A Bum Rap: Changing Perceptions about Animal Control
Everyone knows the stereotype: “Dogcatchers” are portrayed in movies as evil villains that snatch up lost animals, drag them to the pound, and lock them away in a cold cage, never to be seen again. Sound familiar? Though not used as much nowadays, the old-fashioned term has had a lasting negative impact on the animal control profession and the public’s perception of it.
In this episode, we are joined again by Daniel Ettinger, the animal control supervisor for the Summit County Colorado Sheriff’s Office and host of the Animal Control Report podcast. He’s on a mission to change public perception about the notoriously misunderstood field of animal control. Listen in as Daniel gives us a sneak peek into the life of an animal control officer, dispels some of the harmful myths, and explains the realities of the job, both good and bad.
An animal control supervisor in Denver, Daniel has over a decade of experience investigating crimes against animals and is an an adjunct instructor for the University of Missouri’s Law Enforcement Training Institute. | Learn More »
Mia Cunningham: Thank you for joining us today for the Fully Vetted podcast, brought to you by the Ohio Veterinary Medical Association. My name is Mia Cunningham, and along with my co-host, Krysten Bennett, we are very pleased to welcome Daniel Ettinger to the show. Daniel is currently the animal control supervisor for the Summit County, Colorado Sheriff’s Office. He has several years of experience investigating crimes against animals and maintaining a safe community. Welcome to the show.
Daniel Ettinger: Thanks for having me.
Krysten Bennett: I feel like we need the Law and Order theme in the background.
DE: We could have that!
KB: Maybe I can add that in editing. But anyway, we wanted to have you on again to learn more about the world of animal control, because I think it’s often overlooked and generally misunderstood. So before we get into the nitty gritty, can you give us a snapshot of a day in the life of an animal control officer?
DE: I can share that with you because I think that’s important. Like, what do we do on a day to day basis? If you’ve ever watched, like Houston SPCA or Animal Cops—whatever it used to be called—on Animal Planet. You would see that like there’s like these crazy cases and it all happened so fast. The reality is it takes hundreds of hours of investigation.
And so most agencies, you go in, you check your emails, you call into dispatch, you know, you see what’s there for calls for service. There may be calls that you have to follow up from another day. Right. Maybe it’s somebody that you asked to get vet care for an animal. Maybe you’re still continuing an investigation for a dog bite or animal cruelty. And so, you know, you get your truck. Your truck is your office, and then you just get rolling. You go call the call. You prioritize it based on somewhat of location and or, you know, what is the type of call if there’s a new call comes in and it’s a public safety issue, you’re going to want to get there pretty quickly. And then, you know, you’re you’re handling that. You got to write reports on everything, right? That’s important. So you’re doing your reports, you’re documenting crime scenes. We had a city attorney once tell me, she was like, “You know, you guys are so undervalued. You do all of it.” She said there in Denver, the police officers, they’ll respond to a call. But if it’s like an investigation for, let’s say, domestic violence or robbery or car theft, it goes to a specialty unit. Whereas animal control, you are the specialty unit. So whether it’s a dog bite, whether it’s an animal neglect investigation, you’re the one running it from start to finish.
And so there’s a lot of documentation, there’s a lot of crime scene processing and then evaluating animals. I’m not a veterinarian. I can’t assess an animal in the same way a veterinarian can. But I still have to make field judgments. Is this animal one out of nine on the body condition system? Is this dog lame? Do I see pyometra? Is there an abscess? Skin trigger testing for a dog in a hot car, right, the gum, capillary refill? Like I’m trained on all that stuff because it’s so important. And so as you look at, like what the animal control officer does, there’s so many different hats. And by no means am I devaluing anybody’s profession. But we’re the police officer, we’re the detective and the social worker and the veterinarian and the ambulance driver—all those things for one profession.
KB: Every field has its share of bad apples, but the public at large seems to have the perception that the animal control community has more than average. Why is that, do you think? And what are some of the stereotypes and misunderstandings about animal control officers?
DE: l’ll start with why. You know, I always say, it’s not Disney’s genius that they came up with the fat dog catcher running around with a net, angry, yelling at people, taking dogs. The reality is that was our reality. We had dog catchers. We had people that took this job, you know, because it was either their skill set or that’s all they had to do in their community. And so I think what happened is the product we used to put out there for decades was the dog catcher—like so someone in Disney or someone who writes books, that was their experience. And sure, they’re going to exaggerate who they dealt with. But the reality is, that’s who they saw, that’s what they experienced. I’m so grateful to be part of this podcast, because I think it helps get our word out there and show people that not only is there training for our team, right, for our peers, but it also shows people what really goes on inside of animal control.
MC: So you’re not all John Witherspoon from Friday.
DE: I mean, it depends, you know what I’m saying? It’s like, I do like the bathroom. Not many people are going to get that joke. If you’ve ever seen Friday, it’s a classic. They show the dog catcher as like, you know, he’s mean, he’s like, “I hate dogs” and he’s he’s always talking how he got bit in the butt and like how you know it’s good to be mean to the animal and… No, not at all. Like, I like to make jokes like Mr. Weatherspoon, may he rest in peace. But I also have a professional side of me and I’m empathetic and really, you know, compassionate for our community. It’s really important.
MC: So how do those misconceptions about the job impact you personally?
DE: I feel like, because now I have an opportunity to help change that voice or change that image, all it does is provide motivation to continue to push forward, to change it right? I know a lot of my peers, it does affect them, because it is a very challenging job. It’s, very truthfully, a very emotionally draining job. And so when somebody devalues what you do by calling you “just the dogcatcher,” it can hurt. I’ve been there. I have been there, but it’s been part of my motivation to really help bring this profession up.
KB: There are dozens of different terms that people use in your field. What are some of the outdated terms people are still using that we need to replace?
DE: So you have “dog warden,” right? Obviously “dog catcher.” You know, this might not be favorable with everyone, but I do think “animal control” needs to be laid to rest in that aspect, because “animal control” is synonymous with that old dog catcher. There’s “dog control officer”—I don’t even know what that is. Like, so that’s all you deal with? If there’s a cat outside, you’re like, “What’s up, cat? I’m just a dog control officer. I’m good, right?” And there’s “dog warden,” and that just sounds like it’s a doggy jail and then you’re the warden of the dog jail. Come on. I’ve spoken out the Ohio Dog Wardens Association, but—With all due respect, Ohio—it’s time to change that name, folks. Like, let’s have a big—what is that word? Upheaval.
DE: Well, that too.
KB: It’s an uphill upheaval.
DE: Okay, that’s good. Yes. But there’s a lot that takes part of changing names as well. It’s not just like, you know, snap of fingers and it’s over with.
KB: Why are there so many different terms? Is this because of the different municipalities across the country? They just kind of slapped a label on a person who did a thing, and it’s for some places, isn’t it in statute, what they’re called?
DE: It absolutely is. When you look at our profession as a whole, there’s still no consistency. It’s nice, and we have people doing good things, but it’s very inconsistent. Ohio has humane law enforcement officers, but you also have dog wardens, right? So then it’s confusing. Why are there two and how does that work? So, it is legislative. The humane officers are POST certified. So they’re law enforcement. They are POST-certified law enforcement officers with the ability to arrest people, write summonses. If you break it down from the aspect of like public safety, the dog warden is like your rabies control officer, which is another old name as well, by the way. If you break it down that way, like the dog warden picks up strays, maybe deals with bites, but then your humane law enforcement officer deals with your cruelty and neglect cases and can do the arrests, etc. But that’s only in a few states—in Pennsylvania as well. But here in Colorado, you do it all; California, you do it all; in Texas, you do it all; Wisconsin, you do it all. So it’s just inconsistent and depends on where you’re at.
When you think about the POST-certified officers, there’s a standard of training, and that can range legislatively in what state, but there is still a standard of training, right? They still have to go through a police academy—for most most of them, if not all. And they have to, you know, be trained on specific things. With animal control, you get hired and, depending on where you work, you either get a catch and a truck and they’re like, all right, how about it? Some agencies will put you through training and others will hire you, train you internally, and then when trainings come up with, they’ll send you there. And that’s difficult because of staffing—it’s hard to hire one person and then send them away for four months at a training academy. But that’s kind of how police work is done; they they do their training prior to getting out on the road and doing the training for the department.
MC: So overall, why do you feel it’s important to change public perception around animal control?
DE: I think the most important thing is, because people that have a negative image and think that we’re just going to take an animal and put it to sleep, they aren’t going to call us when there’s an issue. And if we can’t help, if people are afraid to allow us to help, then we don’t have the impact on the community that we should. Our goal is always public safety in the community. But it’s also animal welfare, right? We want to make sure the animals are protected. So let’s say there’s an animal in the backyard suffering, but someone’s like, “I’m not going to call the dogcatcher. They’re just going to pick it up and kill it. I’d rather it just live in the yard.” So, if we can educate those people to understand what we really do, then hopefully we can help more people and help more animals.
MC: Do you guys do any like community outreach to help the community to better understand the distinction of what you do?
DE: Yes. And a lot of us in our profession do what we call humane education. And you may have heard of that as well. So we’ll go out into schools, right? We’ll go to community events, we’ll go to parades, and we’ll have our own community events as well, whatever it may be, so we can really touch the community that way.
I just feel that—though that is an important perspective—humane education is the product you put out there. So when you’re out on a call and you’re dealing with a bad situation, it’s still ending that bad situation with a thank you from the person. Even if you have to take an animal or if you have to write a ticket, you know, really being professional about it and being human. We can’t forget to be human, because that’s very important. Sometimes people get very robotic, but if you leave somebody in a situation where they have a better understanding of why you had to take the actions you had to take, it’s better. It’s just better customer service; it really is.
KB: Public education is one thing and even that is just like a huge task. But moving forward, do you think that it’s something that needs to be taken on at the legislative level? Is this like a national thing? Should it all be standardized? And this is a huge, huge question, but what is what is the solution?
DE: I think it really does need to have a more of a national understanding and registry in that aspect. Let’s say somebody commits animal cruelty in Ohio and goes next door to Pennsylvania. There’s really no way to find out, so they can just go adopt from another shelter. The systems don’t talk to each other.
And that’s the other piece: Some of us are under a sheriff’s office. You have humane societies, you have public works, public health, you have nonprofits, all these things. So there’s just no consistency at all for any of it. So I think big picture, there needs to be something that says, like, here is what it all—animal shelter, animal welfare, animal control—should look like. I don’t think it has to be like a major budgetary restrictive thing, but there needs to be some standards as far as like, what is the average stray weight? That should be consistent across the board.
But it’s hard, because I might service a community that’s more rural, but then you go to Cleveland, which is not rural. And so in that aspect, it’s like, in Cleveland, the laws may be different and that’s the same in law enforcement. But there’s just consistency when it comes to training, right? That’s where we need to really show. The difference is, how do we train people? And then to second that, and I know I might be going down a rabbit hole here, but the curriculums that we teach in school don’t teach you how to raise a pet. Can I ask that question really quick? How did you learn how to raise a pet?
MC: Just being exposed through family and friends.
DE: And so when you think about that, sometimes it’s that cycle. You know, and I’m not proud of this, but growing up, my dad would take the dog, shove his face in the pee or poop in the house, smack him on the butt. But that doesn’t work, right? But we learn that. We have to teach all that to our teams. And I think it’s great, right now, you have many members of the animal control profession doing different things. You have major organizations that train. But if you look at the curriculums, they’re all different and they’re all trained in a little bit different things, right? There is consistency, but a lot of it is a little different.
KB: Well, how did that happen? Because you look at police departments and you’ve got pretty standardized terminology there. You know, you have officer, you have detective, you have sheriff, you have deputy. Why are there so many different titles for what you do?
DE: Because I think, as a society, we look at police as being a structured, uniformed agency, and police is what we would call paramilitary. So it follows that structure and guidelines. Animal control has just been the dog catcher, right? So that’s how it’s been looked at by our public officials if they’re not familiar with it. Like, why would a dogcatcher need a bulletproof vest? Why does a dogcatcher need to have the ability to do X, Y, and Z, if all they’re doing is picking up stray dogs? Why do they need a budget? Just give them a truck and a catch pole. So I think it comes from historical views, ways of not being progressive.
KB: You know, not just the title complicates things, but every position is just like a little bit different in what they actually do. Do you—and maybe not you specifically—but do people in your community lobby trying to get governments to change this or regulate it somehow?
DE: Yes and no. Our lobbyists are more focused on things like not allowing ivory in the state. I mean, there’s a good one that they’re working on for 2023, which is an anti-tethering law for the state, and they’ve actually put a lot of thought into it. So that’s that’s important, but there’s no one that’s willing to take on, like, a name change.
So in state statute, in Colorado, it is animal control. And recently I believe they went through and did a legislative thing as far as taking out the word “destroy”—because, again, that was the historical view of this profession. And animal shelters and whatnot didn’t want that that label in there as far as destroying an animal. And nobody wants to hear that that terminology. But I feel like—and I’m not just saying this because I’m mad—but I feel like animal shelters get more love than the the dogcatcher. Animal shelters are moving beyond the dog pound. And it’s a little bit like, why are we still left in the in the dark? So they’re getting more support legislatively. They get much more support from grants and donations. But we’re still the dog catcher, right? And we are the front lines.
KB: Why do you think that is?
DE: A couple of reasons. I think they have better marketing; I think they’re able to to really get the word out there. And that’s where the animals are. When you see an animal in a cage, it’s sad, right? It’s hard for people to see that. They’re not seeing what we do. There’s a great television commercial that captures all of it in 30 seconds. We just need to get together and figure out a campaign to show people what we do.
KB: For as much as it sounds like the profession maybe hasn’t evolved, what are some of the bigger changes you’ve seen throughout your career?
DE: You know, when I was a kid, you would let your dog out in the morning and it came back later in the day. Now your dog’s sitting on your couch with you while you’re watching sitcoms and sleeping in your bed. Like that didn’t happen—not to say that they weren’t valued back then, but they’re much more family now. And as we talk about Darwin’s theory of natural selection, where people choose not to have children and go to their fur babies, right? Too bad we can’t claim them on our taxes!
KB: Maybe someday.
DE: I’ll have like 47 dogs and I’ll be rich! (laughs) I’ve been in those houses. I do not want 47 dogs.
MC: So have you worked with many forensic veterinarians?
DE: I have, yes.
KB: Didn’t you have Dr. Merck on your show?
DE: We did have Dr. Melinda Merck.
KB: She was on our show a couple of years ago.
DE: Yeah, she’s great. We’ve also worked with entomologist Dr. Jason Byrd from University of Florida. You know, it’s really important to have that forensic background when you’re dealing with some of these cruelty cases. The ASPCA has a great hospital in Florida where they do forensic work. I think the more and more people get into forensic veterinary work, the more beneficial it can be in the shelter world.
MC: Given what you’ve seen—and I think we may have touched on it a little bit, but I think it was just more from the public perception—but just for you, the trauma that you see on a continual basis, how do you manage that stress?
DE: I love that question, and thank you for recognizing it. We are exposed to what people call compassion fatigue or secondary traumatic stress. And, you know, everybody has their different vices—whether it’s drinking, you know, having a drinking problem, or whether it’s not eating well, or maybe you just have an anger problem. Truthfully, I moved away from where I was in Denver because it was not only traumatic from day to day, understaffed, undervalued community, but then you also didn’t have the support from your supervisors. It was just a really difficult place to work. And now I work in a little slice of heaven, to be honest. I work in the mountains of Colorado. Our supervisors are great. Like, it’s just amazing. My point of that is, it’s a stressful job. So if you don’t have the structure around you to help build and help keep you happy, it’s going to even cause more damage.
So with burnout, we know anger comes from that, right. Displaced aggression, those type of things. And I’ve experienced all these things; this is not just me throwing this out there. I think it’s important now that, first and foremost, you have to realize, like this is an issue, right? And you can’t just blame others. That’s not what I’m trying to do here. It’s recognizing why I feel this way. What am I doing and how can I change that? And so for me, and even when I was in a what I would consider a somewhat toxic work environment, it was all about self-care, right? So I stopped drinking. I was like, I don’t need to drink. There’s no need. And I didn’t feel like I was ever an alcoholic. But I was at the point where it was unhealthy for me, right? And I was like, I’m just going to stop doing that. I’m gonna eat better, I’m going to run, I’m going to focus on my health and what I can do as an individual to better myself. Focus on more of the positive stuff. Focus on how I can help change the image of our profession and bring more professionalism to it. And so really, really challenging myself to just be a better human, and then also finding a way out. It was like, it’s time for me to go. And if I if I can change all these other aspects of my life to feel healthy, I can also change the environment that I’m in. And I eventually did that. So I think the short answer is just being aware that you contribute to it as much as the environment does, and you have to take control of that to get better.
MC: Weed is legal there. Does that help?
DE: I wish! It’s only legal if you don’t work for law enforcement. I tell you right now, at the moment it’s, like, federally legal… After work.
KB: Obviously, being a police officer is a stressful job, but for you, you see both sides, the animal cruelty and the human abuse as well. How do you manage that?
DE: I’m proud of it in some aspect because I was aware. But I mean, I’ve had kids removed from homes that are so bad, right? Like, it’s it’s deplorable and it’s not healthy for adults, but it’s also not healthy for healthy for the children. And then it’s also just being aware of some of the other triggers in people that, you know, maybe this needs a follow up. Maybe I need to get with my local PD and say, “Hey, something’s not right here. Here’s what I know; is this enough for you to go take a take a look?” You know, that type of stuff is really important, but it can wear on you for sure.
KB: You seem really well-adjusted. Did it take you some time to get to that point?
DE: It did. In some aspects, you have to go through it before you can can get to where you need to be. And I’ve sacrificed a lot in that aspect and I’ve put myself through a lot. But in the end, if I can do it to help others, it’s it’s all worth it. It really is. And so I’m proud of where I am. I’m not shy to say that, because I think that’s important to sometimes stop and recognize your self-worth. But at the end of the day, like, I don’t do it for myself. I do it for others to help people continue to feel better and have those outlet.
KB: In the animal control profession, is is there the level of burnout and suicide that the veterinary profession sees?
DE: So I wouldn’t say suicide since unfortunately, the veterinary profession is the highest job of suicide, if I’m not mistaken, them and dentists. But burnout is definitely a thing. If I look at some of the shelter veterinarians, the things that they deal with—and you know, they’re not paid the same as private practice. It’s just it’s a tough, tough situation. But we definitely have the burnout, which is really difficult for people, and it causes departments to suffer because either the person’s not giving 100% or even 50%. But they’re still there; there’s still a body, right? And so they have to go through all that process. And it’s just hard to hire people.
KB: So you mentioned that in a lot of cases, these departments are short staffed. Is that because people are leaving to go do less stressful jobs?
DE: There’s been a lot of that. You know, in Denver, they had very high turnover, which is wild because when I started there was no turnover. I worked with people that were your dog catchers. They were there 30-plus years. And then they started to phase out. Some people, like myself and others, got into the profession because they had an actual passion. That’s I like to use the phrase, it’s my life’s work, right? This is what I’m here to do. And then other people now, it’s becoming more of what we would say, a sexy job, in some aspects. So now more people are exploring it and finding out, holy shit, I didn’t know it was this hard. This isn’t what I expected. Then they quickly leave because there are ugly sides of it. Unfortunately, depending on where you are, you might have to euthanize the animal that’s maybe dog-on-dog aggressive, but it’s great to people right, because it’s a public safety issue. Or you may have to euthanize an animal that is really sick, but you still have feelings and emotions towards it. So it’s a hard job in that aspect.
And the other piece is people don’t expect—to get yelled at in the community, get berated. And they don’t have necessarily the same tools that police officers do. So I think it’s a combination of all those. I will say that the other discrepancy is pay. Now, granted, pay is going to reflect somewhat of your, you know, community that you work for. But I can tell you right now, people in this profession range from making like $15 an hour to do the same job in another community where they’re making $32 an hour. So why is it so inconsistent? And the value of it is rough. And so I think that that’s the other part.
MC: Well, did you have any final thoughts for us before we let you go?
DE: You know, I think it’s really important for people to understand that supporting and understanding what this profession is about will ultimately just help to help the community. There’s a great quote that says, “The greatness of our nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” And I think that that shows in a lot of aspects. So, trust in your animal control officer or however they’re defined in your community, animal services, animal protection, humane law enforcement, etc. Find ways—go do ride alongs with them—to understand what they do, and you’ll have a better overall feel for your community.
KB: Well, thanks again for your insight and for being on the show.
DE: Thank you for giving me an opportunity to say, as I always do at the end of our podcast, “Keep it humane, main!”