Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Hollywood depicts ACOs as the bad guys again

Whatcom Humane Society ACO Paul Evans enjoys a breath of fresh air with a shelter dog he adores.

A fast-moving film plot needs a villain. And when the story revolves around animals, there's an easy target.

Animal control officers are consistently cast to play that part.

ACOs are convenient scapegoats. It's true that every profession faces the critical eye of art sometimes. But has there ever been a positive portrayal of the work done by ACOs, who are on the front lines saving animals from heartbreaking circumstances?

Lady and the Tramp. Shaggy D.A. And now the latest film sensation, Hotel for Dogs. In each, ACOs are portrayed as "blundering villains who are awkwardly incompetent and enthusiastically sadistic in their treatment of canines," says Mark Kumpf, president of the National Animal Control Officers Association based in Kansas.

I've ridden along with ACOs many times in a multitude of communities. Watching them at work, I saw that they aren't just "dog catchers" -- they are first responders just like police, fire and ambulance workers. In California, for example, ACOs are required by law to report cases of child abuse when they encounter them. Abused animals often indicate that children in the home might be in trouble, too.

Penny Cistaro is now the executive director of Whatcom Humane Society in northern Washington State. But when she started out in animal sheltering 30 years ago, her career began as an ACO.

What she saw out there still haunts her.

And while all animal rescuers are exposed to stomach-turning images of cruelty and neglect, ACOs see much more than most because they arrive on the scene first.

This past summer, I interviewed an ACO who had just attended the scene of a head-on collision. One of the drivers, a woman on her way out to celebrate her 30th birthday, had her two dogs in the car with her. An ambulance took the woman to hospital. And ACOs were tasked with saving her dogs. One of the dogs died in his rescuer's arms on the way to the shelter.

As a society, we are all responsible for the epic pet overpopulation crisis. Villianizing the people who have dedicated their careers to being part of the solution doesn't make sense.

Yes, it's just a movie. But it's no fun being constantly belittled on the big screen for doing difficult and heroic work that you pour your heart and soul into. No wonder the burnout rate is outrageously high. Leaving the job before the first year is up isn't uncommon.

Isn't it time we give ACOs the respect they deserve?

Now that would be a happy Hollywood ending.

Kathryn Destreza, Louisiana SPCA's director of humane law enforcement, romps in the shelter yard with a rambunctious pit bull.

Animal control officers fight back in this editorial

By Mark Kumpf

The quintessential negative depiction of the "dog catcher" in American movies and television has once again been cast in the film Hotel for Dogs. Following the cinematic tradition of Shaggy D.A. and Lady and the Tramp, animal control officers are portrayed as film antagonists: blundering villains who are awkwardly incompetent and enthusiastically sadistic in their treatment of canines.

While those associated with the film should be lauded for their off-screen efforts to promote proper dog care, nutrition, exercise and the adoption of homeless animals, the unfortunate typecasting of animal control officers in film continues to be an affront to the thousands of professionals across the country dedicated to promoting ethical and responsible animal care and ownership.

The National Animal Control Association (NACA) was established in 1978 as an independent, nonprofit organization fostering the highest standards of professionalism in the practice of animal control. As the primary professional association for animal control practitioners, NACA members participate in extensive instructional programs with the goal of improving their knowledge and skills in order to protect the animals and the communities
they serve.

Each day, our membership of 3,400 animal control officers, agencies and affiliated state members are at work in urban and rural communities across the country. These hardworking professionals are responsible for transporting a significant percentage of the estimated six to eight million cats and dogs entering shelters every year. Often they also care for and treat them.

Between 600,000 and 750,000 of these animals (nearly 30% of dogs) are reunited with their families annually, and approximately half are adopted from the more than 5,000 shelters operating across the country. And that is thanks partly to animal control officers. They are also called upon to safely and compassionately euthanize tens of thousands of dogs, cats and other animals too injured, sick or aggressive to be adopted. Or in the most unfortunate circumstances, such as space and budgetary constraints.

Animal control officers investigate thousands of animal cruelty cases and are often called upon to testify in court. They perform their duties and protect the public. Sometimes that comes at great personal risk, whether attempting to free a terrified trapped pet, facing a wild, diseased animal or rescuing animals from abusive and neglectful environments. Officers have been threatened, injured and even killed in the line of duty, shuttering puppy mills, investigating cases of animal cruelty, and prosecuting organizers of dog fighting and blood sports.

The cinematic adaptation of Lois Duncan's 1971 book Hotel for Dogs is certainly entertaining to young audiences. What dog lover wouldn't love to imagine himself as the keeper of an inn for canines, a "Dalmatian plantation", or a similar facility based on breed of preference? However, NACA encourages adults to explain to young moviegoers that the film's "dog catchers" are a slanderous portrayal of the highly trained, compassionate and professional animal control officers patrolling our streets to rescue animals in need.

Mark Kumpf
National Animal Control Officers Association

Mark Kumpf is also the Director of Montgomery County, Ohio's Animal Resource Center.

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