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Reflections of a former ACO

"Abandonment" may be more complicated than it seems

An animal control officer helps people and pets in his community, like this man who needed a collar for his cat who kept licking her shoulder wound.What appears to be an abandoned pet and irresponsible owner may not be what it seems.Pet food banks, like this one, can help keep people and their pets together.

In my six years as an animal control and humane law enforcement officer at a high-volume, open-admission urban animal shelter, I responded to plenty of abandonment cases. You know the ones—dogs, cats, rabbits, reptiles and other animals left in seemingly empty homes or yards, with no one around to explain what had happened or why they were there.
For each case, I left carefully worded notices to encourage people to contact us. “Owner of dog and rabbit inside this unit, please call us within 24 hours to avoid removal of your pets.” Or, “black and white cat at this address may be impounded if we do not receive contact from you within 24 hours.” If the animals seemed healthy and had food and water, we would leave them there and return 24 or 48 hours later. If the animals seemed to be unhealthy or the situation seemed too dangerous to their health or welfare, or if we did not hear from an owner in the allotted time, we impounded the animals. I will admit: In some cases my desire for owners to contact me was so I could reunite them with their pet, but in other cases, I wanted to “catch” them. It is painful to think of how many landlords I had unlocking doors for me to remove animals, and that I did not challenge them at all. If only I knew then the questions I know now to ask, I may have been able to help someone keep their pet, or even their home.
I don’t remember many of those animals being claimed, and I wondered about some of those situations for years. From what I could tell, that large black dog left tied up in the backyard of the empty home seemed social, friendly and healthy. Where were his people? In some cases, dogs were left in hallways of apartment buildings; yet canvassing the apartments for information led nowhere. Where did those dogs come from? In one case, a couple had exited their downtown row home in such a hurry the doors were left open, so the three healthy, altered, friendly but clearly distressed cats were coming in and out of the house. The house, in obvious disrepair, had been completely ransacked. But there were signs that, once upon a time, this had been a pet-loving household—framed photos of the men smiling with the cats we found there, cat furniture and other signs indicating something had happened.
After many years, I have a better understanding of how these situations may occur. Pets are part of the lives of their people, so what happens to their people happens to them. Life crises—people problems—are the number one reason pets end up being rehomed or entering the shelter system. Leaving an official notice is not enough to combat people’s fears and uncertainties, not enough to overcome the life crises they are going through, not enough to push people past their own psychology, which wires us to avoid grief and rationalize our difficult decisions. After many years, I think: I should have done more.
The people who did come forward in response to our notices? Well, they were in for a lot of questions and plenty of judgment. Many were denied their animals. Some were criminally charged. We thought of this as a victory for the animals. We believed we were saving them from future suffering.
Our field has come to view the act of “abandonment” as a terrible, “irresponsible” behavior, one we disdain with every ounce of judgment we can muster. Almost every state legally prohibits “abandonment,” and penalties vary from hundreds to thousands of dollars in fines —even jail time. These laws assume the absolute worst of people, and there is little benefit of the doubt or sympathy to the people involved, or any introspective look into our own system to evaluate how we may be able to reduce these situations by helping people. There is little to no safety net in place to prevent these situations from happening, because the organizations which could potentially help people are ones they may fear. For some people, animal shelters are as intimidating as police stations.
Animal welfare and management functions (and sometimes doesn’t) on a community level, and politics, human dynamics and social systems interfere with the goals of animal welfare organizations by creating systemic barriers often too difficult for individuals, organizations or communities to overcome. I have been shocked and saddened to learn how many of those barriers come from the animal welfare system itself—how many times good intentions are leading to bad policies. And some of the most tragic examples can be found within the details of situations that were categorized as abandonment cases.

Last year I saw this Facebook post from a Detroit organization called Dog Aide, paraphrasing messages left on their community hotline. Here’s the post, included with Dog Aide’s permission and with small edits for clarity:
Dear Rescuers:
Please think about the times you’ve said the words, “If I lost everything I had, my dog would still be with me.” Or, “If it came to surrendering my dog to a shelter or I had to live in my car with my dog, I would pick my car.” Or “They are my family. I would figure out a way to keep them with me.”
Real Reasons Dogs Are In Abandoned Houses from 2012-2015:

1.    Hi. I’m calling because I’ve been evicted. I don’t know what to do. I have my dog at an abandoned house down the street while I stay at my friend’s. Can someone call me back please?
2.    I was calling to see if you can help. My cousin said you help with dog food? My house burnt down. My dog is still there. I stop by every day and feed him. He’s in the garage. But I don’t know what to do.
3.    Thank you for calling back. I try to get back to my old house. It takes three hours by bus. I go every other day. Can you help with food?
4.    Hi. I was just at my house. It has one of those demolition signs on it. There’s no heat or electricity there and we’re staying with someone so my kids can go to school. But we’ll be back there soon. Unless they tear it down. Can you call me back?
5.    It’s NAME [one of a homeless couple we knew]. [My partner/husband] needed to go to the ER. His heart isn’t so good. We’ve left [our dog] at [this address]. Can you check on her?
6.    My sister is trying to move. We don’t have a car. We’re at [this address] but her dog is still at [the old address] and my sister hasn’t been able to get over there to check on her dog. Do you all help with that?
7.    Hey there. I have a dog in my garage because owner went to jail but left behind food and all the stuff he needs. The dog’s in there and I can’t get in after the big snowstorm. I just needs help shoveling. I need help taking care of this dog.
Dogs at abandoned houses aren’t always abandoned dogs.

Reading this, I felt stunned—and also as though I finally had some answers to the questions that have stuck in my mind for more than ten years. These callers were not irresponsible; they were going to extreme lengths trying to keep the pieces of their lives together, struggling every day to make it all work. I was struck at how incredibly brave and humble it was of them to reach out for help, so grateful to the organization who offered them such safety and hope. I know that as an ACO, I may have represented that beacon of light for some people, but not deeply or widely enough to earn this type of trust from people who really needed it.
These stories are real. We need a better understanding of how they happen. We need to create an environment where people feel more comfortable coming forward to ask asking for help. And we need to find ways to help keep families together, even if it means changing our own system around the real-life need in our communities. None of us should look back in ten years wishing we had done more.


About the Author

Cory Smith is the former Director of Companion Animal Public Policy at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), leading programs and policy work designed to prevent pet homelessness and strengthen communities. Cory was with The HSUS for ten years and her previous background is in animal control/humane law enforcement, and shelter operations and management.