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Cracking down on cruelty in Colorado

Longtime animal welfare official stays cool as cases heat up

From Animal Sheltering magazine September/October 2012

Carla Zinanti, middle, leads a seizure that resulted in the impoundment of 24 dogs and two cats, and the owner’s conviction for misdemeanor animal cruelty. Assisting with the operation are Jefferson County animal control supervisor Chana Guy, left, and animal control officer Stacy Nehm.

Carla Zinanti notes with a laugh that she’s been around for all 23 years of her county’s annual Be Kind to Animals poster contest for children: “I feel like those teachers you hear who say they’re teaching their original students’ grandkids.”

She’s worked for Jefferson County in Colorado for 26 years, starting as an animal control officer in 1986, getting promoted to supervisor in 1988, and rising to her current position—animal control manager—in 2000.

Until college, though, Zinanti says a career in animal control never crossed her mind. She worked on a horse ranch during college, and one of her co-workers also held a part-time job as an ACO. Zinanti got to ride along with her several times on her ACO rounds. She remembers thinking, “Wow, this is really cool. This is something I think I would like to do.”

Zinanti has aggressively prosecuted animal cruelty cases in Jefferson County, even when she’s taken heat for it, notes Holly Tarry, Colorado state director for The HSUS. County officers last year seized 193 rabbits from cramped and unsanitary conditions in a resident’s barn—an action that sparked criticism from breeders and what Zinanti calls an “anti-government faction.” But Tarry notes that Zinanti and her team stayed focused, refusing to flip-flop based on public pressure. “There was a lot of pushback on the department,” Tarry says, “and they just kept working and did their jobs, and got 35 counts of cruelty.”

In the edited interview that follows, Zinanti—whose own animals include a yellow Lab named Charlie, a shelter cat named Mister Boots, and a 14-year-old poodle mix brought home by her daughter (who has since grown up and moved away)—discusses her work with Animal Sheltering associate editor James Hettinger.

Animal Sheltering: What’s going on in your community right now?

Carla Zinanti: One of the major pushes that we’re working on now is trying to increase our dog licensing compliance. We’ve had a licensing program in the unincorporated portions of the county since 1994, but we went countywide in 2007 as a funding mechanism to build a much-needed new animal shelter. And we’re going to transition that license revenue stream now to supporting operations.

And you’ve been involved in some cruelty issues?

A couple of summers ago, we had a complaint that there were injured livestock animals at our fairgrounds. It happened to be an event called a coleadero, which is steer tailing. Cowboys on horses run these steers down the fence line, and the cowboys run after them on horseback, grab them by the tail, and try and bring them to the ground. When the animals are thrown to the ground, there [are] broken bones. The other thing that happens is they can actually de-glove the tail, meaning the hide and the underlying flesh comes off, leaving the raw bone. We had no idea this was happening right in our own backyard. We were horrified by it. There isn’t anything currently in state statute that prohibits it. We were able to address it because the injured animals were not afforded veterinary care. So we were able to charge two of the promoters with animal cruelty, and we did get convictions on those. We did follow up and try to work on getting some legislation to ban that particular activity in Colorado. We weren’t successful on our first try, but we’re going to keep trying.

What advice would you give a young person who is thinking about getting into the field?

Get a good, solid foundation in law enforcement topics. It’s a different job than it was 25 years ago. You need to know about civil liability, you need to know about search and seizure, you need to be able to write a good report, you need to collect evidence—things that nobody asked you for 25 years ago when you started in this field. “Are you afraid of dogs?” was the question that you got asked. “Do you have a driver’s license? Here’s the keys, and here’s a catch pole,” and away you went. We’ve professionalized the field, and there’s training and education that needs to come with that, and so a good, solid background in law enforcement is almost a must.

About the Author

James Hettinger is the assistant editorial director for Animal Sheltering magazine at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). He's responsible for editing copy and managing the production of the award-winning quarterly publication aimed at shelter and rescue personnel. Prior to joining The HSUS in 2008, James worked for several local newspapers and trade associations in the Washington, D.C., area. He shares his home with three cats: Edgar, Dana and Vinny.