I am in awe of the work done by the Animal Services Officers (ASOs) at the shelter where I volunteer. Most of the time working solo, they drive the distinctive white trucks equipped with animal compartments around our city, capturing strays, impounding abused animals, dealing with irate owners, investigating complaints or allegations of cruelty, rescuing injured dogs and cats. They testify in court, and go into communities and schools to educate adults and children about humane animal care.
I recently had the chance to sit down with ASO Bernadette M. (she asked that her full name not be published “because at any given time there are a lot of people mad at me”) to ask her about her challenging job. The Animal Services Office where we met was, as usual, empty because the four or five officers were out on calls; only the dispatcher in the phone room was another human presence, her voice faintly audible, punctuated by the squawk of radio messages from ASOs in the field. There were, however, a few animal presences: a cat clearly serious about her job of reducing the shelter’s significant mouse population, a lazy Chihuahua lounging on another officer’s chair. In one corner of the room were some of the tools of the ASOs’ difficult trade: catchpoles, large nets, a square mesh two-sided squeeze frame to capture and immobilize smaller, aggressive animals.
Wearing her black uniform shirt with “Animal Services” printed on the back, rugged khaki pants and stout boots, Bernadette radiated both strength and warmth. The topic of our conversation started out to be winter and holiday tips for pet safety, and she had some good ones:
“If you’re cold, they’re cold. Fur is not sufficient protection when temperatures get around freezing or below. If your dog has to spend any time outside, provide a dog house with four walls, a roof and a floor. Put a layer of straw or cedar chips down for insulation, and a blanket over that. Check on the blanket frequently and replace it if it gets wet or soiled.
“If you have feral cats around your house, you can create a shelter for them with a plastic bin with the lid on, inverted so the lid becomes the floor. Cut a small hole for a door.
“If the temperature is freezing or below, bring your animals inside. Period.
“It’s cruel, and illegal [in our city; sadly, not everywhere] to tether an animal between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. If you do tie up your dog at other times, be sure he or she has access to fresh, unfrozen, clean water, shelter from the elements, and sufficient room for potty needs.
“Are you considering giving a pet as a holiday gift? Be sure the recipient wants one. Better still, give a gift certificate for the adoption fee and let the recipient pick out their own pet, one they feel a real connection with. You might offer to accompany the person to the shelter to help him or her choose the new furry family member.”
“If you’re bringing a new pet into the household around holiday time – or anytime – the most important thing is to Be Patient! The animal may have come from the stressful environment of the shelter into another stressful environment – your unfamiliar home, especially with all the chaos and excitement of the holidays. Teach kids how to interact safely and considerately with the new pet. Give the pet a place to retreat to, and instruct the kids to leave the dog or cat alone there.
“Be vigilant—a confused new pet may try to bolt whenever the front door opens, or to escape through a fence in the yard. Always leash the dog before opening the door. Pay attention, so that kids or guests don’t accidentally let the animal out.
“Establish a routine of feeding, walking, pottying. Start small, and don’t expect perfect behavior at first. Give the new pet time, and soon, with love, consistent and patient training, and a regular schedule, he or she will settle in and be the great companion you dreamed of having.”
I asked her about the most challenging part of her job. “Educating the public,” she said. “A lot of people think they’re already educated about animals, but really they’re working with old assumptions that may have been passed down through the generations, such as that dogs and cats belong outside all the time. Or that spaying and neutering is cruel to an animal, a violation of the dog or cat’s basic nature. I have so many people say they don’t want to spay or neuter their pet because it’ll make them get fat or unhealthy. It’s my job to point out to them that, far from being unhealthy, altering can prevent certain cancers and can keep the animal safer by reducing aggression or the need to roam.
“Or, people may have prejudices against certain breeds – pit bull type dogs, to name a common victim of misinformation.
“Another tough situation,” she said, “is when people call from outside our jurisdiction with great needs that it hurts not to be able to help them with. But we can’t. We have to hope that the animal welfare organizations in their area will be able to respond.
“A major frustration is the mindset — which is unfortunately pretty common — that a dog is a home security or alarm system, not a sentient being with emotional needs and the right to a humane and comfortable life.” The consequence of this attitude is something we see all too often at our shelter: dogs tied out in the yard all the time may be so neglected that the chains or ropes used to tether them have grown into their necks, requiring surgical removal. Or they are emaciated, or they have heartworm, or their skin is raw from infection. Bernadette’s job, when witnessing such cases, is to give the owners a warning and try to persuade them to care better for their animals. She then follows up after a period of time. If conditions have not improved, she impounds the animal and issues a court summons. My eyes flicked over to the protective vest hanging on a chair at another officer’s workstation, mute testimony to the dangers of the work.
As for her favorite part of the job, “I get great satisfaction,” Bernadette said, “out of being a voice for the voiceless. Helping to see that justice is done. And I love interacting with the animals.”
“Do you follow up on the animals you bring in, when they’re in the shelter?” I asked her.
“Sometimes,” she said, “but most of the time I’m too busy with new cases. A benefit of having worked in other areas of the shelter is that I can trust that, once an animal is here, he or she will be safe and cared for, and I can move on to the next one who needs me. “ When I first met Bernadette about a year ago, during my dog-walking shifts, she was a caregiver in one of the dog wards, and her love of the animals and concern for individuals who were fearful or needed extra attention always impressed me. Then she became one of the behavioral evaluators who administer a systematic series of tests to newly-admitted dogs to be sure they are safe to release for adoption. After that she went to Dispatch, fielding calls and sending out Animal Services Officers to address crisis situations or complaints. And finally, she became an ASO herself.
“So I know the whole process, start to finish.” Finish, ideally, being a happy adoption, but sometimes, also, the sad reality of euthanasia. “I’m a certified euthanasia technician,” Bernadette said. “When I have to do it, I try to hold the animals and love on them. I tell them I’m sorry that people have failed them. Because most of the time that’s the plain truth.”
I took a deep breath and looked down at my notepad, fighting sudden tears.
We moved on to a happier subject: her work in schools, educating kids so that the next generation will, hopefully, treat companion animals better than their elders may have, and teaching children about how to safely interact with animals. “I tell them not to make prolonged direct eye contact, which dogs can see as a threat. I illustrate it by going right up to them and staring into their face, and asking them how it makes them feel. They laugh. They get the point.
“I teach them to always ask before patting a strange dog. And if they should happen to feel fearful in a situation with a dog, to look up, breaking eye contact, cross their arms and back slowly away, never run.
“I love taking one of our dogs with me into the schools. The kids are fascinated. It gives me a lot of hope to see their curiosity, their gentleness and innocent affection.”
We hugged goodbye and I thanked her for her time and for the courageous, wholehearted work she’s doing. Our mid-sized city is filled with animals, many well-cared-for in loving homes, but many kept in conditions that sicken the heart and confound the mind. Bernadette goes out, day after day, often risking her safety to alleviate suffering, one dog or cat at a time. I was reminded of the fable of the child and the starfish:
A stroller on a beach after a storm saw hundreds of starfish washed up on the sand, left behind as a freakishly high tide receded. A barefoot child was running back and forth between the beach and the waves, picking up the creatures and putting them back into the sea.
The adult said, “But there are so many! How can you possibly hope to make a difference?”
The child picked up another, took it to the water’s edge and released it, then came back to the grownup and said, “It made a difference to that one.”