When animals are in danger, San Diego Humane Society Humane Law Enforcement officers are on the case
Written by Jennifer Chung Klam
When more than 180 dogs were rescued as part of an extreme hoarding case early this year, San Diego Humane Society Humane Law Enforcement officers were at the scene. They helped remove the Yorkshire terrier mixes from deplorable conditions in a couple’s home in Poway and other locations. The dogs had been kept in dark, filthy rooms, and many suffered from skin issues, ear infections, hair loss and dental disease. But the story has a happy ending. The dogs were taken to San Diego Humane Society for medical examinations and treatment needed to get them ready to be adopted into new homes.
SDHS is also at the ready when national emergencies occur. Before Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, SDHS made plans to send two emergency rescue groups to the Houston area to lend a hand to the thousands of pets affected by the rising floodwaters. One of them, the four-member Technical Rescue Team made up of Humane Law Enforcement and Animal Rescue Reserve personnel, is trained and certified for disasters and emergency situations; in this instance, the members are trained to operate in swift-water and flood conditions. They joined a Texas-based emergency response task force. The other, a Special Response Team, helped their counterparts from Houston SPCA shelter care for rescued pets.
While unfortunate situations like these may grab headlines, humane officers are in the field every single day, protecting animals and educating owners about proper care for their pets.
One of the most common situations humane officers face is when a pet has been abandoned. Four years ago, humane officer Melanie Hutchinson responded to a call that a dog had been tied up outside for several days and seemingly abandoned. After some coaxing with treats, Hutchinson leashed the dog, scanned for a microchip and took her to San Diego Humane Society’s Oceanside Campus for treatment. After 14 days had passed and no one claimed her, the skinny but happy-looking dog was posted on the SDHS website as available for adoption. She was quickly adopted into a loving home and named Gracie.
For Hutchinson, who has worked in animal welfare for 11 years, the best part of her job is seeing what she calls the “before and after”—happy outcomes from bad situations.
Answering the Call
Hutchinson is one of 22 Humane Law Enforcement officers working out of SDHS’s three campuses in San Diego, Escondido and Oceanside. Six cities—Escondido, Imperial Beach, Oceanside, Poway, San Marcos and Vista—contract their animal services with San Diego Humane Society.
Countywide, the team investigates cases of animal cruelty and neglect, which can lead to criminal charges. Humane officers in California have law enforcement powers for any crimes involving animals. They can issue citations, serve search warrants, confiscate animals and property, and make arrests, often in conjunction with local law enforcement agencies.
Officers also respond to individual and large-scale emergency situations, from a dog trapped in a canyon to animal evacuations during wildfires.
In 2016 humane officers responded to more than 12,200 calls, conducted about 8,500 investigations and issued nearly 1,300 citations. Seventeen cases went to prosecution. Other field services included handling 663 bite quarantines and 714 inspections of pet shops, rodeos, circuses and animal foster homes.
The First Step: Education
According to Humane Law Enforcement Chief Stephen MacKinnon, the most common type of investigation his team handles is neglect, including animal hoarding.
Even an extreme hoarding situation such as the one involving the Yorkies is an example of severe neglect. Typically, MacKinnon says, the owners might be suffering from mental illness, and HLE will bring in health and human services providers to help those individuals.
“So while we’re focusing on the animals, we have the city and other social agencies working to help out the pet owners,” he says. “Unfortunately, while those are very extreme situations, we have too many of them. We average one major hoarding event each month. Some exceed 100 or so animals, but they typically average about 20 to 30 animals in an enclosed area.”
More often, though, neglect cases involve owners leaving animals in the heat without shade or water, or failing to recognize that an animal needs medical attention. Unintentional instances of neglect can be remedied through education and training.
“A very large portion of the job is not to seek enforcement, but to seek compliance,” MacKinnon says. “We do an awful lot of education with individuals. We’ll go in and mandate that they take action to correct a situation: provide shelter for the animal, or mandate that they go to a vet. We’ll return in a couple days and they have to show proof they went to the vet. If they fail to do all these things then we can pursue criminal charges, but the first step is education. Our priority is to ensure that animals are safe and getting the care they need.”
Preparation Prevents Animals from Being Harmed or Lost
Proper education—and a little preparation—can help keep animals out of harm’s way. Too often, MacKinnon says, people forget to consider their pets’ needs. If you’re bringing Fido on a hike, remember that he needs extra water and food, too. And while dogs’ pads are fairly rugged, they can get burned. A good rule of thumb is, if you can’t keep your hand on the pavement for seven seconds, it’s too hot for your dog’s paws as well.
Fire season in San Diego County is summer through fall, and while inland residents are often prepared to evacuate their families, they may not have an evacuation plan in place for their animals.
“One thing we emphasize a lot, particularly for San Diego County because of the fire situation, is that you have to be prepared to evacuate your pets along with your family,” MacKinnon says. “You hear a lot about making sure your family is ready—that they have a backpack with clothes, medication, other things they need if you have to leave the house quickly. But doing the same for your pets is often forgotten.”
The chief recommends pet owners prepare “go bags” with extra food, toys, leashes, medication and other items that will make their animals more comfortable during the stress of an evacuation. When the American Red Cross sets up a shelter, SDHS usually sets up an animal shelter nearby, so pet owners can visit their animals. But most shelters for humans don’t allow animals, so MacKinnon says owners should have alternatives in place for where they might be able to take their pets, like a trusted friend or family member. Also, make arrangements with neighbors to evacuate your pets for you if you’re not home at the time of an emergency.
“But the main thing is preplanning, to be prepared for that potential,” he says.
The Humane Law Enforcement program may be expanding next year. As the county considers outsourcing animal control services, SDHS has expressed interest in the opportunity.
The county currently provides services to six cities—Encinitas, Carlsbad, Del Mar, San Diego, Santee and Solana Beach—and the contracts are set to expire in June 2018. The county board of supervisors has already notified the cities that they will need to provide their own animal services. If SDHS should be awarded the county and city contracts, it would greatly expand over the next year.
“We would have to ramp up additional services, personnel, facilities, vehicles, everything. That’s true of Humane Law Enforcement as well as all departments within San Diego Humane Society,” MacKinnon says. “We’re confident we can provide a high level of care and service for all the animals in the community as well.”
All humane officers go through training at SDHS Humane Academy, one of only two such programs in the state.
The academy’s basic program provides 80 hours of state-approved training in areas such as animal handling skills, basic investigation skills, report writing, interrogation techniques, search and seizure laws, and more. Veterinarians and other experts from the district attorney’s office, the police department and the county department of animal services present lectures on a wide variety of topics.
Participants include animal control officers, behavior trainers, military, law enforcement and others who have exposure to animal handling. A 40-hour advanced program takes them through a criminal case, from initial call to full-scale investigation to courtroom prosecution.
MacKinnon says that for humane officers, who have the powers of a police officer when it comes to animal-related crimes, the academy is just a small portion of their training. Officers receive additional training in self-defense tactics, advanced investigation techniques and peace officer training.
Beyond the training, MacKinnon says problem solving and strong communication skills are vital to becoming a humane officer.
“Because they work every single day interacting with the public, we’re not looking at enforcement as the first avenue, so we want them to be good problem solvers to make sure that we’re being the best possible voice for animals in our community.”