Friday, September 15, 2006


But Mary, don't you think "Animal Control Officer" is a tad militant? I much favor "critter getter." Maybe, "County Critter Getter" if it has to have an official ring.

By leading off with a lot of funny and even touching stories about me as a sort of tousled, squishing, smudged female who can’t keep a crease, I’ve led some credulous and inexperienced folks into the recurring trap of trivializing the work of the animal control officer. Some jurisdictions have begun to refer to animal “regulation” or animal “support services,” since so many people seem to resent the idea of control, and some have even tried to speak of “animal wardens” as though their work were a kind of “park in the city” duty. But the role of the animal control officer is irreducibly to BE an officer, an officer of the court, that is, with law enforcement powers -- sometimes the power to arrest and sometimes with authorization to carry a weapon. That’s why they wear a uniform and a badge.

Certainly animal control officers are authorized to use deadly force against animals and maybe, in very extreme circumstances, humans. They are not “critter getters.” Impounding live animals, picking up dead animals, and intervening in violent circumstances involving animals are incidental to enforcing legal human behavior involving animals. If a human is troublesome enough, that person can be arrested and transported, though often the police will be called to do the job, since it requires special training, procedures (handcuffs in all cases), and a properly equipped vehicle (protection between back seat and driver, doors that don’t open from the inside). Where I live now, a village in Montana, animal laws are enforced by the ordinary deputy sheriffs. It’s only in high population settings, like cities, that it becomes a specialized job.

Some people don’t take court orders based on the decisions of a judge in an animal case very seriously, failing to show up or to do what the judge has ordered. In such a case, the judge issues a bench warrant for contempt of court and the citizen can be arrested, at least long enough to post bail. A warrant is not something you want to show up in a computer away from home on a Saturday night with the kids in the car when you’re stopped for something minor like a tail light out.

Some variation on the cute phrase, “Critter Getters,” is often used as a catchy business name for nuisance abatement companies who pursue rats or hornets. It would not be legal for them to impound dogs unless they immediately took them to the authorized governmental point of detention (pound) so that the owners would be able to find them. The idea is to find the owners. If no owner can be found, then the dog can be put up for adoption. If no one wants to adopt it, the dog might be euthanized. Not all dogs are owned, not all dogs are wanted, not all dogs are good pets.

Enforcing animal-related law is not different than enforcing any other kind of law, like theft or abuse. It has three “layers.” The first is consensus on what the law ought to be, which is written down somewhere, whether county or city ordinances, state law, interstate law, or treaty international law. Ideally, this is developed by the citizens themselves deciding what their own constituency/community sees as boundaries -- not necessarily what ideal behavior might be (defining that is the work of the humane society) but what is simply intolerable.

Second, the court (with or without the help of a jury) must decide when questions about whether the incident in question is actually an infraction and, if so, what the penalty ought to be. Third, the officer is the person who, in Burgwin’s phrase, "takes names and writes reports." That’s the part of the exercise that really counts, NOT the impoundment of the animal, which is only to keep property safe and to keep others safe from the property which confusingly has a mind of its own when it’s an animal.

An officer has considerable leeway in the field, just like any policeman. He or she could pretend not to see anything; give a verbal warning, with or without a record; write a ticket worth fines and even jail time; or call for unquestioned backup from regular law enforcement. In some places an officer can, on the spot, kill dogs harassing livestock or kill livestock for purposes of euthanasia or to protect humans. An officer who did things that were unjustified or crooked would risk being fired.

A high priority is always the protection of the safety of the property in custody (animals). In some cases an officer must guarantee a chain of custody in the same way as weapons or drugs that are involved in an arrest. For instance, an officer might be asked to testify that a vicious pit bull caught in the act of fighting for gambling is indeed the one in custody, though very often by the time the case comes to court the dog has grown fat and mellow in the shelter. In short, an animal control officer is a policeman PLUS the extra duties contingent on involving animals.

Annie Dillard once remarked that we are constantly building altars to itty-bitty gods. We don’t seem to be able to get hold of sweep, dimension, universality, transcendence. Instead we tread in our familiar little circles, taking everything for granted, trying to replicate yesterday when we plan tomorrow. We are no less this way when we try to understand our society, our culture, our way of relating to non-human but nevertheless living beings.

Last night I watched the second season of “Cracker,” the intense and challenging British murder mystery in which the “Cracker” of the title is a psychologist who can “see into” what people are thinking. This particular episode, called “To Be Somebody,” is about a trivial man who demands honor, so he begins to kill people. (This has become so common as to be banal, though never less than tragic.) One of the investigating policemen interviews him but because he has a cat with a set of kittens he has not had the heart to drown, the detective thinks he couldn’t possibly be a bad man or a killer. If he couldn’t even kill a little kitten, how could he kill another human being? Cracker is disgusted. “Everytime I hear this kind of stuff, I recognize it for what it is,” he spits contemptuously. “Pure sentimentality.” But the media reinforces it over and over, except in some counter-conventional context like “Cracker.”

It is similar sentimentality to define an “animal control officer” as “militant” -- that is, (dictionary definitions) 1. "actively engaged in war, fighting,” or 2. “aggressive or combative, esp. in support of a cause.” -- simply because his or her charge is to keep order, and because that charge includes removing animals from the street. It is the humane movement extremist who more commonly becomes “aggressive or combative in support of a cause.” Animal owners themselves become aggressive and combative in order to avoid punishment, then romanticize their behavior into some kind of defense of innocent animals. OF COURSE the animals are innocent, but the animals are not charged with breaking the law. They are confined so the owners can know where they are, not to punish them. If they had been properly confined at home, there would be no need to fine the owners. People constantly try to displace their own shortcomings onto their pets. (“The dog got out.” “The dog lost its license.” The dog ate my homework.”) It’s as though they think the dog will take out a wallet and pay the fine for the owner’s negligence.

So -- sorry. Comment overruled.

1 comment:

Credulous and Inexperienced said...

OK--Duly noted!