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Both Sides Now

After more than two decades in the trenches at Alachua County Animal Services in Gainesville, Florida, John Snyder "crossed over" to work for The Humane Society of the United States. But he's not on the "dark side"—he's on everybody's side, doing what he can to help both public and private agencies get the respect and resources they need from their communities.

After more than two decades in the trenches at Alachua County Animal Services in Gainesville, Florida, John Snyder "crossed over" to work for The Humane Society of the United States. But he's not on the "dark side"—he's on everybody's side, doing what he can to help both public and private agencies get the respect and resources they need from their communities.

Well, I have just completed five years. Half a decade with The Humane Society of the United States—it’s hard to believe.

I retired from government animal control in 1998 after 24 years of enforcing laws. When I left, I think that I’d heard the threatening phrase “I pay your salary” at least 1,000 times. I’d spent 24 years explaining to numerous elected officials what animal control does ... dealing with labor unions ... listening to ordinance violators who did not want to pay the reclaim fee tell me, “You would rather kill them” ... having my life threatened ... having my facility broken into more than 60 times ... and all the while trying to maintain a cooperative and harmonious relationship with my local humane society, which did not face much of this type of abuse.

When I made the decision to accept a job with The HSUS, some of my friends in animal control thought I was off my rocker. Even though The HSUS is a national organization that works on hundreds of animal issues and provides all kinds of support for local animal care and control agencies, the very term “humane society” seems to bring out anger in some animal control folks.

I can understand that. I bristled on occasion when the humane society came calling. My frustration was usually based on cavalier comments by new humane society staff or board members who did not mean to be hurtful—but often were anyway out of sheer ignorance. Casually implying we did not care as much as they did, for example, or suggesting ways of improving animal control—ways that we’d usually already thought of, discussed, and either rejected for good reason or implemented years earlier. The local humane society received less than 1,000 animals a year—my agency received as many as 15,000. The solutions that worked for them didn’t usually apply to us, and yet we were often the target of condescension from newbies of the field. So when I came to work here, I kind of understood why some of my peers in animal control commented, John has gone to La-La Land.

As the only employee of the Companion Animals staff who spent my entire career in animal control, from time to time I do feel like I am from a foreign land. I don’t always speak the same language my colleagues do. But I have learned a lot from them, and hopefully they a little from me. Animal control and humane societies were created for different reasons. Governments support animal control first and foremost to protect public health and safety. Humane societies exist to protect animals. This doesn’t mean animal control agencies should not provide humane animal care. It just means that the mission statements of animal control agencies and humane societies are fundamentally different.

I spend a lot of my time now talking to humane society representatives who call in to complain about their animal control agency not caring. I try to explain the mission of animal control, the headaches involved in dealing with governmental bureaucracy, and the effective way to approach local governments to convince them to invest in improving animal control. Often I’ve just said goodbye when I get another call, this time from someone at an animal control agency complaining that “the cat ladies” or the humane society in their area are constantly criticizing them and that these “humaniacs” do not live in the real world. I try to help them mend fences, advising that they start meeting with each other on a regular basis to talk out their differences. I suggest letting “the cat ladies” ride along with an officer to see the realities he faces every day. I explain to both sides how words can hurt, and I try to come up with ideas or programs or projects that will help them understand each other better.

I am sure some people would find this job frustrating, but after 24 years of living with the frustrations they’re calling me about, I enjoy being able to help them find solutions. I find it satisfying to help agencies that do what I used to do and to hear people from animal control or humane societies say, “That sounds like a really good idea,” or “I never thought of it that way.” When I hear those things, I know that my years in “the trenches” are helping me help others.

I also get a lot of calls from elected officials, often looking for a quick fix for a “broken” animal control agency. This is the part of my job I most enjoy now that I don’t have to hear the words,“I pay your salary.” I get to tell them that the only way the complaints about their animal control agency will end is when they start looking at animal control as a legitimate component of local government that should be funded and taken seriously.

Many local governments don’t really know what their animal control department does. They just don’t want to get those “dog and cat” complaints. When you look at all the things local governments have to deal with— overcrowded jails, crime, environmental issues, population growth, education, traffic issues, budget cuts—animal control will probably never be at the top of their priority list. But nor should they ever be at the bottom. And I can tell them what I could not always tell my elected officials—at least if I wanted to stay employed.

There are animal control agencies in this country that receive the problem employees from other departments that don’t want to go through the hassle of firing them. I get calls from local government officials asking why jail trustees cannot run the shelter. They would never suggest inmates could run other government programs, but for some reason officials still often have the attitude that animal control doesn’t require any professional skill or training. They provide no training and inadequate funding; they don’t recruit good people, and then they are astonished when they get a terrible animal control agency. It’s just dogs and cats, they think. How difficult can that be?

Now I get to tell them: It is not just dogs and cats. It is public safety and humane handling and disposition of animals, it is customer service, it is humane education, it is emergency after-hours response, it is adoptions, it is response to the ever-changing needs of the community. And if you want an animal control facility that is those things, you need to help them by funding a decent facility not located by the dump or next to the sewage treatment plant—and by providing clean professional uniforms, staff training, well-marked modern vehicles with segregated cages to safely transport animals, and a whole lot more. Like so many things, you get out what you put in.

When local government provides the necessary funding, tools, and support, the resulting animal control program can be outstanding. I know of some animal control agencies where these things have coincided beautifully: animal control agencies that are so humane and progressive, even the “cat ladies” are impressed.

So to my animal control colleagues, I may have crossed over, but I am not on the dark side. I try to be on both sides—still helping animal control by working with local humane societies, explaining, listening, recommending, and educating. And learning—every day I learn new things and get a new perspective on humane society issues. The main difference is that now when I tell someone something they don’t want to hear, they cannot tell me,“I know the county commissioners, and I’m going to have your job for this.”

John Snyder is director of program management for the Companion Animals section of The HSUS.


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