September 27, 2016
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With a love for animals and with my criminal justice degree in hand, I began my career in animal welfare as a humane law enforcement officer. In my mind, it couldn’t get any better than this. I had such a drive, a pure desire to rescue animals. I would be the voice for the animals who couldn’t speak for themselves. I was empowered. I would find them, rescue them and get them into what I was sure were better, more loving homes.
My work took me from rural to urban and occasionally suburban communities, working on undercover investigations of dogfighting and puppy mills, large raids involving a hundred-plus animals, and hundreds of animal cruelty investigations in the city of Philadelphia. I was given a gun, bulletproof vest and an outfitted vehicle. Boom, I was ready to take on the villains in the world! I was on television in a series called Animal Cops: Philadelphia, featured in an article in People magazine and almost weekly in news segments about the work of animal cruelty investigators in the city. I became a local celebrity, praised for the work I was doing. Every day I went to work full of pride for all of the animals my colleagues and I were saving from the shameful people we took the animals from. Again, I felt, it couldn’t get any better than this.
Until one day when I received a cruelty complaint call for lack of veterinary care, the type of call I received multiple times every day. I knew the area the call was for. It was that area. The one it’s better you don’t go to. The eyebrow-raising, teeth-gritting area. Poverty and crime are in that area, so I better get ready for a day of combative conversations and potential search warrants. Another person who can’t afford the pet they have. Why would people have pets they can’t provide proper care for? I didn’t want to waste time listening to what they had to say.
When I arrived at the house I saw a grapefruit-sized mass hanging from the dog’s chest. I asked the owners if they had taken her to a veterinarian to get checked out. They hadn’t. I was livid. How could they do that to their 11-year-old dog? I gave them two options—surrender their dog to me or I would get a warrant to remove the dog, charge them with animal cruelty and take them to court. As I drove off I ignored the tears from the family—children included—and felt great about rescuing another dog. I ignored them telling me this was their baby and had been for 11 years, because if this was really their baby, wouldn’t they have done something about the mass? If only they could see it from my perspective, I’m just doing what’s best.
We went through the intake process for the dog, found cage space for her and she quickly became one of my favorites.
But as an older dog she didn’t have many people interested in adopting her. I checked on her every day but one day I couldn’t figure out what cage she was in. When I asked kennel staff where she was, I was told she’d been euthanized the night before. As an owner-surrender she didn’t have to be held any longer if an adoption was unlikely and space was needed.
My heart sank. She was such a sweet dog and she was fine aside from the mass, which the shelter veterinarian had assessed was most likely cancerous and not yet painful, and had advised it best to let her live out her life managing the illness if she was adopted.
This is the moment my evolution began. As I thought about this dog, I remembered her standing on her porch, next to her owner, with a small child hanging around her neck. I remembered speaking a lot, yelling some, and saying, “I know what’s best for your dog.”
Time stopped there. What I did wasn’t best for their dog. I had taken an older dog who had a family and a home because she aesthetically didn’t look great and I decided the family didn’t care enough. What impact did my decision have on that family? And this was just one of hundreds of similar situations I had been a part of.
Over and over again, I got caught up in the heat of the moment. I was always the first to throw the metaphorical first punch. I wore my tactical gear, telling people I was the authority and knew better than them. I was blind to tears that were shed when I ordered people to surrender their pets to me. I was deaf to the voices telling me they couldn’t afford care, didn’t have a car to get them to a vet or would lose their job if they missed work. My lens was out of focus, like a photograph where the image of the pet in the forefront was sharp, but the background of the people was blurry.
It was time to take a hard look at myself, to rethink what I was calling cruelty and who I was calling cruel. It was time to listen to people, consider their perspectives and to understand what my role could be to help people and their pets. I started realizing that most families living in poverty don’t have much, but what they do have are their companion animals, their family. The pets don’t need new homes, and they don’t need to be rescued by me. I put myself in the shoes of the people I had interacted with: What would it feel like to not have resources or access to help for your pet? It had to be one of the worst feelings in the world.
I decided I wanted to serve the community in a different way, to be a resource and support. I left my policing career, but I knew I wasn’t done. Two years later I found an opportunity to go back through Pets for Life. The same streets I had walked as an officer taking people’s pets, I now walked offering options, not passing judgment. In the exact same community, I had many conversations with the people I hadn’t focused on years before and what I found was a much clearer picture, so much love and care.
My evolution is still continuing today. I didn’t change overnight, but I kept my mind open to the idea there is a better way for our communities and how we can serve both people and pets.
I expect many of you are thinking the question I very often hear—what about those times when it is absolutely necessary to remove an animal from the home? There are indeed occasions when it is truly in the best interest of the animal, but I’m encouraging us all to realize that—when we create access to services, share information and provide support—such situations are actually few and far between. Take a few extra moments to thoughtfully consider how you might address the more common scenarios faced by many families who love their pets, especially those in underserved communities. The journey I’ve been on has me no longer putting people in their place; instead I’m putting myself in theirs. Compassion can create change.