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Can you work bias-free in your community?

Guest blogger and animal control guru, Todd Stosuy, explains why reducing judgment can still result in a safe community, happy animals and satisfaction that problems have been solved.

Will the people you interact with spread the message that you are there to help?Today's leaders are engaging those who misunderstand, and are helping to change long-held negative beliefs about animal control officers.

Over the course of more than 13 years in animal care and control, I have found that our profession has a history of being perceived as “the bad guys” in animal welfare. Perhaps these impressions have been created over the years through misunderstandings and miscommunication, but I believe that we haven’t done enough to positively engage our communities or collaborate with our fellow animal welfare professionals.
I get how it happened. It’s easy to become defensive when one is criticized. When you’re called a “kitten killer” or “wannabe cop” on a routine basis, it is easy to shut down, to become dismissive, frustrated and segregated from everyone except those who you believe understand you. But the further you isolate yourself from those who don’t understand you, the more you become misunderstood and the anger you have developed becomes part of the culture of your profession. I have seen it happen in many communities and the toxicity it creates can take years for both sides to move past.
Luckily, the animal care and control leaders of today are not afraid to reach out to our communities, as well as to our fellow animal welfare professionals, to promote our work through positive interactions and collaboration. We are engaging those who misunderstand us and, through example and mutual respect, are helping to change long-held negative belief systems.
I find it hard to answer the question, “What does an animal care and control officer do?” It’s not because I don’t know, but because I can never find the exact words to explain the tremendous ability we have to make long term effective change for both humans and animals. On a day-to-day basis, we encounter dozens of animals, as well as dozens of people attached to those animals, who need our help. In what other profession can you make positive change in the lives of animals and people every single day--actual change that has both immediate and long term effects for the people and animals living in YOUR community?
And this change doesn’t just happen for one animal or one person. When you begin to realize that almost every city, county and state has some form of animal care and control, it becomes clear that we are one of the professions literally helping animals and people three hundred and sixty five days a year across the entire United States. This is an enormous responsibility for our profession and one that we should never forget. We have the ability to change society for the better over the course of our careers. We can only do this, though, if we work with, and not against, our communities.
During my career as a manager of an animal care and control department, I have found that all types of people with differing backgrounds can make effective officers. It’s not just life skills or career history that make someone good at this job. Nor is it a dedication to animal welfare. What makes a person an effective officer is compassion and empathy for both humans and animals, and an ability to communicate and build relationships effectively with both. Of course, being an animal care and control officer also has a really tough side, and it can be difficult for those with compassion and empathy to handle.
It’s a delicate balance.
I have seen officers burn out after experiencing one too many traumatic events. Not having the ability to process these experiences in a healthy manner can cause one to become apathetic or feel superior to those they once set out to serve and protect. It happens. It’s human. If you aren’t able to eventually process and understand where these thoughts came from, though, it’s time to get into a new line of work. Having judgments about people is natural. It’s when these judgments turn into biases that you have crossed a line that will have a negative impact on not only yourself, but also your community and society at large.
And I am not just talking about harmful biases about persons of color, those from differing cultures or socioeconomic backgrounds, or of differing gender identities or sexual orientations, but about more subtle biases that often arise in people working in our field. Sometimes this is the belief that we know what is in the best interest of our community and don’t need to ask for their ideas or input. Sometimes we feel we must tell them what is best for their animal and family. We work forty plus hours a week providing resources and information to people, but this expertise doesn’t mean we know it all or there aren’t other ways of doing things. Getting stuck on one belief or system of beliefs can result in a subtle (or not so subtle) bias against people that results in removing animals from families who love them, refusing adoptions, division of communities, and ultimately euthanasia of healthy and adoptable animals.
This problem is happening right now. But if we take the time to truly open our minds and reflect honestly on our own biases as well as on other people’s ideologies, it can slow down. It doesn’t mean you have to completely give up your values, morals and ethics. Rather, try to work towards understanding that there are other ways of achieving the same goals--ways that are different than yours, but still result in a safe community, happy animals and a satisfaction that problems have been solved and you’ve done your job.
For example, the community I serve has a large population of homeless people who are guardians to dogs and cats. I have found through experience that often these people are great animal owners, but some have an addiction or mental illness that can lead them to make poor choices and have negative interactions with law enforcement.
There is a woman living on the streets of Santa Cruz who I met six years ago when she first came to town from the Midwest. At that time, she was a very polite and cordial person who was the guardian to several dogs. During her time on the streets, though, she became addicted to methamphetamine and all of her dogs eventually ended up at the animal shelter. She was unable to reclaim them for one reason or another, and she began to despise our agency. If we ran into her on the streets she would scream at us and on some occasions be physically combative. I knew, though, that her anger and frustration were brought on by her addiction and did not rush to judgment and continued to positively engage her when I saw her.
Recently, she came into possession of a four-month-old puppy. I contacted her and discovered that she had been off of methamphetamine for 4 months and was trying to turn her life around. She still did not fully trust our agency, but she remembered through the years how I treated her with respect and without judgment, even when she was screaming at me. She agreed to have me drive her dog to our shelter for a free spay.
Will she get addicted to methamphetamine again and will this dog end up at the shelter? It is possible. But right now there is one less intact dog in my community who could get pregnant and one more person living in my community who trusts me and will spread this message to other people with animals who could use our help. People like those from whom she received her puppy. Because of this trust, we have been able to spay the mother dog and the other five puppies in the litter!
I am hoping that compassionate and empathetic people who may otherwise never have thought about becoming an animal care and control officer will develop a curiosity about it as a career. I urge anyone in this category to contact your local agency and see if you can do a ride along. Getting a firsthand account and seeing what we do on a daily basis can be eye-opening and maybe help you decide if you have what it takes to engage your community in a way that creates the positive impacts for people and animals that we are all striving towards.
I am also hoping that anyone currently working in animal care and control who has begun to view people as the enemy will take a few minutes to think about why this has happened. Yes, we see people do some horrible things, but this accounts for very little of what we actually see. The majority of the time we get to see normal everyday people love their animals and want to do what is right for them, who just don’t have the resources or information to do so. If we are able to be mindful and keep an open heart when encountering these people and their animals, we can truly have the honor of serving and protecting them.
How do you collaborate with and engage your community? Do you know what members of your community want and need from you, and how you can help them?


About the Author

Officer Todd Stosuy is the Field Services Manager for the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter. Todd has two Bachelors degrees from Rutgers University, one in Criminal Justice and the second in Sociology. Todd has been with the Agency since 2003 and is the former president of the National Animal Control Association.