Telephone Etiquette

When hunting down the owners of lost pets, the telephone is our primary tool. There are plenty of websites that offer information as to the etiquette of answering the phone, but few on placing calls.

The first rule is to determine when to call. It is usually safe to call between 9 AM and (9 PM) but to be cautious, I always placed my calls between 10 AM and 8 PM. It is important that when given the opportunity, you should leave a message on the answering machine and document the exchange in your records.

If after multiple attempts, it becomes necessary to extend the attempts of contact the (possible) owner outside your usual times in case the person works shifts. You may need to try odd hours. You would be surprised at the number of people that I had to reach late at night or very early in the morning (they were surprised as well). Let’s face it, we now live in a time where we try to avoid calls, even if they are to report a found pet.

Keep trying to contact the owner several times a day until the stray hold is up. Documenting each attempt to reach the owner is critical because owners seem to mysteriously come forward days after their pet becomes available for adoption or after it is adopted. The documentation is necessary because pet owners never seem to understand their role in failing to reclaim their pets.

What is it like being an Animal Services Director?

Most people would think that the job of being an Animal Services Director is a day filled with playing with pets.  In reality, the job is about preparing for worst-case scenarios:

Owner surrendered Pets:

Due to shelter overcrowding, many shelters make the decision to euthanize owner-surrendered pets upon intake.  This is a big mistake because family fights might lead the most ignorant member of the family (usually the husband) to surrender the family’s pet out of anger.  Usually one of the reasonable family members will go to the shelter to reclaim the pet.  Animal shelters should provide a two or three hold so as to not be faced with telling the family that their pet is dead.

Drop Dead Dates:

After “hounding” a pet owner to reclaiming their pet, many shelters will issue a deadline as to the last day that the owner can reclaim their pet.  It has been my experience that pet owners do not under deadlines and I have had many pet owners coming to reclaim their pet two or three days after being given a deadline.  It is usually a good idea to NOT hold firm to your own deadlines.

Potentially Dangerous Dogs:

Most animal shelter volunteers think that the primary purpose of an animal shelter is adopting dogs.  The primary purpose of an animal shelter is to protect the community.  Shelter staff and volunteers frequently fight over the adoptability of a particular animal.  My motto is that it is better to have a volunteer mad at me than explaining why I adopted a dangerous animal into a family with children.  Public safety should always come first.  Trust me, I have worked with plenty of volunteers that don’t understand that.  It is not uncommon for your own staff to side with the volunteers because they fear social fallout.

Working with Rescue Groups:

A rescue group can be the best thing that ever happens to an animal shelter.  It can also be the worst.  When working with a rescue group, maintain constant vigilance over the group to make sure that they are acting responsibly and are maintaining the correct numbers of animals.  Our seizure of nearly 700 cats in Florida is evidence of a group that had gotten sorely out of control.

Always tell the truth:  

In my career, I have only lied once, by omission.  There are a lot of anti-vaccine pet owners.  I came across one in Portland Oregon that refused to allow his pet to be vaccinated for rabies.  Our ordinance required that dogs and cats had to have a current rabies vaccination prior to being reclaimed by the owner.  Fortunately, like every ordinance, after the stray holding time, his animal became the property of our county.  Once the animal became our animal, I vaccinated it and called the owner to come to reclaim his dog.  I let him believe that I had let him win.  If he had asked me straight out, I would have told him what I had done.  Of course, we didn’t give him a copy of his rabies vaccination certificate, but the record was in our system.  Integrity is one of the most important traits that we must keep.

Always hold the line:

In our business, we are under constant pressure to surrender some of our integrity or put the public at risk.  You have to be prepared to lose your job over your beliefs.  Being fired isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you; giving up some of your integrity is.

At the time, I didn’t feel that getting fired was a badge of honor; but in reflection, getting fired was the best thing that ever happened to me.  I have been fired a few times:

    • I was first fired over disputing a citation quota system demanded by our Finance Director.
    • I was laid off when the Department Director was looking to fill slots for his friends in the Sanitation Department.  Boy was that a big mistake.
    • I was fired when a single long-term employee refused to accept that opening the shelter to rescue groups and volunteers was the next step in the shelter’s evolution.  The Board of Directors didn’t want to impinge on the long relationship that they had had with this employee.
    • And finally, I was fired because my Board of Directors could not face the social media surrounding the euthanizing of two dangerous pitbulls that the volunteers insisted should be adopted.

Being an Animal Services Director is more than just preparing for the worst-case scenario, but it is about doing the right thing.

Creating Your Own Hazmat Kit

It is not uncommon in our profession to be called upon to enter a house that presents environmental concerns. After visiting your first house, you will quickly decide that you need to prepare for your next.

Your first consideration is clothing. You will want disposable coveralls, shoe covers, and gloves. Most homes that will require your hazmat kit will be rich in fecal matter. You’ll want to get as little of that on your clothing as possible.

You may be going into a methane/ammonia-rich environment and a facemask will become necessary. You’ll need to decide if you want a full facemask that covers your entire face or a half mask that just covers your mouth and nose. It is important that you get the right size mask. You’ll want the methane/ammonia cartridge on your mask. If you find it hard breathing with a facemask, you can opt for a forced air respirator that takes the burden off of your lungs when trying to suck air through your cartridge filter.

You might consider purchasing a methane detector. The detector can give you the probable cause to enter the house and proved the health department the ability to condemn it. Some of the most successful operations I have experienced are working with my local law enforcement and health department. It doesn’t hurt to have your fire department’s hazmat team available. Although, I have been at locations where the hazmat teams refused to enter the home.

The most important item that you’ll want to have is flea spray when you exit the home. You may want flea spray as a regular item in all of your animal control trucks. Maybe two or three cans. You’ll be glad that you did.

Don’t forget the Duct Tape for taping the wrists and ankles of your overalls. And keep garbage bags available so that you have a way to dispose of your disposable garments when you are finished.

Each incident that you become involved with will aid you in deciding what items need to be added to your hazmat kit. The key to your kit is to keep you safe.

Use of Force

One of the worst things for the public to see is the use of a catchpole on a dog that has never been on a leash. Even the most experienced Animal Control Officer will receive criticism on a perfect capture.

One of the animal trainers from another humane society complained to me about the excessive force used by one of our Animal Attendants. As things usually go, the complaint found its way to our Executive Committee. Fortunately for us, we had cameras throughout the facility that allowed us to show the incident for all to critic.

This incident showed that the animal trainer was looking for an excuse to criticize our organization. Although the criticism was unfounded, we still had to ask ourselves if it is necessary for that particular animal to be walked on a catchpole, rather than a leash.

The decision to use a catchpole is dependant on the person’s experience and training, as well as the potential behavior of the animal. Although I hate seeing animals on catchpoles, I know that animals can be unpredictable and the safety of my staff comes first.

When you decide to use a catchpole, you should always be alert to the amount of pressure of the noose. Nothing will freak out an animal more than being choked. The noose should be only sufficiently tight enough to prevent the animal’s escape. If an animal begins fighting at the other end of your catchpole, you should not fight the animals, but rather use the animal’s movements to herd the animal to your truck. Once at your truck, position the animal muzzle away from you so that with your free hand you can lift the animal up into your truck. At this point, the catchpole is to be used to safely position the dog to prevent you from being bitten.

It is generally never a good idea to attempt to use a catchpole on a cat; however, sometimes you might be faced without the proper equipment. Always try to place the noose around the neck and one leg. Attempt to keep the cat on the ground until you can scoot a carrier or place a net to further secure the cat.

We live in a world of cell phones. If you think that your capture is going to look bad, call for additional help. Having additional assistance will aid you in a humane capture. After each capture, critic yourself. Each capture will help you decide if you are properly equipped to handle your next capture.

Reoccurring Theme with Dog Bite Incidents

A recent incident of dogs attacking and killing a New Jersey child causes me dismay as the dogs’ owner failed to heed previous warnings about the danger his dogs presented to the community.  These cases continue to arise because pet owners are not held accountable for their dog’s actions and as such are not properly charged with reckless endangerment or homicide.  Prosecutors need to understand that simply having the animals euthanized is insufficient justice.  The animals had to pay the price for bad owners; now the owners need to feel the hand of justice for the terror they unleash upon their community.

Who Do You Serve?

One of the greatest challenges that you’ll face is the constant question as to who do you serve?  Many people getting into the animal welfare profession will tell you that they are “here for the animals.”  That is a noble cause, but are animals all that you serve?

When you start your job, you are going to find competing demands as to who you serve.  You’ll have to have some loyalty to the bureaucrats who hired you, after all that in addition to the salary that they pay you, they control the purse stings for your organization.  You will find it critical to your cause to quickly respond to commission or council members.  Having friendly folks on your commission/council will be advantageous at  budget time.  I had a County Manager in Florida who wanted to drastically cut our budget; fortunately we have several “friends” on the Commission who stopped him and in the end our budget was increased.

Do not forget that you have your community to serve.  Don’t worry, there will be plenty of them to remind you that they pay your salary.  No matter how demanding that they can become, they are your primary responsibility.  Every thing that we do much insure the safety of your community.

Your volunteers may expect that they become your primary focus.  In Virginia we had volunteers that wanted to “drive the boat.”  They wanted animals to supersede our mission to keep our community safe.  They were very vocal  in our community.  In previous posts, you will see that this was a problem for many shelters in Virginia.  Too many shelters gave in to the forces that wanted them to adopt potentially dangerous dogs.  Many of them later faced lawsuits for failing in their duties to protect the public.

Above all else, you have to serve yourself.  You have to protect your personal and professional integrity and that of your organization.  I got into a lot of hot water with my Board because they didn’t like condescension caused by volunteers not getting their way.  Sometimes even your Board of Directors forget who they are supposed to serve.  You must be willing to risk your job in order to keep your community safe.

The most important factor in your career is to constantly maintain the balance to those who you serve.  “Be true to thy own self.”

What is in a Name?

As a result of the Movement to Defund the Police, Police Departments are facing the same issue that Animal Control organizations have faced for years.  For some reason,  Community leaders think that an organization’s name is everything.  Animal Control Officers have faced the gambit of Pound, to Animal Control, to Animal Services, to Animal Care and Protective Services.  The fact is that changing a name does little.  If you want to see more community support, you need to fund the organization sufficiently to allow it to do their job.

Police Departments are undergoing name changes to Department of Public Services.  To me, a “public service” includes trash pickup.  The purpose of Defunding the Police movement is to stop officers from arresting people.  The fewer people arrested of minor crimes will reduce the number of minorities going to jail.  If a community is serious about wanting every community to be treated the same, then the solution is to fund racial sensitivity training to encourage our officers to see into the mind of the minorities that they come in contact with.  I am not talking about the idiotic training that claims that there is something wrong with people born white.  Racial equality is not reached by suppressing whites.  Racial equality is to show the community that everyone is treated the same.  It should  also show that when arrested, that people should act the same.  If you act like a butthead when you are arrested, you should not expect the same treatment as someone how respects the officer arresting you.

Changing the name of an organization will do nothing.   It takes the proper funding and attention to an organization to facilitate change.  It should not restrict an officer from applying the sufficient force to keep from getting hurt, or doing their jobs.  The best thing that a community can give to their employees is to provide them the necessary training to do their jobs correctly.  Unfortunately, during budget cuts, employee training is the first to go.

Porch Safety

As an Animal Control Officer, the household porch can be one of the most dangerous places that we face.  You must arm yourself in preparation to protect yourself.

If you are approaching a porch and there is a dog on the porch, using an ultrasonic device will aid your in determining the dog’s behavior as you approach.  I most cases, the dog will move away from the front door and allow you to approach.  You need to keep in mind that an ultrasonic device is your least effective tool to keep you safe.

A metal clipboard is the best defense in protecting yourself if you are attacked.  You might be attacked by a dog at the door when you approach or when the dog owner opens the door and the dog escapes through the open door.  It is important to use the clipboard as a shield and offer the board to the dog as it attempts to bite you.

It is not uncommon that you might be attacked by more than one dog.  Pepper spray is your best approach in dealing with multiple dogs or if you are finding your clipboard ineffective.  It is important to shake up your can of pepper spray once a week to make sure the pepper is evenly suspended in the container.  Pepper spray comes in various concentrations from .003% concentration to 20% concentration.  The 20% solution is sold to hikers to use on bears; but it appears to be a big hit with protesters; it produces a nice wide spray and comes in a larger container…. thus it will protect you longer.

If the dog pursues you to your vehicle and continues the attack, you should have a CO2 fire extinguisher available to  keep the dog at bay until you can call for backup or until you can reach for your catch-pole.

As with the clipboard, the catch-pole is an effective shield to keep the dog at bay, but it is an ineffective tool if do don’t open the noose.  If you cannot get the open noose over the dog’s head, you might consider letting the dog bite the noose and chinch the noose closed on the dog’s muzzle.  You can then  feed a second catch-pole noose over the first catch-pole and work the noose down the catch-pole and over the dog’s head.

Using a catch-pole usually causes a scene and in today’s society, capturing the dog will likely be videotaped and put on social media.  You have the way your capture method decision against being injured by the dog.

In Search of the Illusive Responsible Pet Owner

One of the lamest campaigns that I ever conducted was “ACOs looking for RPOs.”  I grew weary of being in a profession in which I patrolled the streets for law breakers.  I decided to turn things around and began a short-lived campaign to look for responsible pet owners.

My first mistake was putting signage on my vehicle:  you cannot expect people to understand an acronym unless it is known to them.  Most people quickly figured out what an ACO is, but I had them scratching their heads with RPO.  As is human nature, they took the acronym to a bad place.

My second mistake was actually thinking that I could easily find RPOs.  Maybe my criteria was too steep.  I wanted to do it big, so I had our Mayor to sign a bunch of declarations and had toys, treats, and bags of dog food.  I hit the road looking for people walking their currently licensed dog on leash.

The leash part was easy, anytime a dog owner saw the animal control truck driving towards them, they instinctually put the leash on their dog.  The dog license was another matter.  People did not appear geared to  license their dogs.  Years later, I found myself writing animal control ordinances that required a dog to be microchipped after having been impounded on numerous occasions to be found without identification.

Most communities have laws that require that a dog (and sometimes cats)  to not be released from the shelter without a current license.  For shelters that have a veterinarian on staff to  give rabies vaccinations, this is an easy task.  For shelters without veterinarians, the task isn’t so easy to fulfill.

I had an incident in which the dog owner was so obsentant, after multiple times of failing to take his dog to his veterinarian for a rabies vaccination that I required that he make his veterinarian make a house call at the animal shelter to vaccinate the dog prior to reclaiming his dog; otherwise, he would never had complied.

In the end, my month of searching for an RPO resulted in me finding one person walking their dog on leash with the dog wearing a current dog license.  The dog license seems like such a small thing until an animal control officer drives up to a scene of an injured dog that was hit by a car.  The animal control officer has to decide if the  life of the dog can be saved.  Due to budget limitations, most animal control departments do not have the funds to treat every critically injured animals without any known indication of ownership.  When the dog is wearing current identification, the animal control officer is relieved of that decision.  The dog will be transported to an emergency veterinary clinic and kept stable until the owner can be contacted.  The license can be the difference between life and death for their animal, and yet it is only found on five percent of the lost dogs entering animal shelters.

Maintaining Shelter Standards

When I began in the animal welfare profession euthanasia rates were over 90 percent.  35 years later, we are experiencing placement rates at 90 percent.  We have come a long way and there are plenty of people wanting to claim credit for our success.  Many animal shelters have euthanasia rates under 5 percent.

Ten years ago, Delaware created a law that prohibited a shelter from having any empty kennels; I was opposed to Delaware’s law, it created a crisis every time that an Animal Control Officer brought in a stray animal, because there were no empty cages.  Experience teaches every shelter manager to know the number of cages that must be empty to accommodate intakes.  In addition to the number of animals that are delivered by officers, the public is at your front door delivering animals.  No one is going to ask a person to hold on to the animal until someone can go back and “make space.”

Colorado decided to go further, animal shelters cannot euthanize, even if they lack cage space.  Since no  kill has become a moot issue in our shelters as the reach or exceed 90 percent placement rates, politicians are eager to move shelters to the next evolution of animal sheltering:  for the shelter to become a “socially conscious shelter.”   A shelter that does not concern itself with the practical side of animal sheltering but look only to the needs of the animals.  On the surface, this sounds like a great idea.  A socially conscious shelter doesn’t have to worry about cage space.  Whether or not there is cage space, you find a spot for the animal.  And then, try to provide care.

The concept of “just one more animal,” is the premise that starts every animal hoarding situation.  I had to oversee a seizure of 700 cats in which the organization started with just a few and just kept accept “just one more” cat.

The politicians like to get their faces in the media showing their support for saving the animals.  When they are done, they leave one more unfunded mandate and leave the local jurisdictions responsible for administering the mess that they have created. Every community is difference; they allocate different budgets and enjoy different mores.  Due to the uniqueness of communities, they should be allowed to enact their own laws.

What role will the State of Colorado have when they have to deal with shutting down rural animal shelters for either failing to comply with the new law or that they have become hoarders and have insufficient funds and staffing to care for the newfound burden placed on them by the State.

Animal Shelters have a responsibility to care for the animals that come to them.  Forcing them to start hoarding animals is going to diminish the general care that they can provide.  Under the right circumstances, this new law will have unintended inhumane consequences as animal shelters are force to hold  animals beyond their capacity of space and staffing.