Monday, January 03, 2011

Results: When We Want Them, How We Get Them, If We Like Them...

The cheer that keeps going through my head about results in animal welfare, especially animal control:

What do we want? RESULTS!

When do we want them? NOW!

How do we want them? OUR WAY!

And, honestly, this isn't exactly unfair- the people who want results from animal control usually want them because they are concerned about the welfare of animals. Can you blame them? Animals can't talk for themselves, and if a person gives a crap enough to call animal control, they've probably been watching a situation deteriorate enough to the point where they're willing to involve the PO-lice, so they're probably at some sort of desperation. It's what happens from there that I've been thinking about, thanks in large part due to some conversations with a friend of mine.

I have to back up a bit, though, because my annoying habit of self-analysis requires me to point out that I wasn't always an animal control officer, and I used to be the person chanting about results, criticizing animal control, and being scared to call, not the person standing up for the men and women in blue. I used to, in fact, as I've mentioned before, be the person yelling "Damn the Man!" So I forget that it's hard for "civilians" to understand "us." And it's not the non-animal-welfare-professional person's job to understand. It's my job to make sure that I understand the need of the person calling in a complaint, and to make sure s/he feels heard, and that I do my best to GET results. I think I'm one of the least intimidating people I know, and I'm actually, when not in my uniform, quite a push-over, but when I remember to be self-aware, know that anyone with any kind of police outfit on is in a position of power. By default, I'm in charge of the situation, and someone coming to me for help may never even have spoken to any type of police officer. If s/he doesn't get results, or doesn't feel heard, s/he is going to resent the uniform even more. It's a failure of The System. I used to understand this and preach on it- now I forget.

So, my friend has been running into a couple of extremely frustrating situations in a different jurisdiction, and because we're long time friends, I bend the "you get one animal control call" rule that I've established to keep work/friendship separate. (Plus, talking to her is different- I can work out philosophical shit like this, and we bounce ideas off each other. Much different than "my neighbor's dog is always shitting in my yard, what do I do?" Oh, that's MY neighbor! Never mind.) I have a better understanding of animal cruelty laws in our state because I deal with them every day, so many of our conversations are playing through various situations of "what if we do this..." and "could the officer in my town do this..." And this is what's been leading me to think a lot about results.

One situation we discussed involved a dog owner who wasn't giving proper treatment to her animals. Both of us agreed that it was a clear violation of California Penal Code 597(b), which reads in part:
whoever, having the charge or custody of any animal, either as owner or otherwise, subjects any animal to needless suffering, or inflicts unnecessary cruelty upon the animal, or in any manner abuses any animal, or fails to provide the animal with proper food, drink, or shelter or protection from the weather, ... is guilty of a crime punishable as a misdemeanor or as a felony
This subsection allows me to do much of my work- get negligent and down-right cruel animal owners to comply with laws that they're violating, and/or allow me to seize animals in shitastic conditions. It's basic: if you own an animal, you have to feed it, water it, provide it shelter from the elements, and provide vet care for it so that there is no needless suffering. Other parts of the penal code require sufficient area for exercise, prohibit chaining dogs, etc.

In this case, the animal owner was failing to provide vet care, and the animals were needlessly suffering. Fortunately for the animal, and unfortunately for my friend who was deciding whether or not to get animal control involved, there was no *visible* suffering. The animal has no open wounds, no severed limbs, lives inside with access to water and shelter, etc. The animals appear healthy and well-cared for except for issues that are not visible to the naked eye. It's similar to calls that I get over the radio of people beating their dogs. When I get there two hours later, even if the people and dogs are still there, there is never evidence of beating, and what person (psychopath or not) is going to say, "Oh, sure, I was hitting him. I do that every Tuesday at noon because I'm an asshole animal abuser"? The result that my friend would have liked is that the animal owner was forced to a) take her animals to the vet and provide veterinary care and b) change her behavior which was making the animals sick. The problem, which I discussed with other coworkers, is that I'm not sure that an animal control officer would have the authority to make her do so. When I arrive at a scene with an alleged complaint of animal cruelty, I need to see something that falls within the confines of the law, as it is laid out by state or local laws. Obvious failure to provide vet care is something like hairloss, open wounds, broken limbs, limping, being underweight, etc. Any kind of internal disease that isn't making the animal visibly suffer is extremely hard to prove. Further, if an animal lives inside and the owner isn't home or doesn't allow me in, I do not have the right to go inside and assess the animal. I can and do ask, but I can't bust in unless I have a warrant. (There was a recent case in LA that said differently, but it's new territory.)

It sucks. My hands are tied. I believe the person who called, like my friend. I know there is an animal suffering, but often what I can do stops at leaving a notice on the door saying that I have received a complaint of failure to provide vet care, and demand that the owner show proof of taking the animal to the vet. If they fail to comply, there is little that I can do. I still can't bust down doors, and unless I have serious evidence, I still can't seize an animal. The result isn't good, for anyone.

I thought of a recent case that I dealt with for weeks. Many neighbors were concerned about the state of a dog who lived outside. The dog had a doghouse, but lived always outside in a dog run. The dog was tied up The neighbors never saw the dog owners walk the dog, and they did hear the owners yell at the dog. The water was often dirty, and the dog liked to play with her food bowl. One time, the bowl was glass, and she broke her bowl, so she was standing in broken glass shards. The dog owners did not pick up after her shit enough. We got called out repeatedly. There was no access to the front door, so we left notices on the gated door. After our first notice, the dog was never tied up again and the feces started being picked up regularly. After the incident with the glass bowl, the bowl was metal. The water bowl turned into a large bucket, and I never saw any dirt, just an occasional leaf. The neighbors were concerned because the food was too close to the dog's shit, but again, the dog liked to play with her food, and even the most fastidious owner couldn't control where the food ended up. The dog barked at her bowl, and did bark when approached, but otherwise was quiet. Multiple neighbors continued to call, and were extremely frustrated with the results that they were getting from us (many officers went out to this call).

I spoke to the direct neighbor at length. She believed she was the only person feeding the dog, though she only had access to the dog through a chain link fence. She never saw anyone feeding the dog, so she believed it wasn't happening. She didn't feel it was humane that the dog wasn't walked. She didn't understand why we hadn't removed the dog. She had a fairly good relationship with the neighbors and had brought toys for the dog to them. I explained why I hadn't provided more satisfying results for her. Dogs in California are allowed to live outside, provided they have access to shelter, which this dog did. The dog kennel was large enough for her, and as soon as the owners had been notified of the tethering law, she was removed from her tether. The water was clean, and one pile of feces is not considered a sanitation issue. (I would be happy if that's what my neighbors left!!) I discussed with her ways to approach her neighbors to see if she could spend time with the dog, or if they would like her to provide food. She wanted me to remove the dog, because she felt the dog was suffering. She felt the dog would be better off at the shelter, but didn't want the dog euthanized. I explained that I couldn't remove the dog, legally, and that the dog might be euthanized at the shelter.

No one liked these results. I wasn't thrilled that the dog was living outside, in a dog run. The dog was in good weight, fed, watered, and had a home. That's not a life that I would want for my dog, but it's a life that falls under "legal." All of the neighbors continue to be upset with the results that animal control has provided. I'm fairly certain the dog owners are upset with animal control and their neighbors for continuing to bother them after they comply with each request. No one is satisfied.

I don't have a good answer. The best I can offer is, if making a complaint, ask to speak to the animal control officer before getting frustrated. Maybe before and after the call gets dispatched. Ask them what happened (we can't always talk about it), and what you can do in the future to help get the results you want. At least in my case, the results I've gotten aren't necessarily the results I want, either. There's laws that have to be followed, though, and policies that I'm bound by. Animals are property- I can't just take them. People have rights that I can't just violate. This also works in the callers' favor: you wouldn't want me to take your animal on an allegation of cruelty. I often use my dog as an example: Mac stays in my room all day long (often up to 12 hours) with no access to food or water. Technically this is cruelty, as he doesn't have access to water. I don't believe that he is treated inhumanely though, as unlimited access to water causes him to vomit, so I have to monitor him. Some people think that this is too long to leave him in a room, just as some people believe crating is cruel. When I am in officer-mode, I have to evaluate individual circumstances. I can't always follow a callers' (or my own) beliefs are. Talk to your officers. Try to put yourself in their shoes, as I try to put myself in my non-officer shoes. Know your local laws, and spit them back at your officers (nicely) if you feel they're not knowledgeable. Ask for a supervisor, if you can't speak to someone directly. And keep calling. The animals deserve it.