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Clothes Make the Animal Control Officer

A humane society/animal control director asks ACOs to leave the military garb behind and instead dress the part of caring professionals.

A humane society/animal control director asks ACOs to leave the military garb behind and instead dress the part of caring professionals.

I've been involved in animal welfare and animal control for the past 27 years, directing the Humane Society of Carroll County for the last 17 of those years. We have the animal control contract for our 456-square-mile county, actively enforcing all county and state animal-related laws.

From the beginning I have hired people who share my vision of professionalism. My animal control officers are sent to all types of training whenever and wherever it's available. They are arguably the best-trained and best-equipped ACOs on the East Coast. They exude confidence, competence, and professionalism in their actions as well as in their appearance.

In our chosen line of work, this type of professionalism is paramount, and we must lead by example. Well-groomed, caring, educated, uniformed officers are a must. After all, how many times have you heard the following? Clothes make the man. Image is everything. First impressions last. What you see is what you get.

It's not by accident that these are time-honored sayings that will probably survive for many years to come. Rightly or wrongly, don't you size up a person or situation you're about to encounter by what you've been told, and isn't that initial assessment often reinforced by what you see upon arrival? It's only when you're able to speak with an individual that you may come to fully understand him or her and, as a result, possibly see that person in a totally different light.

Now enter the "S.W.A.T. Man." I'm referring to recent endeavors by some animal control agencies to outfit their officers in black S.W.A.T.-type uniforms, complete with black pants stuffed into black lace-up military-style boots, a black cap, and reflective sunglasses.

Is this the new look for today's ACOs? Have we lost our minds?

For 25 years we've been running from the old "dogcatcher" image, running as fast as we can. But in our haste, have we lost our way? Shouldn't we sit down and look over our map? What is our destination? How do we want to get there?

I was in the county courthouse last month talking with several bailiffs and seasoned police officers. They were commenting on a couple of younger officers walking by on their way to court, heads shaved, faces devoid of expression, and gaits conforming to the same image. It wasn't respect I heard from the veteran officers; to the contrary, they didn't like the image at all. It worried them.

Animal care and control agencies have been trying to gain respect from others in the judicial system for years. Isn't it possible that, like my colleagues in Carroll County, many law enforcement officials will find "S.W.A.T. Man" amusing? It's still a fine line we walk where they're concerned, whether we want to admit it or not.

I genuinely love and admire the many men and women who have chosen this difficult line of work. This way of life is not easy. The public often appreciates us, but more often I feel they wonder just what kind of people we really are. They ask, "You kill animals, don't you?" and "What's the harm in my little dog going down the street to play with the kids?" People find it hard to believe that we really do care deeply about animals and about the public we serve.

One of the hardest duties of any police chief or animal control director is keeping personnel ever mindful of their actions, requiring that staff and officers treat the public pleasantly and respectfully while also getting the job done. An animal control officer's primary job is to enforce the law, but to do that well, ACOs must possess both good people skills and extensive knowledge of animal behavior and animal needs. They must act as resources to the public—assisting, mediating, educating, diffusing, and enlightening. It may not be impossible, but I would argue that it is much more difficult to do the above—and gain the public's confidence and good will—while standing there in a uniform more appropriate for wartime combat.

For those of you who have made the switch to these getups, please know that I respect you for your efforts. But I beg you to look in the mirror with new eyes, remembering that image is everything. Bear in mind that the majority of citizens will never have the occasion to get to know you or your officers. Accordingly, first impressions are going to be based on two things: what people have heard from others and what they see. Please take a minute to think about that. "S.W.A.T. Man" doesn't exude compassion or give even a hint of the caring person within. The Hunchback of Notre Dame may have been warm, caring, and even intelligent, but who knew?

The dogcatcher is, thank God, finally dead. It seems it took us forever to bury him. Even now his ghost occasionally haunts us. Do we really want to give birth to an even more frightening character—the "S.W.A.T. Man"?

Nicky Ratliff is the executive director of the Humane Society of Carroll County in Westminster, Maryland.


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