Friday, July 8, 2011

Humane Investigators - Have they a future in Virginia?

A public meeting was held by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) on July 7 to solicit input and comments about the Humane Investigator program in Virginia.  Despite the fact that this would be the only public comment period for a current review of this program,  the meeting had only been announced six days beforehand and then, not given any publicity whatsoever to solicit public attendance.  Needless to say, there wasn’t much “public” in attendance.
I’d been lucky to have notice of the meeting forwarded to me and lucky that I was able to schedule the time.  Knowing little about the Humane Investigator program, I hoped to learn much.  The bulk of discussion came from the Humane Investigators in attendance.  I was  impressed with the professional demeanor and well-articulated comments of these individuals who, in most cases, had served for many years in their positions as unpaid, certified, trained Humane Investigators – working in tandem with Animal Control Officers to augment the eternally insufficient staffing of this workforce.   Anyone attending this gathering would have been struck by the commitment and integrity with which these individuals regarded their positions and their responsibilities.  Their stories told of mutually beneficial and valuable relationships between their municipality’s ACO’s and themselves and of the education, positive outreach, and law enforcement they were able to bring to their communities.   

The stated purpose of the meeting was to gather input on “the pros and cons of an expanded humane investigator program” and “how animal law enforcement in the Commonwealth could be strengthened and made more efficient.”   There were lots of pro’s in evidence but scant comment on any con’s of the program.  One commenter from the Virginia Farm Bureau questioned if it wouldn’t be preferable to expand the ACO departments rather than have Humane Investigators.  Knowing the weak support that our ACO program receives from the county and the unavailability of funds even for what’s currently in place, I found it inconceivable that the county would ever consider funding an additional ACO position, especially if a qualified, unpaid position were available to provide needed support.  No additional comment was made as to how an expanded ACO program might be preferable to the Humane Investigator program.

As the meeting wore on, tensions became apparent that heralded back to 2003 when the rug had been pulled from beneath this program and a tight lid placed on the appointment of new Humane Investigators.  Distrust in the meeting began to rise as Human Investigators and other animal advocates questioned, understandably, the process that has now been undertaken to review this program and determine its future.  The “study group” that will review the program was not identified in the meeting except for the fact that it included no Humane Investigators.   When asked about the workings, schedule, and process of this review, the answers were plainly evasive.  When asked why such little notice had been made of this, the only public input slated for the review process, the answers were again evasive and insufficient.  The distrust was certainly understandable if not warranted. 

I was disappointed that there was essentially no discussion on the topic of how animal law enforcement could be strengthened and made more efficient.  Neither the meeting’s leader nor anyone else had any meaningful input on this topic despite strong recognition of the need for such strengthening.  The implicit sense was that this Humane Investigator program was, by far, the best option available for providing added support to the dearth of attention placed on Virginia’s animal law enforcement.  And now, the future of this program was in question. 
The most productive proposal of the meeting was the reiterated suggestion that legislation be established to allow the municipalities to decide for themselves whether or not they wanted to “employ” Humane Investigators.  In a state priding itself on individual rights, this certainly seems to be a most appropriate approach (even though it doesn’t bode well for my own county which had declined the cost-free support of a humane investigator years ago.)

In the end, I came away with a high regard for the Humane Investigators who are clearly committed to providing an affordable, quality service in support of the animal welfare laws currently in force, with great puzzlement about why there would be an effort to eliminate this program with no apparent alternatives for anything to replace it, and with the hope that given the obvious value of the program, the study group would find that rather than be discontinued, the Humane Investigator program should be supported and expanded.

Since only a small percentage of localities actually have Humane Investigators, perhaps if those recognizing the value of a program like this would make known to your community leaders the need for this program in your community, then awareness and common sense might prevail and we would all win.

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