San Diego Humane Society Protecting Animals and Educating the Community
Guest Blog by Theresa Donnelly and Monica Lanctot
Last month, we had the honor of accompanying two humane investigators from the Humane Law Enforcement division of San Diego Humane Society. We spent a day on patrol, driving through numerous neighborhoods following up on complaints from the community regarding humane animal care. The experience left us in awe of the bravery and compassion extolled by these fine servants to our community.
Before we share some of the highlights and observations that touched and surprised us throughout the day, we want to briefly touch upon why we volunteered to accompany them in the first place. We are both district leaders with a non-profit known as the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).
The Humane Society of the United States and affiliates provide hands-on care and services to more than 100,000 animals each year, and professionalize the field through education and training for local organizations. They work to drive transformational change in the U.S. and around the world by combating large-scale cruelties such as puppy mills, animal fighting, factory farming, seal slaughter, horse cruelty, captive hunts and the wildlife trade.
The mission of HSUS’s district leader program is to advance HSUS’s state and federal legislative priorities by recruiting, training and supporting a district leader for each one of the 435 congressional districts in the country. A principal way a district leader can be even be more effective is by becoming involved with local animal protection issues. We seek positive change for animals through meaningful policy change, which may help officers better enforce existing laws, or—when needed—we cooperate with district leaders across the country to strengthen or add new reforms at both a national and state level.
San Diego is one of the few cities in the nation that has a designated investigative unit for humane law enforcement; most cities rely mainly on Animal Control organizations alone to respond to domestic animal and wildlife issues. San Diego’s Humane Law Enforcement group responds to nearly 2,000 reports of animal cruelty annually, and they are also the lead organization for numerous natural disasters, including wildfires and earthquakes. Specially trained officers and more than 60 volunteers are on permanent standby should animals need rescue, working side-by-side with fire departments, the police, paramedics and other first responders. Because they are sworn officers of the law and have access to the same on-going training curriculum as all other law enforcement officers in California, they are able to develop disaster response skills that have brought them to myriad emergencies across the country, including assisting response teams during Hurricane Katrina.
We started the day by attending the morning “line up.” This is an important early morning meeting where open cases are discussed and Humane Officers—many of whom started as volunteers—plan their daily case actions, provide status updates on pending cases and review citizen complaints that need following-up on. When complaints are filed, they are provided with a priority level based on the perceived threat to an animal. High level complaints receive a Priority One and are considered “drop and go,” meaning threat is imminent, while Priority Five complaints require a response within 24 hours. When heading out for the day, usually two to three officers are assigned an area of San Diego that expands multiple miles. We were each given the opportunity to accompany two officers, at least one of whom is always outfitted with a body camera, to different areas of San Diego.
Overall, the cases were extremely varied. We saw dogs outside covered in sores and emaciated, but we also saw families providing veterinarian records proving they had provided pet care for their animals as requested during a previous visit from the Humane Officers. If officers were able to get a visual on pets and determine that animals looked injury-free and were provided with the basics as dictated by current law—food, water, shelter and a clean, healthy environment that includes a certain amount of space—that complaint could be closed. When residents were not home, officers left notices requesting the pet owner to make contact as soon as possible. This action will then open a case that may require several follow-up visits and verification that the complaint filed is valid and the owner is making the necessary changes to provide a safe environment for his/her pet.
Officer Teresa Harju, who has worked in investigations for more than seven years, reflected on some of the changes she’s seen over the years in regards to the public’s relationship with their pets.
“I see a higher consciousness as far as animals are concerned as people have a more idealistic picture of animal ownership in their head, but there is still a broad degree of animal ownership and overall how people feel about animals,” she said. “There are still the herding and guard dogs that don’t sleep in the bed and strictly do a job. And then on the other hand, you have baby Fluffy left in the will.”
Humane Officers enforce California’s animal laws by ensuring basic needs such as food, water, shelter, grooming and veterinarian care, as previously mentioned. Because of the public’s differing concept on how animal’s needs are best met, it falls on the staff at San Diego Humane Society after a complaint is filed to visit the residence and make the determination on whether or not the pet owner is complying with the law, as well as to educate the public on current laws affecting companion animals.
Some laws are more well-known than others. For example, the state of California stipulates that an animal cannot be tied to a stationary object for more than three hours unless the animal is on a trolley system. For more information on all animal laws pertaining to California, click here.
Besides being educated on the laws affecting companion animals, Harju advised that pet owners exhaustively research privately-run rescues to determine if they are, in fact, humane organizations. Rescues are not regulated by the state and often have little to no oversight.
“It’s easy to take a nice, healthy dog off of the internet for free then get it vaccinated and microchipped then turn around and sell it for $300,” said Harju. Harju said that by visiting the rescue, researching their non-profit status on the IRS website, and checking online reviews, the public can gain a better understanding of the organization and if they are a safe place to adopt their new family member. Additionally, Humane Officers can provide low-income families with information on available resources that may help them keep their pets if they are struggling financially.
Getting the opportunity to ride with the officers gave us a first-hand look into the challenges they face and the ways in which they educate citizens on humane animal care. And getting to learn about the scope of San Diego Humane Society’s responsibilities deepened the respect that we already had for this group’s amazing work.
Theresa Donnelly is an active duty naval officer who in her off duty time volunteers as a district leader for the Humane Society of the United States, helping with animal protection policy issues on a national and state-wide level. She recently adopted a rescue Boxer and lives downtown.
Monica Lanctot represents California’s Congressional District 53 as a volunteer in The Humane Society of the United States’ (HSUS) District Leader political advocacy program. She also assists with wildlife care at The Fund for Animals Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, an HSUS affiliate. In addition to her work in animal welfare, Lanctot serves on the Board of her local community association and earns her livelihood providing marketing services to companies in the high tech industry. She lives in San Diego with her husband and their furry family, two cats and a dog, all rescues.