Every day, our customers display incredible acts of compassion that impact the lives of animals and humans alike. Scott Giacoppo is the Director of National Shelter Outreach for Best Friends Animal Society.
Growing up in a law enforcement family, Scott Giacoppo was practically raised to be a police officer. “I have fond memories of my father and my brothers sitting around the dinner table on Sundays arguing cases and debating case law,” he says.
But as a young adult, Giacoppo took another path. “At the time, law enforcement didn’t feel like my calling. I wasn’t as drawn to it as I wanted to be or as much as I felt like I needed to be to make it a lifelong career.” Living in Minneapolis at the time, Giacoppo was attending junior college and wasn’t sure what he wanted to do in life—but that all changed after a friend of his donated to a local animal shelter in honor of his birthday. “I later got a newsletter in the mail from that shelter, which said: ‘Volunteers needed to walk dogs in the mornings.’ I’ve always been an animal lover and knew deep down that I wanted to make a contribution for the animals. My mornings were free and I didn’t live far from the shelter, so I just went for it. I never looked back.”
Giacoppo later dropped out of school and moved back to his native Boston, where he began to volunteer at his local MSPCA shelter. Before he knew it, he became a full-time animal caregiver. “I just knew that this was my calling,” he says.
But it wasn’t long until Giacoppo figured out how to weave his love of animals with his law enforcement upbringing—and it all started with a dog named Billy. “One day, a guy stopped by at the shelter and dropped off the dog as an owner surrender. He seemed concerned about the dog. There was no such thing as a behavior evaluation back then, but we took the dog to the back and noticed that he was very timid. Every time you raised your hand, he thought he was going to be beaten.
“Yet every day, at lunch, the same guy who dropped the dog off came in and would sit with the dog in the run and just pet him and talk to him. So one day, I finally came up to him and asked, ‘Buddy, what’s going on? We keep thinking this dog has been beaten.’ The guy said that he found a group of kids that were beating the dog so he decided to take it to the shelter.
“I became bonded with the dog and named him Billy. We found him a great home with a wonderful woman and her daughter. But about a month later, the woman called me to let me know that she was in the hospital and that her daughter’s boyfriend had taken over the house and turned it into a drug house. Billy was on the back porch just slowly dying.
“I kind of got in trouble for this, but I just went out there myself to get Billy without notifying the law enforcement department about it. He was just a rack of bones. I got a verbal surrender from the owner and took the dog back to the shelter. That’s when my friend John, the cruelty investigator, got involved with Billy’s case, and that’s when knew that that was the job I had to do.”
Not only did Giacoppo come upon his next chapter, but Billy did too. “Billy took a ferry over to our shelter in Martha’s Vineyard and a month later I got a picture of him running on the beach with another dog. So he really lived happily ever after!”
After Giacoppo graduated from the police academy, he became a special state police officer investigating animal cruelty. “I wasn’t an animal control officer, but I was working closely with animal control because we were knocking on the same doors and doing the same thing. The only difference was that if the issue was about local ordinances and violations, it would be under their jurisdiction, and if was cruelty, it was under mine. It really made no sense to me to do it separately. I think that’s where I first felt that need to do things collaboratively and just get the job done.”
Working with Boston’s Youth Violence Strike Force helped Giacoppo realize just how impactful thoughtful collaboration could be. “My lieutenant recognized that the same people that he was dealing with for gang violence were the same people that I was dealing with for animal cruelty and dogfighting. So he brought me in and I got a lot of education working with the gang unit.”
Giacoppo also immersed himself in the greater community thanks to his experience with the Boston Neighborhood Policing Unit. “People hear about the gang unit and they think it’s all about cracking heads open and locking people up, but a lot of time was spent trying to convince the kids to take another path,” he says. “It opened my eyes to a different way of doing the work.”
Whether he was primarily focusing on investigations or working in a shelter environment, Giacoppo was committed to staying close to the community. “I started to focus my efforts on changing public perception as opposed to knocking on someone’s door and changing that one person’s behavior, and I did that by focusing on legislative issues and attending community meetings.”
One of Giacoppo’s biggest takeaways from his experiences out on the field is to challenge your assumptions. “Nine out of ten times, officers knock on peoples’ doors and the people answering are resisting help. But that one other time, they are going to talk to someone who genuinely wants help—yet the officers are approaching it with that same reactive mindset that they had for those nine other situations,” he says.
He recalls one story that helped him realize how important it is to avoid making assumptions. “I got a call about an emaciated dog being kept at a gas station and wearing a bright orange collar that someone wrote ‘Do not feed’ on. I went out there to investigate and just as I pulled into the gas station, this dog sure enough came wandering up to me. He literally looked like a skeleton with skin draped over it. It had that big orange collar on. I was furious.
“I marched into that office and I started berating the owner. All the while, this guy had this little smirk on his face. That just egged me on even more,” he says.
“He finally said, ‘Officer, can I explain?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ He opened up a file drawer and pulled out a file that was a couple of inches thick. It was from the animal hospital that I worked out of. It turned out that the dog had a malabsorption problem where he was unable to process food normally. The owner was taking the dog to the hospital every month and spending several hundred dollars per visit just to keep that dog alive and healthy with special food and powders. The reason he put the collar on the dog was because people would come up to it and sneak the dog food thinking it was starving which would cause the dog to vomit and get diarrhea. That dog never left his owner’s side and the owner loved that dog so much. I was completely humiliated. That taught me a very valuable lesson about assumptions.
“On the flip side, there was a time that I was at a hearing with a kid and I told him he was never going to get his dog back. He leapt over the table and attacked me right there in the police station! He got arrested off the bat. But a lot of officers go into a situation thinking that they’re more likely to get an experience like the kid at the police station rather than the guy at the gas station.”
He adds, “My work now is focused on teaching officers how to have that objectivity, so that when they knock on a door, they’re assuming that the person behind it wants help.”
Giacoppo offers an example of one such community member that he formed a bond with during his own career. “Carolyn was a hoarder—back then she was known as an ‘animal collector’—who collected cats in her small apartment. The protocol with animal collectors was to go to their place, clean them out of animals, and then every six to eight months go back and do it all over again. At some point my department was participating in the Tufts University Animal Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, and we had to recommend people to take part in the study. I got Carolyn to join the program.
“Her life literally changed as a result of that study. Some time later I went back to her apartment to pick up some more cats and she confessed to me that she realized that she wasn’t just an animal collector, but that she was a hoarder and had a problem. We had a long conversation about it and she decided that she could manage seven cats. So I let her choose seven cats out of the fifty or sixty that I was removing from her apartment. I got them sterilized and vaccinated and returned them to her.
“After that, I still went back to check on her every now and then. Every Christmas I would bring her some cat toys. After Facebook became a thing, Carolyn sent me a friend request, so I accepted it with limited restrictions. We kept in touch for a bit and eventually lost contact. Then about eight or nine years ago, I got an email from a friend of hers informing me that Carolyn had passed away. She was sure that Carolyn wanted me to know about it because she had so much respect and admiration for me. I’ll never forget that.”
Building Communities, Creating Impact
In 2007, Giacoppo was tapped by Lisa Lafontaine, the outgoing President at the New England Federation of Humane Societies (where Giacoppo was a board member at the time) to join her at the Washington Humane Society in Washington, D.C. as its Chief Animal Welfare Officer. “I left everything I knew behind. But when I got to D.C., Lisa just let me do my thing. She didn’t try to get in the way or tell me how it was going to be. She put her complete trust in me and showed me what a true leader is.”
It was that sense of freedom that allowed Giacoppo to completely transform Washington Humane’s field services program. “I was in charge of everything that happened outside of the building. It was my first real experience dealing directly with animal control.”
But even as he describes his accomplishments, Giacoppo is always quick to add that he never did anything alone. “I look back on things that have happened throughout my career and remember that I didn’t do any of these things alone. In D.C., I had a fantastic leader. Lisa taught me how to challenge all of my long standing beliefs, because if we don’t challenge them, we won’t change and we’ll be stuck in the past. I had a fantastic co-worker in Stephanie Shain, the Chief Operating Officer. And, of course, I had a fantastic staff.”
He mentioned one particular officer, Ed, who left an impression on him. “He was born and raised in D.C. He lost one brother to gang violence and another was involved in gangs and drugs, but all he wanted to do was work with animals and serve his community and he was never given the opportunity. When I started working with him, he really shined. He was the one knocking on the doors. It wouldn’t have happened without people like Ed.
“We restructured the department to give rank and we also created an investigator slot. When Ed made Investigator, he was so proud. His family had a barbecue for him and his grandmother invited me to it.
“He played the whole thing off because he was a young kid and all machismo. I’d give out these certificates whenever our officers accomplished something new or reached a new milestone, and Ed always made me think that he was throwing his away and that they weren’t a big deal to him. When I was talking to his grandma, however, she revealed that they were all displayed on Ed’s refrigerator at home! I was so touched by that.”
Staying close to the community also helped Giacoppo turn what would have been a public relations issue into an effective plea for help. “I remember when we hit the 51% mark for our live release rate. Lisa and I were celebrating it. But right after that, a media story broke about how many animals were dying in our shelters. So you know what we did? We got in front of the camera and said, ‘Yeah, there are a ton of animals dying in our shelter. That’s why we need people to come and adopt. We need people to foster. We need people to donate money or materials. We need the community to help make this a better place.’ That was the end of the story. We didn’t get slammed on Facebook or berated by the public. We got help. Every shelter in the country should be doing that instead of trying to defend themselves, because that isn’t what the community wants or needs to hear.”
The Future of Animal Control
With a career spanning thirty years across sheltering and law enforcement, Giacoppo has seen it all. “I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t sometimes break down and cry. I’d be lying if I said I don’t have flashbacks to things I’ve experienced, like if I meet a dog named Billy. I don’t even eat white rice—I can’t have it on my plate—because it reminds me of maggot infestations. My mind makes the grains move. 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. “What I’m talking about isn’t unique to my career. Officers deal with this every single day.”
So what gets Giacoppo through the hard days? A solid support system, he says. “The people who are around me and work with me are what inspire and motivate me. That could be part of the secret sauce to longevity in this field. Because if I don’t do it, I am going to leave it behind for my brothers and sisters to do it for me. It’s almost like I can’t let them down.We have to work together to make it happen. Whether it’s a community member calling in to me and saying that they have a concern about a neighbor’s dog or a shelter worker that I bring the dog to and who is responsible for saving that dog’s life—we’re all working together.”
Today, Giacoppo is Director of National Shelter Outreach at Best Friends Animal Society, where he helps animal welfare organizations across the country improve their 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 shelters that they don’t even need a bigger budget to accomplish things. All it takes is that shift in mindset.” As for his main goal, he says, “I want animal control officers to be seen as a problem solvers who take pride in their work. They’re the people who solve problems that people are having with animals in a way that everybody wins.” With his current role at Best Friends, Giacoppo is confident that he can achieve it. “I have again found myself working with a truly amazing team of individuals under great leadership. We have a shared purpose and laser-like focus to get the job done—and I know we will.”
To read more about Scott’s story and his advice and tips for animal control officers, click here.
Feature image by Scott Giacoppo / Best Friends Animal Society