These hard working members of law enforcement work long hours with little thanks, powered by their love of animals and justice.
When I enter Sonoma County Animal Services at 8 a.m. Animal Control Officer Justin Foster has been on duty for an hour already. He greets me with a warm smile and firm handshake befitting his tall frame. We go out to his truck and load up in the mist and rain clouds. It’s a bit cramped given the amount of equipment crammed in to the cab, but we settle in. He reviews the day’s calls on his onboard computer, and we’re off.
On the way to the first call, he tells me about his childhood on a local farm, how he’s a local boy who’s returned home. He started his career, as many ACOs do, in a different branch of law enforcement, in his case as a juvenile probation officer.
“It just wasn’t a good fit,” he says of his decision to transfer to SCAS about eight years ago. “I like the freedom of the job, the flexibility, working outside. I love the animals and being able to help them and to educate people about them.”
The cab of the truck isn’t spacious and it’s made less so by two long guns locked in the middle of the cab. Foster tells me that each ACO must be firearms-certified for both the shotgun and the .22 rifle, and that they discharge their weapons more than any other law enforcement agency.
That’s because one of their many duties is providing euthanasia to injured wildlife, typically with the .22 rifle. At certain times of the year, there is more wildlife hit by cars requiring euthanasia—an unpleasant but necessary kindness.
The first call is what ACO’s call “babysitting.” Sometimes its because the animals are “borderline”—not yet out of compliance but close enough that a veteran like Foster knows it’s a matter of time, but often it’s because their first goal is to get the owner’s to take responsibility for their animals and take care of them properly. ACO’s must return, repeatedly, to properties to ensure that owners are following through on required actions to bring their animal care in to compliance with the law.
The large rural property has a plethora of horses and mules wandering around, and the majority of them look to be in good health. One particularly cheeky individual comes over and gives me nudge, searching my pockets for snacks. But two members of the herd have had a hard time maintaining their weight properly, and one pony is suffering from a hoof condition called laminitis which causes painful deformities of the hoof. It’s a condition that can be somewhat controlled and mitigated with appropriate vet care, farrier work and diet management, but previously the pony had received none.
It’s a complicated case, and highlights an ongoing theme of the day—animal problems are often people problems. It involves a misguided attempt at rescue, a family illness, ignorance about appropriate care and financial constraints. No one is being purposely cruel, but the horses are suffering even so. The owner made some good initial progress, and the skinny horses do look better, but they’ve missed some required vet appointments, and the laminitic pony does not look like its had the necessary foot care.
Foster types notes in to his computer, and shakes his head. “He’s got a lot of things on his plate,” he says. “But that doesn’t excuse it.”
Officers can end up babysitting cases for months or even years. The hope is often that uneducated owners can be crafted in to caring ones. Foster tells me that the majority of cases he sees are caused by ignorance, rather than purposeful cruelty, and that the percentage goes up when dealing with horses. “People don’t understand how complex they are,” he says. “They are expensive and require a lot of specialized care. People think they can just live off the land, and they can’t.”
We’ll be back later to check in again.
The loose dog at the heart of our next call is a German Shepherd who is a serial offender. Foster has captured him and returned him the owner multiple times. The owner shakes his head and says he can’t keep him in. He points to a stout fence, a slipped collar and a shredded crate and shrugs.
Because the dog is a “frequent flyer,” when we spot him strolling through the local retirement community, he bolts. He knows Foster’s truck on sight and he isn’t even slightly interested in hitching a ride. We pursue, while Foster calls the owner over and over again to tell him where his dog is so he can come collect him. It’s like a remake of the famous slow speed chase, set to the pace of an anxious, trotting German Shepherd.
The owner doesn’t pick up, and our quarry finally turns on the afterburners and bolts out of reach. Foster leaves one last message for the owner, and a few of his business cards for some landscapers working nearby, should the dog re-emerge.
This dog had been spotted harassing some chickens, a serious offense that ups the ante for the owner to confine him. There are automatic fines and penalties for dogs bothering livestock. Foster tells me that Animal Control was originally founded decades ago to deal primarily with predation of livestock by loose or stray dogs. In those days the officer’s job was to collect the animals and end their activities, with prejudice. “They couldn’t euthanize them fast enough back then,” Foster says sadly.
From its original days as a disposal unit, the SCAS has evolved to cover a wide-ranging number of activities and regulations, now focused on caring for animals, not eliminating them. Due to its origins it remains a part of the county’s department of agriculture.
Foster types in to his computer, then scrolls to the next case. We drive across the county following a report that a cat is stuck in an empty vacation home and “is frantically clawing at the windows to escape.” The person who made the report says no one has been to the house in weeks and they fear for the cat’s well-being.
Upon arrival, the fence surrounding the property is locked up tight with no way in. We do hear some frantic meowing, but soon determine it belongs to a very-much-not-trapped longhaired black kitty who is frantic for some attention. It leaps over the fence and winds itself between our legs. It’s rather rotund shape and silky coat shows that this cat is doing fine, so Foster sets about canvassing the neighbors to try to find out who may have called and what they saw.
We don’t locate the reporting person, but the neighbor in one side turns out to be feeding the local feral colony, of which our fuzzy black friend is a member, and knows the owners of the property in question. She passes along contact information, and Foster speaks to them on the phone. They promise to send a family member to check things out immediately, and then we go to investigate a tethering complaint.
Foster tells me that all tethered/tied up dogs in the county are required to be on a so-called cable tie system—that is not tied to a fixed point, but rather an overhead, mobile system that is meant to prevent the dogs from getting stuck or strangled. The last time a call came in for this address the subject was found to be in compliance.
The young red-nosed pit bull is wearing a harness attached to a chain strung up high between two palm trees. There is a doghouse and visible food and water. It’s completely in compliance, but as a dog lover it’s hard not to feel uncomfortable about what I’m seeing. Then I see where the owner lives. It’s a papered-up boarded-over tiny trailer parked among piles of garbage. The owner is missing a lot of teeth and a shower but the dog is freshly bathed, clearly adores his owner and is eating a pricey, grain-free kibble. I may not love the dog’s situation, but he’s clearly coming out the winner in that deal.
Foster admits it can often be challenging to deal with people that are in compliance, but not ideal. But, he also admits he sees plenty of people like this dog owner who are not living well, but still make their pets a priority.
On our way to the next call, his phone rings, it’s a family member from the earlier trapped cat call. They’ve found no cat in the house, but there is a window with the lower pane broken in. The homeowner wonders if someone had already broken out the cat. They agree to board up the broken window and thank Foster for checking on things.
Our next call is a called a quarantine release. In Sonoma County, if a dog bites a person, has an interaction with wildlife or bites another pet, a 30-day quarantine is required. It can be mandated to be done at the shelter, but in most cases the owner is allowed to complete the quarantine at home. An ACO officer is required to monitor the quarantine, and then ultimately determine at the end of the 30 days that they exhibit no signs of illness.
Hearing that the dog we were visiting was on house arrest for biting a person, I make sure to stand behind Foster as he knocks on the door, unsure what to expect. What I don’t expect is an elderly, graying, slightly paunchy Boxer whose whole body wriggled with joy at the site of visitors. This is the least intimidating dog I can imagine, and it turns out that though he had nipped someone on the hand, it had been a homeless person menacing the dog and his owner at a local dog park. Ultimately, the homeless person had been taken to jail for his behavior, but in the meantime the dog had defended himself and his person, requiring the quarantine.
I get one last sloppy kiss and wriggle from the Boxer and we’re off again. As I question Foster about the aggressive dog rules, laws and procedures, he says these types of cases can be the most difficult as they seem to bring out the most difficult behavior in dog owners.
“A lot of people have a preconceived notion that we will seize a dog and destroy it if it bites someone,” Foster says. “So they can be the most difficult people. They are actively obstructing you, trying to hide the dog. “
In truth, there is a complicated series of actions when a dog bites; quarantine, then a determination if the dog’s actions were a one off or justified, the severity of the injury, and if it belongs on either the “vicious list” or the “potentially dangerous list.” Vicious list dogs stay on it for their lifetime, and are restricted in several ways. The potentially dangerous list is for three years, provided there are no more incidents in that time. Even for justified or one off incidents like our Boxer friend, all bite histories are tracked and recorded, though their records will reflect the specifics of the incident and if it was justified.
We then go to perform a kennel inspection, yet one more duty of the ACO, however the family with a pile of Australian Shepherds are all suffering from the flu, and discretion being the better part of valor, Foster decides to reschedule.
In Sonoma County, having more than four dogs (three in city limits) requires a “fancier’s” kennel license, and more than 10 requires a commercial license. ACOs must inspect these facilities as part of their ongoing duties.
In between calls, we talk about the challenges of the job. The horror of seeing animals suffering, the frustration of dealing with angry, irrational owners, the exhaustion of a long shift and a night on call. But we also talk about the joys, the abused animals who are saved and find a happy ending, justice being served.
“The intentional cruelty cases are hard to shake,” he admits. “Especially when it’s been done to hurt someone else, because they know hurting the animal will hurt the person. But the silver lining is when you see accountability in action, when you’ve had a successful prosecution and you know justice has been served.”
We also talk about the ongoing struggle of educating citizens about the law and what is required—both for those people who call Animal Services who become angry and disheartened when they don’t see animals being immediately seized or owners thrown in jail and for owners who don’t think they’ve “done anything wrong.”
We also talk about the limitations of the law, and how often, such as in the case of the young pit bull from earlier, something that Foster might not personally like is still completely legal and not actionable.
“We enforce the laws, we don’t make the laws and some of our laws are limited,” says Foster. “People can have a hard time with that. We might not always agree with someone, but if the law is being followed, then there’s nothing there.”
We end the day revisiting the horse farm from earlier, looking for the owner. Nobody’s home. Foster leaves a card and takes photos, then “pends” the call for the next day so he can continue babysitting duties.
We cruise back to the main shelter, where Foster will work on the voluminous amounts of paperwork and reports that are also part of his job. “We are definitely paper pushers,” he says with a laugh.
He’ll work until 5:30 p.m., when his shift ends, but it’s his turn to be “on call” so he could receive a call in the middle of the night of an animal or law enforcement agency needing help, and he’ll shake off the sleep, crawl into his truck and drive into the night.