Skip to content Skip to navigation

Humane law enforcement

What does it take to serve on the front lines of human-animal relationships?

From Animal Sheltering magazine May/June 2016

Humane officer Ann Russell is always prepared to deal with the unexpected. On a call about an abandoned ferret, she spots a community cat with runny eyes in the parking lot of a D.C. apartment complex.Russell explains to the cat’s concerned caretaker that he needs antibiotics for an upper respiratory infection. She’ll transport him to the Washington Humane Society for treatment and return him to his caretaker when he’s healed.Humane officers don’t just deal with cats and dogs; they have to be prepared to handle everything from ducklings to exotic snakes.While working for the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, Mike Duffey became the county’s first animal crimes detective and launched the Animal Cruelty Taskforce of Southern Arizona. He’s now a cruelty investigator with the Humane Society of Southern Arizona.

Humane investigators have a variety of titles—cruelty investigator, humane law enforcement officer, animal crimes detective and, on TV at least, animal cop. Some work for law enforcement or other government agencies; others are employed by humane organizations or volunteer their time. Some are commissioned peace officers; others have no legal authority at all. They have a shared mission of helping animals and bringing abusers to justice, but you need more than a kind heart to excel in this field.

Friendly Persuasion

Hone your communication skills, because much of your time will be spent gaining compliance through conversation. With the right approach , most people will allow you on their property to check out the conditions of their animals, even if you have no legal authority, says John Paul Fox, chief investigator with the Humane Society of Utah. Whereas “if you just go in and preach, they’re not going to listen to you.”

You should also know about all the available resources  for pet owners in your area, such as low-cost veterinary services, pet food pantries, hay banks and training programs. According to Mike Duffey, an animal cruelty investigator with the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, information and resources will oftentimes correct the problem, and the people won’t reoffend.

Handle With Care

In cruelty cases, the victim—who may be terrified or in pain—can present more of a physical risk than the perpetrator. You need to be able to handle animals safely and humanely—which could mean anything from removing a fear-aggressive injured Great Dane from a backyard to wrangling a 6-foot long boa constrictor from a basement.

Even if your caseload is almost entirely cats and dogs, you’re going to have the occasional surprise, says Fox. In one case, Fox received a neglect report about a “big yellow dog.” What he found in the backyard kennel was an African lion, who had been brought into the state illegally and had frostbite on his paws. He ended up seizing the lion and finding him a place in a zoo.

Know Your Range

In some jurisdictions, equines will make up a large percentage of your caseload; in others, your duties may include inspecting roadside zoos and pet stores. You’ll need to know how to sex, age and evaluate the physical condition of different species, “because you’re going to get called to them all,” says Duffey. “You can’t just be a dog guy and expect to know what’s happening when you’re sent to deal with a pony.”

A working knowledge of animal anatomy and biology helps in other ways, says Duffey. You may need to read postmortem exams and other scientific reports and convey the information in layman’s terms to attorneys, judges and a jury.

Leveraging Laws

Whether you’re a commissioned law enforcement officer or a civilian, you need to master the basics of the criminal justice system, including rules of evidence, courtroom procedures and constitutional law. You’ll also need to know how photograph  and collect evidence, write up cases, interview witnesses and testify in court.

Of course, you must be well-versed in the animal cruelty laws in your jurisdiction, but it also pays to know the laws governing health and public safety, animal control, wildlife and even zoning, says Fox. “Say you’ve got a guy with a rabbit hutch in the back, and he’s not taking care of [the animals], and he’s resistant to what you’re advising him. You can also say, ‘Well, you know that rabbit hutch is too close to your house. I’d rather not do this, but I can certainly have zoning come out and talk to you about having to move that.’”

Brave Heart

No one denies that the emotional rigors of this job are high. You need to accept that you won’t solve every case or right every wrong, Fox says. And although it’s not easy, he adds, it helps to maintain a sense of humor and be able to laugh about “the calls about the cat who’s stranded up a pole or a sign, and you get out there and it’s one of those plastic owls.”

Network for Good

Part of being an effective investigator is knowing who to call for help. That includes local prosecutors, animal control, law enforcement and humane organizations as well as attorneys who specialize in animal cruelty law, veterinarians, experts on various species and experienced humane investigators.

Lifelong Learning

If this all sounds daunting, remember that training opportunities abound—through the University of Missouri’s Law Enforcement Training Institute, the National Animal Control and Humane Officer (NACHO) Training Academy, the International Veterinary Forensic Sciences Association, and a variety of nonprofits and regional animal control associations. You can find criminal justice courses at colleges, law enforcement academies and state agencies. This is the type of job, says Duffey, where “you can never know enough.”


Read more about the work of humane law enforcement officers.

About the Author

As senior editor of the award-winning Animal Sheltering magazine, Julie Falconer writes and edits articles for the sheltering, rescue and animal control fields. Before joining the staff of the Humane Society of the United States, Julie was a longtime volunteer with rescue and animal advocacy organizations in Central Virginia. She spends much of her free time assisting with trap-neuter-return programs for community cats.