Animal Protection Services Need Community Engagement
Animal control and field service officers are usually first on the scene to address animal protection issues. This includes investigating animal cruelty, enforcing animal laws, dealing with public safety concerns, and more. Because of their role, these professionals may benefit from working more closely with the people who live in the communities they serve. However, the authors of this study point out that there is little research on community engagement from an animal protection standpoint.
To address this research gap, the authors explored how animal control officers define community engagement, as well as how they use it in their work and the challenges they face. They interviewed 29 U.S. officers who were active members of the National Animal Care & Control Association (NACA) at the time of the study. These officers had been working for an average of 13 years, with job tenures ranging from one to 40 years.
In general, respondents didn’t have a single definition of what “community engagement” means. However, there were three primary themes. First, some officers shared that it’s important to build relationships with local communities to create trust. Second, officers described themselves as community role models, responsible for educating people to prevent potential cases of animal cruelty or neglect. Third, participants described community engagement as a “two-way street,” meaning community members need to work with them to find solutions to animal protection issues. Respondents generally felt that when communities see them in a positive light, they’re more likely to assist in cases that need outside help.
Participants also described some of the most common ways they use community engagement in their daily work. These included the following:
Returning Lost Animals And Community Cat Management
According to respondents, the misconception that animal control officers are “dog catchers” can damage community relations. Some officers shared that when it comes to reuniting guardians with their animals, they try to consider each person’s unique situation rather than automatically placing an animal in a shelter or punishing the guardian. Having an established lost-and-found and requiring mandatory spay, neuter, and licensing guidelines were suggestions to prevent lost animal situations in the first place.
Similarly, respondents felt that creating programs for community cats such as TNR would help prevent unnecessary killings and build confidence within the community.
Wild Animal Management
People often misunderstand the role of animal control in their community. A common example given by respondents is when people criticize them for not handling dangerous or injured wild animals despite it not being their responsibility. Such miscommunication could be fixed by advertising the role of animal protection officers and working with other organizations to educate the public about wild animal relations.
Social Media And Events
Respondents felt that social media provides an accessible and affordable opportunity for officers to tell their stories and give updates about their programs and services. Furthermore, interacting with the community through events was seen as an important way to build relationships and educate the public. This includes participating in events hosted by other organizations as well as animal-specific events, such as free spay and neuter clinics or adoption fairs.
Animal Cruelty Cases
Investigating and responding to animal cruelty cases is a major part of what animal control officers do. To avoid damaging community relations in the process, respondents shared that they often try to approach each cruelty case differently depending on the context. For example, some respondents said they treat unintentional animal neglect differently from intentional animal cruelty and try to find ways of educating, rather than punishing, guardians who unknowingly neglect their animals’ needs.
Another theme in the interviews was that many community members lack the basic resources to provide essential animal care. Because of this, officers may try to offer assistance or support services such as food, dog houses, fencing, and vet care.
Community Engagement Challenges
Every community is different, and officers discussed the importance of considering the cultures, income discrepancies, religions, and various languages spoken in the regions they serve. Instead of creating a national community outreach plan with the same solutions, they generally felt that engagement should be tailored to the specific needs of the community.
Beyond these community-based differences, respondents generally faced similar challenges in their attempts to engage local communities. For example, some officers expressed frustration at laws that prevented them from being flexible on certain cases. For example, expensive fines for keeping “dangerous dogs” and claiming a lost animal can lead to animal surrenders in shelters that are already overflowing with animals. Such policies can also be discriminatory against people that have limited resources. Participants wanted regulations that would allow them to provide assistance in such cases rather than enforcing an uncompromising law.
Officers also said they often find themselves in situations where people are angry and confrontational. De-escalation techniques, active listening, and finding common ground are incredibly valuable skills in these cases. They called for better training to protect themselves (and improve community relations) in the field.
Finally, animal control officers often deal with the worst cases of animal neglect and cruelty, leading to burnout, PTSD, and other negative side effects. Many participants also felt overworked, underpaid, and under-appreciated. Providing officers with mental health support such as dedicated hotlines, therapy sessions, and other resources is vital to ensure they can continue doing their work while protecting their health.
Supporting Animal Control Officers And Their Communities
By working with their communities, animal control officers can establish a relationship of trust and transparency that can lead to more effective animal protection efforts. As this study suggests, though, officers approach community engagement in different ways. The authors say it’s important to collect and share data to ensure that animal control departments are truly addressing community needs and providing effective solutions.
Since many animal control officers felt that their communities’ needs were going unaddressed, animal advocates can make a difference by bridging the gap between animal control and other government agencies. For example, financial support and other resources are needed to launch public education programs, expand shelter space, and find other ways of improving animal lives. Similarly, advocates can be a valuable resource to push for policy changes that would benefit community members and their animals. Finally, in cases where animal control officers are suffering from a negative reputation, advocates can help them connect with their community members and identify solutions that will improve community relations and benefit people and animals.