Monday, April 26, 2010

DOG-CATCHING IN AMERICA: A Review by Stephen Aronson

A while back I reviewed Stephen Aronson’s fine and necessary book, “Animal Control Management.” I didn’t realize that he had in turn reviewed MY book. Here’s the review.

"DOG CATCHING IN AMERICA" By Mary Strachan Scriver
Reviewed by Stephen Aronson

This is a memoir of sorts of the author’s experience as an animal control officer for Multnomah County, Oregon during the period of the 1970s plus some observations of this field in recent years. It was a time when the term “dog catcher” was still in use and those engaged in animal control work were often looked on with derision and sometimes viewed as the problem itself, rather than rightfully attributing the problem to the animal owner and his/her animal. Formal training for animal control officers in the field in Multnomah County, Oregon at the time was limited and can more aptly be described as a short apprenticeship to someone with a little more experience. Scriver was the first female officer hired by that County. She quickly discovered that when she responded to a call she was expected to solve problems on her own using common sense and her own wits, at least most of the time. Backup from police or the sheriff often resulted in other officers responding to the scene who were more than happy to let the dog catcher handle the most unpleasant aspects of the situation.

Scriver worked for Mike Burgwin who later became a founder of the National Animal Control Association and who was one of the more progressive animal control directors at that time. She readily gives him credit for his contributions to animal control work.

A student of human and animal psychology, the author offers her unvarnished opinions of a wide range of situations she encountered in working with animals and people. While animals may cause problems, whether it is unwanted noise or a danger to public safety, Scriver looks to the animal owner as the one who has failed to exercise the necessary responsibility for the animal whether it is a domestic pet or some member of an exotic animal species. She is right and while the animal is not necessarily an innocent victim, owner attitudes were and continue to be problematic.

Her experiences are reported in a clear and honest voice in an earthy way. This book is about the good, bad and the ugly side of animal control field work. It is not for those who will get upset with the blood and guts of her stories or the cruelty and neglect inflicted upon animals by humans or how people responsible for the care of their animals neglected and abandoned them at will. The episodes reported in this book could just as well have taken place today rather than more than 30 years ago. It would be nice to believe that both animal control and people have progressed along a more humane path in how animals are treated in our society. Animal control programs have made much progress in that direction, but it seems we still have more that needs to be done. Some animal owners still have a long way to go to be considered responsible pet owners. That in itself is disturbing.

At times Scriver waxes philosophical about humans and animals, but she is also outspoken and opinionated. She writes: “Few people spend much time examining their treatment of animals, though most are good at prescribing what others should do”. She states that “Animal abuse is a good indication of human abuse” and she offers enough proof for that statement through numerous incidents that she encountered in her work that are described in this book. At times she wisely acted as a counselor when needed, offering advice to those who needed it. She is at different times witty and compassionate, but also determined and tough when necessary.

Another Scriverism is “Kindness that is not informed is no kindness at all”. She was referring in this instance to a hamster giving birth but the mother feared that humans who were watching her were predators and thus she killed her babies. She also shares practical advice with the reader that she learned though her own experiences. In one humorous example, she encountered a man who defied authority and let one of his several dogs run at large. Scriver, instead of chasing down the dog, simply sat down on the curb and ate some cookies. Soon the dog was slobbering over her shoulder and she was able to take the dog in custody because it was on public property. The animal owners pleaded “entrapment” in court, but it was all legal.

Animal control is defined by the author as a mechanism for responding to emergencies involving animals that are in danger or endangering others along with a host of other problems common to neighborhoods such as barking dogs and unsanitary conditions. The author views animal control agencies as governmental, trying to keep order in communities through law enforcement for the most part. She sees humane societies as dependent upon the culture through the media, because in her view humane societies are composed of volunteers and have no legal authority to act. Today, this is not always the case. She also draws a number of other distinctions between animal control agencies and humane societies. Our democratic political system imposes some restraints on the powers of animal control officers and at the same time allows complaining parties to game the system for their own self-interest. Scriver finds this frustrating and so do I.

The author’s commentaries on books, articles and stories written by others, were a distraction to me. Her own stories and experiences are interesting enough to want to read her book.

Those who currently work as animal control officers or at one time had those responsibilities will be able to relate to what she has to say. Few books have been written about the experiences of animal control officers, so this book makes a contribution to animal control literature, because the author through her writing, shares with the reader her experiences, frustrations and her accomplishments in ways we can relate.

Stephen Aronson

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