In the third episode of our COVID-19 podcast, NACA President Scott Giacoppo spoke with Adam Ricci about the wide range of issues that animal control officers, shelters, and communities are facing in the wake of this crisis, along with the steps that it’s taking to combat those issues. Below are some key takeaways from their conversation.
Note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Scott Giacoppo: Because of staffing shortages on both the animal control and the shelter sides, we believe that animal control should only be focusing on emergency calls at this time, which involve any animal who is sick, injured, and poses a threat to public safety. But I’d also include animal abuse cases in this as well because it brings up another level of complexity with regard to protection.
Despite our recommendations, I am hearing that, every day, officers are still out there picking up healthy stray animals—particularly cats—even in places where there is a TNR program in place. Even though TNR’s surgical capabilities have been stopped due to COVID-19, officers are continuing to bring in stray cats into shelters because they are being deemed nuisances. But the shelter staff doesn’t know what to do with these cats since they can’t be sterilized, so these cats are just going to end up dying at the shelter.
On defining and managing public safety:
SG: This is a core tenet of what we do. If someone calls in a bite report, that animal still needs to be put on quarantine and the whole bite investigation needs to happen. I’m lucky that in the states that I’ve worked in, I could do home quarantines if the bite wasn’t severe or if it was a provoked bite, for example. There are a lot of factors that go into making this decision, but home quarantine is still allowed. But there are a lot of states that don’t allow that and have strict guidelines that any bite or scratch needs to be quarantined at the shelter. NACA recently released a statement asking states to relax that requirement because of the potential that we’re going to face shelter overcrowding soon.
There are other ways to approach these cases. Let’s say there’s a bite situation where someone got their hand nipped while playing tug-of-war with their dog. If it sounds like the kind of thing where you can just talk to the owner on the phone about it, maybe that’s something that you decide to do instead of going out there to investigate it. I think, that’s up to officer discretion, to a degree.
If you get a call about a dog who is chasing kids on bikes or is visibly acting in a manner that suggests that it’s going to bite someone, then that’s something you should go out and deal with. But if it’s just a run-of-the-mill, dog running down the street situation, there are ways that you can just work with people on the phone to help with that animal. You don’t have to just say, “No, we can’t deal with this because we’re only dealing with emergencies.” Have the caller take a picture of the dog and post it on some local social media pages to find out if it’s someone’s dog that got loose. These are things we can do to help without having to canvas neighborhoods.
Adam Ricci: One thing we’re doing here in Albuquerque is using social media and websites like Pawboost.com, which we’ve seen great success with. We are also taking in some healthy strays once a week on an appointment basis. For the majority of people who don’t show up, we call them, and most of them will say something like, “I found the owner,” “It was my neighbor,” or “The dog was from three houses up the way.” We’ve really found that we can lean on the community to do this legwork for us, and I bet you that their RTO rates are higher than ours.
SG: Yes, absolutely. Especially in today’s environment, almost everybody is home all day. Chances are that if a dog gets loose, someone is going to find it or someone is looking for it once they’ve realized the dog is lost. I say this all the time to officers when they pick up strays: Listen for people who are yelling out the dog’s name or look for people who are walking around the neighborhood and ask if they lost a dog. Tell people to post on social media, Nexdoor.com, or whatever outlets are available. Officers don’t need to be going out there to respond to these calls right now. Historically, we know that with a large percentage of these calls, most of the animals are GOA (Gone On Arrival) by the time the officer gets there anyway. A lot of officers are working from their homes and are being dispatched through central dispatch on emergency calls right now. So why send an officer out in the community to start talking with people and interacting with people when they can be safe back at the shelter or even in their home? It’s putting their safety at risk.
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On prioritizing emergencies and officer discretion:
AR: When NACA says “emergencies only,” the thing is that not every community has the same priority system. This is a great opportunity to start having a conversation about how priority systems should be based on risk factors. For example, a “priority one” could be a variety of different things, but the bottom line is that it poses an immediate public safety threat to a human or humans. A “priority two” can be something that poses an immediate threat to an animal so that somebody has to intervene immediately.
For example, in Albuquerque, we have big freeway systems. So if “Fluffy” gets out on the freeway, an officer’s going to go address that because you have a potential public safety issue for the people who are trying to avoid running over “Fluffy”. You also have an issue for “Fluffy” because the situation poses an immediate danger to them as well. But this situation would actually be classified as a “stray roam.” But even if the animal is not being aggressive, there’s still a public safety threat and threat to the animal.
SG: Exactly. If a dog is out running on the freeway or even out on a street, the great majority of people are going to swerve out of the way or come to a sudden stop and that could cause an accident. When I talk about public safety, I admit that I do include animals as members of the public because I don’t want the dog to be hit by the car. When a call comes in about a dog running at large, for example, you should work with dispatch to ask qualifying questions. Don’t just ask, “Is he aggressive?” Because anyone who calls in is going to say, “Yeah, he looks mean.” Instead, ask, “What is the dog doing? What’s the behavior?” That way someone can offer more description. Maybe they’ll say, “Well, he’s running around and keeps looking over his shoulder.” Then you can determine that the dog is probably just lost and is scared. But if the dog is darting in and out of traffic or is just standing out in the middle of the street, that might constitute a public safety threat. But if you are out in a rural area where there’s a long dirt road and it’s not a busy metropolitan street, maybe even that doesn’t constitute a public safety threat. That’s where officer discretion comes into play.
AR: There are a lot of times when officer discretion should come into play. In Albuquerque, we were just taking a look at our operations and thinking about how we can further reduce some staffing on the field side. I opened up some calls and the majority of them were just follow-ups from things that happened a day or two before. Then I saw a stray roam on there. I thought to myself, “What are they doing?”
But when I opened the call up, I saw that it was a report of a loose monkey, possibly from the zoo. That’s legitimate. It turned out that it wasn’t actually a monkey, but a native coatimundi that was unfortunately later hit by a car and killed. But there was a legitimate reason for the officers to respond to this call because of its uniqueness and the safety aspect of it. Some questions that would come to mind are, “What kind of monkey is it?” and “Are there any threats to public safety that come with that?”
SG: Definitely. If it was a monkey, we’d want that animal off the street and in our care. Another thing to think about: where does assisting law enforcement fall into this? People also place that up in priority but don’t always deem it public safety threat, whereas I would. If officers are trying to get into a home to make an arrest or help someone who’s sick and there’s a dog that they need help securing, then that’s a matter of police officer safety which would count as public safety. That is something that we would want to go out and help them with.
On defining animal cruelty:
AR: I always separate actual cruelty from neglect. To me, cruelty is an active type of abuse that’s going on whereas neglect is more passive and there is something lacking with the animal’s care. Certainly, there are cases where neglect can be more active too. How do you differentiate between those things?
SG: I would refer back to officer discretion on that. Let’s say that I am in Nashville right now and it’s warm out, not hot or cold. Would I consider failure to provide shelter an emergency right now? No. But if there are reports of incoming thunderstorms this evening, that’d change for me. I’d do what I have always done and check the weather forecast. Another way to think about it is: what does the animal need shelter from? Today, right now, the animal doesn’t need shelter from anything in my backyard. But tonight, if it does start raining, that changes the situation. That would be up to my discretion.
On officer safety during COVID-19:
SG: I think that we’re trying to say is that there are very few times when it’s black or white. It’s so situational. That’s the work we do. We rely on officers to make good decisions on how to deal with situations every day. These days, they need to use that decision-making ability to decide whether or not this is a call that they really need to take because it’s not business as usual anymore.
Today, when you go out into the community, even if it’s for a nuisance cat complaint, you are putting your own safety in more jeopardy than you ever have before. Let’s say someone traps a cat and they call in animal control to take it away. If you go out there, someone is going to come outside and talk to you. You can maintain six feet of distance and hopefully, you can put gloves on and pick up the trap. But, even then, you’re potentially carrying COVID-19 from one point to another and even bringing it into the shelter. It’s just not worth it these days. We can clean up some of the messes that fall behind. But no matter if you are in a large metropolitan area or in a small rural county, it’s just not worth going out into the community unless you have to.
Here’s another example of why it’s important to answer emergency calls only at this time. Let’s say someone is furloughed or out of a job and their dog accidentally gets out and is picked up by animal control and put into the shelter. Now animal control has to come down on to the shelter to drop the dog off so there’s human-to-human contact there, even keeping social distancing rules in mind. Then you’re risking the safety of the owner and the shelter staff when the owner has to come in and pay fines that they may not even be able to afford. We’ve seen it outside of this crisis where people say that they cannot afford to bail their dog out of puppy jail, so then they just surrender the animal over to the shelter. By continuing to go out and pick up animals in these situations, think about the impact that it has on everyone in the shelter environment. Even when an officer has to do a reclaim, you’re swapping papers with them and wondering if the reason why they’re coughing under their mask is that they have COVID-19. The fear that everyone should have of going out into the community and catching COVID-19 is something that you bring home with you at the end of the day. Why should we send our officers out there to do things that they don’t have to do when they don’t need to jeopardize public safety or an animal is not in danger?
Shelter staff isn’t immune to this. They’re getting sick or getting furloughed. Animal control officers are getting sick and getting furloughed. I talked recently to a director and she is the only one she’s got right now. Her three other officers are out sick. She said that even if she didn’t believe in doing emergencies only right now, it’s all she can do. It’s not business as usual. We have to settle into a new norm.
On empowering animal control officers:
AR: What does an officer do if their administration, whether it’s a manager, chief of police, or even the mayor of the city, doesn’t really understand how many community touchpoints an animal control officer would have to deal with compared to other first responders?
SG: That’s what we’re trying to address at NACA. I’ve talked to people who have said, “I don’t want to be doing this, but my county/city is making me do it because they don’t look at us in the way that they should.” Animal control officers should be seen as first responders because we are first responders. We should be seen in that light because we do have to go out into the community, and the community or the government should provide us with the protection we need to do that safely. NACA is currently reworking our guidelines on what the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) is for officers based on some work that we’re doing with the shelter veterinarian community and the CDC’s recommendations, and we’ll release those in a few days.
The material that NACA is putting out, like our podcast and our guidelines, should be brought to administrations’ attention so that officers can say, “Look, this is what the national organization is saying” because we’re the only group that’s doing this.
The thing we must remember is that we’re recommending things that we’re already experts at. We’re really good at getting out there and talking to animal control about what’s needed as far as the laws go and what the policies should be, particularly with shelters. Shelters have been really afraid to bring in animals who have been in homes with COVID-19 positive people. But we have to remember that we’ve already been through things like this—not to this extent, I admit—but we’ve taken in dogs with parvo and cats with distemper and all that before. We’re used to disease and sanitation protocols, and we’re just changing them a little bit for this crisis. We’re utilizing skills the same skills that we’ve been using for other things. So if your administrator is telling you that it’s no big deal and to just get out there and do your job, you should gather all of this information and say, “With all due respect, boss, it is a big deal and no other agency out there is doing this.” In places where officers are only responding to emergency calls, the communities are coming out in droves to help them. They’re supporting the efforts just like we always knew that they would even without the COVID-19 crisis that we’re facing.
AR: There are definitely some things that are changing the way that we do business. I look at my operations and the things that we’ve done in the last few weeks. There’s still more that we could actually do. But at the same time, we’re learning how to do things that we already knew how to do at a higher level.
On the long-term effects of the COVID-19 crisis:
AR: You mentioned earlier that we’re worried about shelters becoming overpopulated, but a lot of shelters I know are experiencing their lowest population levels in history. We only have about 100 animals at my shelter right now when we have capacity for 1,000, yet I am still saying, “Nope, we can’t take anything in.” What’s your take on that?
SG: There are two things that come to my mind about this. First, the community is coming out to show support for what we do like never before. They’re adopting and fostering animals just to get them out of the shelter. You couldn’t ask for anything better to happen, and it’s a phenomenon across the country.
The second thing is, in the past couple of weeks alone, 10 million people have filed for unemployment. Thousands of people have died. Tens of thousands more have been hospitalized. The number of animals that are going to be affected by this is something that we don’t even know yet. Most of them are going to end up in shelters. Healthcare workers are saying that they more ventilators, PPEs, etc., because they want to prepare for what is coming next. We need to do the same thing—prepare for what we know is coming next.
The economic impact of this situation is going to cause homelessness, joblessness, and I haven’t even gotten to the fact that many people are going to die before this is over and many others are going to be hospitalized. If the people affected by this don’t have a plan for their animals, those animals are going to end up in our care.
I’m not a “doom and gloom” guy, and I believe with every inch of my being that at the end of this, we’re going to come out of this okay. We’re going to come out stronger, with a lot more knowledge, and doing things a little differently and better. I also believe that in animal control in particular, we’re going to come out more united than we ever have been. But it’s not going to be fun to get to that point. We’re going to be challenged, we’re going to pushed, and we have to be ready for it. We have to prepare for it.
The reason why we are suggesting that shelters reduce the number of animals that are coming in is that we believe that this is going to hit your community hard. Jobs are gone, homes are gone, and we’re already hearing about how people are taking their pets and moving into housing that doesn’t allow pets or with family members who are allergic or are just abandoning them in the streets.
You’re seeing all the great animals that are going out the door through fosters and adoptions. Why are they there in the first place? Is there an uptick in owner surrenders? Luckily in places that have been hit the hardest by the pandemic like New York City and Seattle, the numbers of animals coming in from COVID-19 victims have not been through the roof. It’s promising, but we have to be prepared for the worst. What’s going to happen in a couple of months when hurricane season hits and we have natural disasters coming up? These are things we’re facing as an industry and we have to be prepared for it. I would much rather sit in an empty shelter having prepared for it and say, “Boy, they were wrong!” than sit in a shelter where tough decisions are being made and there are more animals than cage space available and say, “They were right, I should have prepared.”
AR: There are all kinds of projections coming out of this—different states have different timelines of when they’re going to experience the peak of the pandemic. It’s all good in theory. What you brought up is the economic pull, and we don’t have any projections on what that’s going to look like on the other side of this. We don’t know because every time another week passes, one person’s financial situation just gets that much harder. Everyone is in a different spot. I know locally and in other places in the country, they’re disbanding evictions for the time being. That’s a good thing. However, what happens when they start lifting these bans? You can have a flood of pets coming in all at once because everyone just got kicked out at the same time. This can be two, three, four, or five months out.
On staying up-to-date on information about COVID-19:
AR: I hope that, with this new norm, there are things that we can continue to do right and later push forward on what’s right for our community and our profession. It’s going to be something that comes up in conversations later on, but right now we have to figure out what’s around the next corner. Because just a couple of days ago, someone reported that tigers can get COVID-19, and here we are having a lot of conversations about tigers since they also happen to be the biggest topic going on right now with “Tiger King.” It’s a crazy coincidence. We’re still learning what this virus is going to do and we’re figuring out more and more about how long it can live on surfaces. I keep reading about how long it can live on stainless steel and then walk around my shelter only to see all of the stainless steel around.
SG: Right. Shelters are made of stainless steel. I am glad that there is no evidence yet to support that animals, in general, can be fomites.
AR: That’s really great for people to know. I don’t think everyone in the industry is really taking the time to utilize all of the resources that are out there right now. I know you’re part of the weekly Zoom meetings that are happening with different leaders from all over the country every Monday at 10AM EST. I hope that all of the great material, whether it’s from NACA, AmPA, or AVMA, gets read and that people ask questions about them and get answers on social media.
SG: When we’re not responding to emergency calls, I would say that every officer out there needs to be in front of their computer and watching NACA webinars, taking online certification courses, going through FEMA classes and getting FEMA certified, and also taking advantage of resources from Maddie’s Fund, ASPCAPro, and Best Friends. They all offer online training. We should be taking this opportunity to better ourselves. Because, as I said, before it gets better, it’s going to get worse.
On solidarity between animal welfare organizations:
SG: I hate using phrases like “silver lining” in this crisis, but national agencies are working together more so than ever before. You have all of these people sitting in a room agreeing and working together. One of the things we’re talking about is food distribution. My full-time job is Director of National Shelter Outreach for Best Friends Animal Society, and we’re working with a couple of pet food manufacturers to get food delivered to various pet food pantries across the country, as is HSUS, ASPCA, and Greater Good. But rather than all of us running around doing our own thing, we’re comparing lists. It’s the most collaborative effort that I’ve personally been involved in. We’re all coming together and there’s no philosophical differences or differences in languages holding us back. We’re just getting the job done.
That’s one thing I love most about the weekly Zoom calls. You’ve got representation from everybody who’s never really worked together all sitting in the same Zoom room and all of those philosophical differences are in the past or fall to the wayside. We are all working together and saying, “Who is doing what?” “How can we help each other?” “How and we help get through this crisis?” That’s why I believe that at the end of the day, animal control is going to come out of this more united than ever before. When we hear of an officer in California who falls sick from COVID-19, that’s going to be felt all the way up into Maine. That is not something that we’ve ever shared. When officers die, we feel it, but in a different way. In this case, we are all going through the same thing at the same time. That is going to be a uniting factor in animal control when we come out of it. That’s why I joined NACA in the first place years ago—to be a part of uniting the profession.
AR: That is what a common goal can do for groups. It allows you to come together. When I was a coach for a variety of things growing up, I’ve always liked the idea of having a common enemy. It really does allow everyone to forge ahead together even more so than in disaster response situations like hurricanes and tornadoes. There is cooperation in those cases, but not like we’re seeing right now.
SG: Even after Katrina, there were groups that went out and just did their own things. In times like this, though, there is no way to get around it. Here in Nashville, we just had a tornado come through not too long ago. The local communities were working together, but people outside of the state were separated from it. But in the case of COVID-19, it’s around you. It is you. No matter where you go, it affects you. It’s not far off. That’s what’s hitting us harder than anything. There is no hiding from this, except maybe in Antarctica. if you’re an animal control officer in Antarctica, I have no advice for you. But if you’re anywhere else on this planet, it affects you. We’re all going through this together.
AR: That’s where the common goal aspect comes into play. It’s a great thing to watch in a way, and it’s something that you and I get to see firsthand. We get to see behind the scenes and see plans come together. I hope people really start utilizing NACA by sending us Facebook messages and emails, looking at our webpage and COVID-19 resources, and taking the time to learn more even if you think you know everything there is to know about COVID-19. Because next week, there will likely be something new and we’ll be talking about it.
SG: Join NACA because it’s a great organization that’s dedicated to the profession. If you’re an animal control officer or support animal control officers, just join. We have a free 3-month trial membership. Next week is animal control appreciation week. It’s going to be a somber week I’m sure, but it’s something that animal control officers deserve.