MEN suspected of using dogs to hunt and kill domestic and wild animals received an early wake-up call when police and RSPCA officers swooped on their homes in a series of dawn raids. Hannah Bryan joined the operation.

THE stench is horrendous and the sight that greets us is not much better. Kept in cold, outdoor cages littered with faeces are a number of scruffy looking dogs. Some jump up to greet us as we walk past while others cower in corners, trying to keep warm.

In the middle of one cage shared between two animals is a small, black mound - the decaying body of a dead dog, left to be eaten by its companions.

These dogs are just some of the animals suspected of being used by groups of men to hunt, torture and kill wildlife, livestock and domestic pets in the Darlington area, often being filmed and the footage shared on social networking sites.

During a 6am briefing of Operation Stockholm – a joint initiative by the RSPCA and Darlington police to tackle animal cruelty in the area – officers tell us of a recent case where a pack of Lurchers ripped a female deer to shreds, tearing her leg off while she was still alive.

Other cases include packs of dogs, often terriers, Lurchers, Salukis and Bull Terriers, being filmed tearing apart screaming foxes while groups of men and women stand by and laugh.

To tackle this cruelty, a team of 40 police and 17 RSPCA officers working on Operation Stockholm raided homes across the Darlington area early this morning (Wednesday, May 1).

Setting off at 6.30am in a huge convoy of vans and cars, teams of officers descended on a number of properties.

Speaking during the operation, Chief Inspector Chris Reeves of Darlington police hailed the raids as a huge success after three men were arrested for offences under the Animal Welfare Act – an 18-year-old in Tyne Crescent, a 33-year-old in Brunel Way and a 25-year-old in Sadberge Road, near Middleton St George.

He said: “We have not only arrested the suspects, but we have rescued a number of animals who will now have a better life – they will never be returned to those people.

“It is not poaching, it is animal cruelty.”

Thirteen dogs were taken from the properties into RSPCA care, and mobile phones, computers and cannabis were also seized.

The raids were the culmination of months of investigative work using evidence gathered during last year’s Operation Merlin – one of the largest investigations into animal cruelty in County Durham – and come just days after the region was once-again named the animal cruelty capital of Britain.

RSPCA Chief Inspector Nick Welch said where there is evidence that offences have taken place, the charity will take action to bring suspects 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,” he said.