Thursday, October 27, 2011

Managing Companion Animals: PART II – Animal Control

Above and beyond our personal efforts to promote responsible animal care, we need to look to our Animal Control Officers (ACOs) for the critical role they play in community education and law enforcement.

As ACOs engage with the individuals that either don’t know or choose to violate the laws of animal management, our ACOs  are in the unique position to teach people about the reasons for the laws, the importance of following the laws, and beyond the law, the importance of properly caring for and assuming responsibility of one’s animals.

We should be highlighting the value of our Animal Control Officers, inviting them to share their knowledge in our community activities: classrooms, civic meetings, public events, ….  How well do you know your ACO?  If you find that your ACO is not available for such events, consider encouraging your community’s administration to ensure time and availability for your ACOs to provide community education.  Make sure they know just how important this education is in the community’s role of promoting effective animal management.

The added strength we have in our ACOs is their ability and responsibility to enforce animal management laws.  Education isn’t always enough to change old habits and dissuade some people from abusive and neglectful behaviors.  Where education fails, we must rely on law enforcement. 

Throughout Virginia, licensing compliance rates are frequently low or unknown despite a state law requiring licensing for dogs and giving localities the right to require licensing for cats.  Many rural communities simply fail to prosecute cases of serious abuse and neglect as they have become accustomed to perceiving such cases as insignificant and remain sadly unaware of the strong associations between animal abuse and the development of violent behavior against humans. In order to overcome the customary inattention to animal laws, community residents will have to speak up and make known to our community administrations that we need and expect strong enforcement of laws pertaining to animal management and that the Animal Control agencies must receive the support they need to carry out their responsibilities effectively.

Animal Control Officers are under-paid and under-educated for the demanding and complex responsibilities they hold in today’s culture.  Too many localities still embrace antiquated notions of the “dog catcher” – someone who simply rounds up stray animals.  Education requirements for Animal Control Officers are minimal – 84 hours.  Even this can be delayed for two years – thus allowing individuals to work as an Animal Control Officer for 2 years with no training at all.  Sadly, state regulations continue to lag behind the needs of the profession.  Fortunately, the Animal Control profession is changing greatly in those localities that have come to understand and value the uniquely critical role of Animal Control Officers.

Virginia is fortunate to have a well-established and highly regarded statewide association – the Virginia Animal Control Association (VACA) – that is working hard and making headway in bringing about positive change – such as strengthening educational requirements and pursuing stronger law enforcement status for ACOs.  But change is hard and VACA needs support for these changes to come from the residents of the communities that will benefit from stronger, better educated, and better supported Animal Control professionals.

Here again, we, individuals and animal guardians, can play a role to help improve the responsible management of animals in our communities.  We can support and encourage the professional development of our community Animal Control Officers.  This is the agency that ultimately holds the promise of providing a solid foundation for our communities to evolve into truly humane communities with the ability to both communicate and enforce the guidelines for responsible pet ownership and thus promote the overall safety and well-being of the community and its animals.  I urge you to take the opportunity to get to know your Animal Control professionals and to urge your community leadership to fully support its Animal Control department.  This is what we can do to promote humane communities.

Managing Companion Animals: PART I - Personal Responsibility

Earlier this summer a letter to the editor from the president of our local humane society spoke out on the importance of individual personal responsibility in caring for companion animals, “Dog owners must become more responsible.”

It’s true that so many problems in the world would disappear if people would just be more responsible.  But getting this to happen isn’t easy!  We wrestle with issues of personal responsibility on many fronts of human behavior:  driving vehicles, consuming alcohol, managing finances, managing anger & violence – just to name a few.  People just are not naturally responsible –whether due to a lack of understanding, disagreement, financial
barriers, or just plain apathy.

In order for us to live together in relative harmony we have to build and enforce responsibility in those areas where behaviors of individuals can negatively impact others in the community.  This task falls to individuals as well as to our local governing agencies.  We rely on education to instill an awareness of responsible behavior.   We look to our community leaders, as well as to our family, friends, and neighbors, to set examples for responsible behavior. And we develop laws to articulate responsible behavior that our law enforcement agencies carry out into the community. 

If we ever hope to build responsibility among animal owners, we must begin building and enforcing responsible pet ownership to the same degree that we do so for other areas of human behavior.   What can we, as individuals, do to bring this about?

First, and most simply, we can be an example for responsible pet ownership.  We can be sure to have our own pets licensed, tagged, spayed or neutered, properly cared for and provided with appropriate veterinary care.  We can make sure to have plans in place for our pets in the event that we are unable to care for them so that they do not wind up by default at a local shelter or as an unexpected burden on someone.  And we should learn how to manage appropriate behavior in our pets so that they don't bother others and so that they don't become an unwelcomed burden to ourselves.  In addition, we should become acquainted with and follow the laws that pertain to responsible animal ownership at the state level as well as our community level.

Next, we can encourage our community leaders to set proper examples of responsible behavior. Many community leaders continue to turn a blind eye to concerns and laws regarding animal management.  Sometimes, they are guilty of the very behaviors we seek to correct. Not long ago one of our community’s leaders was a well-known dog fighter.   Some community members, upstanding in other respects, may still engage in backyard breeding and inattention to their own tied-out or roaming dogs and breeding cats.  Through our everyday engagement with our community leaders, we can help them understand the importance of responsible animal care and their role in promoting it in the community.

Thirdly, we can encourage and support the education of other community members, most importantly our children, about responsible pet ownership and compassion for animals.   Educators can find a wealth of resources available to support humane education.  It’s easy to incorporate humane education into the classroom.  Kids have a natural affinity for animals.  Teachers who develop programs and techniques for humane education can also inspire and help others to do the same.  

Assuming our personal roles in promoting responsible pet ownership is an important first step towards building a more humane community.  In combination with effective community support services, our personal commitment to advocating for responsible animal care is a winning hand.