If there’s one thing that Scott Giacoppo, Director of National Shelter Outreach at Best Friends Animal Society, would hope that people take away from hearing his story, it’s that he believes that animal control officers deserve recognition for their hard work.
“I don’t believe animal control gets the respect and credit they deserve in the public because they deal with horrific things—things that they just can’t go home and talk with their spouse about,” he says. “I have seen things that people don’t even want to hear about. I have had animals that have been set on fire, animals that have been beaten to death, starved to death, cut up, slashed, drowned, you name it. What I’m talking about isn’t unique to my career. Officers deal with this every single day.”
The single most effective way that animal control can gain more recognition, Giacoppo says, is to show how animal control is a positive force in the community—beginning with officers themselves.
Animal Control Today
Giacoppo explains that there are a few reasons why animal control isn’t as highly regarded as he believes it should be. First, there’s still a stigma that animal control officers are dogcatchers who simply react to situations. “From a community’s perspective, the only time you have interaction with animal control is when something goes wrong—like when a dog gets loose or a bite happens.”
Furthermore, he adds that animal control is normally not integrated with the community like other members of the police force are. “In D.C., police service areas have monthly meetings. Animal control isn’t part of these meetings and you won’t really find animal control officers at them either. When I was the chief animal control officer at the Washington Humane Society, I mandated that animal control be a part of these meetings.”
Because of these widespread perceptions, animal control officers’ own attitudes towards their profession can get in the way of their progress, says Giacoppo. “Animal control officers aren’t just on the low end of the totem pole or just a part of whatever department the mayor decides to put them that week. But if the local government and the community sees animal control in that way, it forces officers to see themselves that way. So the only way we’re going to change that is by starting with ourselves, and first saying, ‘No, I am the animal expert in this community. I know what works and what doesn’t work, and you need to trust me.’ Then you get the community on board. Because when the community is on board, the votes are on board, and then the local government will be on board.”
Giacoppo’s Top Three Tips
In his current role, Giacoppo travels around the country to transform shelters’ field services programs. “After two years of doing this for Best Friends, I’ve realized that it’s the same problems no matter where you go—just at different levels. I’m teaching these shelters that they don’t even need a bigger budget to accomplish things. All it takes is that shift in mindset.”
He offers three ways that he does this along with tips on how any organization can do their part in improving the perception of animal control.
1. Reduce your call sheets
“I look at officers today and some of them feel beaten down and that there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. All they’re doing is going from one call to the next to the next to the next. They don’t have any opportunity to do anything proactive,” Giacoppo says. “So one of the things that I always preach is that you should aim to reduce your call sheet. First, look at the calls you’re responding to, and then look up what you’re actually legally mandated to respond to. I’ve found that many departments are spending time on things that they shouldn’t be. Officers shouldn’t just be picking up and transporting animals. They shouldn’t just keep reacting to the same problems because it never results in lasting change. They need to be proactive.”
2. Get involved with your community
Giacoppo suggests one simple way that animal control officers can engage with their communities. “If you’re driving by a dog park in your sector, take five minutes, leave the ticket book behind, and bring a tennis ball and a bag of cookies to that dog park. It gives you a chance to get to know the people and animals in that community. After asking the owners about their dogs for a bit, ask: ‘What’s going on with animals in your community that I should know about?’ Then let them know what you’ve been working on in the community right now. That gets the community engaged with you, shows that you care, and helps you find out things that you may not have known before.”
3. Get social
Another simple community engagement tactic, Giacoppo says, is by using social media. “Social media has changed the landscape of what we do. When I first started doing this, people would always say, ‘I don’t want to hear about what you do, I can’t even think about it.’ They’d turn a blind eye to it. But with social media, those days are long gone. Now those people actually want to be a part of the solution. Posting a picture on Facebook that shows an officer in their community helping an animal out is easy and effective.”
“The Problem Solvers”
In helping shift the perception of animal control across the country, Giacoppo hopes to see more animal control officers take pride in their work for the communities that they serve. “I want animal control officers to be seen as a problem solvers and as community heroes in line with the local police department. They’re the people who solve problems that people are having with animals in a way that everybody wins, animals don’t die, people don’t get hurt, and people don’t get annoyed.”
Feature image © George Martell / The Boston Herald