Thursday, October 22, 2009

Stewardship, Futility, Enforcement, Education

"Nature Noir," the book I finished last night or this morning, I've already forgotten, has really made me think about animal control, as a profession in general, and in my case specifically. I think a lot of my preconceived notions of park rangers are probably pretty similar in hue to those people have of animal control officers. And I imagine that I probably had some of the same illusions as Smith did when he joined the Park Services. These misconceptions are not quite the same ones as the general public has, because Smith and I both knew what we were getting into, for the most part (I had scooped plenty of shit before I became an officer almost 2 years ago, for example; I was no animal welfare rookie), but it really takes putting on the boots to get it.

I have been to a lot of national parks, and a lot of state parks, and I've met a couple rangers. I've met people in green and khaki that I assume are rangers. Some of them take money at parking kiosks and hand out little maps. I met some cool rangers in Yosemite that explained that they're basically federal police, and carry guns, and have to be able to do everything, including all kinds of first aid. But I have no idea what they do. I wanted to be a ranger once- how cool would it be to sit somewhere bucolic or picturesque and write books like John Muir? See how naive I am? Smith writes about how the work is seasonal, and you're constantly moving from park to park for work. In order to get job security, you have to go places where ranger work is year round, like Auburn. Which is a pretty sheisty placement. And you start over there. "Now, as a junior permanent, you're back at the bottom of the heap. So you gladly take what you can get. Then, to get back to the places that were the whole point of rangering in the first place, you begin to make calculated moves instead of moves of the heart. That's when the trouble begins." Here's how Smith cynically (or realistically) sums up his career trouble: "For most of us, our career prospects ended when we went there. The Auburn Dam site wasn't the kind of place that looked good on a resume. The department preferred to think of its rangers chatting with families in neat little picnic grounds or giving wildflower walks. Most of us were never promoted again. What we did there mattered only to us, and to the river."

I'm pretty sure lots of people have met animal control officers, or seen people they thought were animal control officers. What do they think we do? I've summed up some of the things I actually do, and some of the things I think people think we do, but I know there's a lot of misconceptions out there. There's the old stereotype of the bumbling dog catcher (sort of like my view of the toll taking kiosk ranger) and the glorified rescuer of "Animal Cops" (As Seen On TV). I think a lot of people think we love animals so much, and that we pretty much do cool animal stuff all day long, sort of like my childish dream of sitting by a bubbling brook and writing nature poems. In my case, like for Smith, animal control was a sort of career move (though I hate thinking in those terms- life plans stress me out): I did lots of "smaller" animal welfare jobs and wanted to do something a little more permanent, and with more impact. But every day I feel more like what I do matters only to me, and maybe to an individual animal.

The park that Smith worked in for the majority of his career was slated to be under water "sometime in the future" for the entire time that he worked the land. Though rangers are supposed to protect the land, there is an amazing sense of underlying futility in Smith's writing: how can you protect land that the government you work for is going to destroy? Stewardship becomes a moot point when the land being tended is about to be at the bottom of an artificial lake. This is a feeling I grapple with daily. My jurisdiction is not going to be under water in any literal sense, but some days I feel like it already is under water. Who am I protecting? The animals? From whom? Their owners? With what laws? If I enforce the laws, or seize the animals, who will prosecute the offenders and make sure that history is not repeated? I am also supposed to be protecting people, in my public safety role. But if people are going to continue to manage their animals irresponsibly (or not at all), how can I help steward a safe community? And if what is in existence is already broken, is it stewardship or plugging a dyke with a pinky finger? I often feel like my job is a juggling act, to keep the situation at bay, and the bar that has been set is very low. Futility.

Smith writes about one of his first postings that "I had learned a couple of things about human nature that wouldn't startle you much if you took a moment to think about them: When regular people leave the city limits, their behavior doesn't change much, and habitual criminals are seldom rehabilitated by pretty scenery." I'm not sure I've ever read truer words. When regular people have pets, their behavior doesn't change much, and regular criminals are usually regular criminals in all walks of life. A friend of mine who works in another jurisdiction once put it to me this way: "Where there's one felony offense there's usually another." Like the time I showed up at a cock fight and found a gun under a couch cushion. I probably shouldn't have been surprised, but human nature continues to amaze me. Although I chose to look the other way about non-animal-related-offenses on my calls, they're there, all day, every day (not the guns, I don't see those, and I wouldn't look the other way, but I'm there about the animals. Not the pot, not the expired (or stolen) license plate, not the fake ID). Smith continues: "Still, I believed there was one big distinction between me and your run-of-the-mill cop. I wasn't just slowing the inevitable decline of western civilization by arresting the guilty and carting off the wounded. I had been given a sacred charge: America's crown jewels, those special places legislatures had agreed were too good to ruin." Well, I'm glad he and the other rangers are there, and I'm glad that they're not "just" cops (although I'm glad "just" cops are there, too). These are cops with a mandate, and a special interest in stewardship and protection. I feel the same way about my job. I'm not "just" a wannabe cop (or a dog catcher). I have a special mandate, to protect and serve animals. It's not some cheesy "voice for the voiceless" thing, but there's something to the Mahatma Ghandi quote "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." When we're not on duty and the cops are handling our calls, they're handled. They're not handled with care.

And that's where education comes in. There's enforcement, and there's education. Smith cited and arrested more people than his fellow officers. He probably solved more serious crimes than his partners, too. There is a place for that, and maybe his park was safer for it, too. (The Auburn area sounds kind of sketchy, actually- I'm glad he was out there!) But he also was educated about the environmental issues about that dam- it wasn't just that he was going to be out of a job, he knew his park, and what it would cause. I'm also an enforcer, though probably not to the extent of Smith. I will write citations, and I will seize animals. But I prefer to educate, to speak to people, to appeal to reason. To talk about where we're coming from, to hear where we're coming from, to try and get to a point of mutual understanding. To explain the law, to teach, to listen.

At the end of all this is an overwhelming sense of futility. My life is not a reality show. It's not As Seen On TV. My town is screwed up, in many of the same ways that Auburn as described in Smith's book is (though maybe with less meth and less desert). There's also an amazing sense of doing the best I can, providing little bits of stewardship every day.
"For me, the bedrock of reality is my affection for wild nature, and I take exception to the idea that nature is nothing more than a cultural construction... Sentiment-call it love-for the wild is ultimately why Will and I became rangers. Sentiment is why any of us bother to raise children, who sometimes don't appreciate what we do; why we care tenderly for elderly parents after age has deprived them of the memory of our names. It is why we try to salvage the juvenile delinquent, the alcoholic, the drug addict. Without it, we are not human."


Anonymous said...
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thb said...

this is a great book...thb sez the macinator knows her stuff