’ll start talking,” Deegan said. “You can see it when you walk in and he looks at you with those eyes. And he’s just like, ‘Dude me.’ It’s really phenomenal to watch when that happens. It really is.”
Prior to working in Botetourt County, Deegan had a private law practice in Salem, where she worked on many “guardianship” cases representing the best interests of the child.
“At the time I had a bloodhound and a Great Pyrenees. They weren’t trained as therapy dogs, but I used them,” she said. “I’ve found, especially with older dogs, if a small child can just wrap their arms around them, they’ll talk to the dog. They will tell the dog everything. I can sit here and write.”
Although Deegan has prosecuted a variety of criminal cases in Botetourt County courts, she is most passionate about cases “where you have victims who can’t speak for themselves,” including animal welfare cases.
“The more you learn about animal welfare, the more you realize it’s closely related to how people treat people,” Deegan said. “Often, mistreatment of animals is the first step to violence in humans. “I’ve always felt it’s important to take these things seriously, to take them seriously and hopefully get people off the path.”
Deegan grew up in Salem and attended Roanoke College, where his father was a professor. He was interested in becoming a police officer and believed that spending time in the US Army Reserves would be “good training.”
“I got out of college, got into the reserves, did all my active duty training for it and got out and was hired by the Roanoke County Sheriff’s Office,” Deegan said.
During his tenure at the sheriff’s office, the county organized its own police department, and Deegan moved on to work as a uniformed patrol officer on the county’s police force.
“After that, it was probation and parole,” Deegan said. “I worked as a probation and parole officer for the city of Roanoke for two years. Then he became a law faculty.”
After studying law for three years in North Carolina, Deegan returned to the Roanoke Valley.
“While I was waiting to see if I could pass the bar exam, I took a job cleaning kennels at a veterinary clinic,” Deegan said. “I’ve done this for 10 years.”
After passing the bar exam, Deegan opened a private practice for five years.
“I did that, but I still worked at the vet clinic because I really loved it,” Deegan said. “I started working as a veterinary assistant for a while. I would walk around a lot, just look and learn.”
This knowledge helps Deegan when handling animal welfare cases.
“I know enough to make myself dangerous,” he said.
In 2004, Deegan got his first job in Botetourt County. In February, he will celebrate his 19th birthday in the commonwealth’s office.
When Deegan first started looking into animal welfare cases, “all of a sudden it seemed like Botetourt was a hotbed of animal cruelty,” but since then she’s found “it’s all over the place.”
Deegan said educating communities about how to properly care for animals can make a historic difference.
“The great thing about being at Botetourt as long as I have is that you get to see the generations,” Deegan said. “A lot of animal cruelty is serious neglect because people don’t have the resources. They don’t know any better. Growing up, if his dogs had fleas, his father put motor oil on them. And you have to teach people that this is not the case.”
Deegan said she is happiest when she hears that people’s habits are changing.
“I’ve been seeing grandchildren in Botetourt for generations and people whose fathers I’ve accused and convicted,” Deegan said. “Botetourt is a small community. I hear, ‘Just took the hound to the vet.’ And I’m like, ‘Really? Victory.'”
Deegan’s office began an informal partnership with Angels of Assisi in 2009 to help facilitate this education for owners and the care of captured or neglected animals.
“They had the same vision as us, which is that not everyone is bad. And just because you can’t get heartworm medication this month doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be allowed to own a pet,” Deegan said. “Pets bring so much to people’s lives.”
Sometimes, instead of seizing animals or accusing their caretakers of neglect, Deegan and Angels of Assisi work with those caretakers to make sure they have the necessary resources.
“And it worked very well,” Deegan said. “Watching this difference in the nearly 19 years I’ve been here has made me feel like I’ve done my part, done something good and contributed to what’s going on in this community. , making it better going forward.”
Deegan said she would not have been able to devote so much time to animal welfare work without the support of her boss, Commonwealth’s Attorney John Alexander.
“A few years ago, Nottoway County called and asked me to help with a big project. And he said, ‘Pack your bag. You’re out of here,'” Deegan said. “He’s the best.”
Deegan said that Alexander also supported his work with Seamus. One morning, Alexander greeted the poodle before greeting Deegan.
“He sees Seamus and says, ‘Hey mate, how are you?’ Then — I’ll never forget — he said, “Thank you so much for coming to work today,” Deegan said. “He was just phenomenal. When I have to take Seamus out for a walk, he thinks it’s part of the job.”
Two years ago, Alexander endorsed Deegan for a juvenile and local bench judge seat in Alleghany Highlands. But, Deegan said, “it fell on deaf ears.”
“Court appointments are very political in nature. And I’m not that political,” Deegan said. “As long as I’m here doing my job, I’m not going anywhere. Let me do my job, and do it competently. I’m still very interested, but I’m never going to get there. I don’t think I have political influence.”
In addition to her work in Botetourt County, Deegan serves on the National Advisory Committee on Animal Cruelty for the Prosecuting Attorneys Association.
“We meet once a year in D.C. and talk about national trends, what we’re seeing, how we’re going to deal with everything we’re seeing,” Deegan said. “Once a year we have a big animal cruelty conference that involves forensic veterinarians, law enforcement, animal control and prosecutors. And we carry it around the country. Last year we were in Baton Rouge. This December we will be in Nashville.”
Deegan also teaches classes through the Commonwealth Bar Service Council.
“It’s an organization that provides training for all prosecutors in the state,” Deegan said. “I work in their curriculum committee. We meet once a year in Richmond to plan three conferences for the coming year.”
The prosecutor also occasionally serves as a consultant in animal welfare cases across the country. He said one day he would “walk out of the courtroom and never look back.” But he has no plans to retire just yet.
“After doing this for years, my dream job would be to get in a kayak early in the morning, paddle out in the middle of the lake and count birds and never talk to anybody,” Deegan said. “I might go in four years, but we’ll see.”