Humane Law Officers: Meet the People Fighting Animal Cruelty and Neglect
Daniel D'Eramo didn't dream of growing up to be a humane law enforcement officer. Neither did Monica DiGiandomenico.
With a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and sociology, DiGiandomenico was a campus police officer at George Washington University, working on a master's degree in forensic science. When some cats were left in a dorm over a vacation, she met a humane law enforcement officer. "That was the first time that I knew that this job was out there," she says.
D'Eramo went to Penn State to study dairy farming. Then he realized what the job would be like for someone who didn't have a family farm to go back to. "I'd wind up on a large-scale farming operation," he says. After some exposure to that type of operation, a disillusioned D’Eramo became a vegan, finished his degree and went to work for a national farm sanctuary organization. When D'Eramo decided he wanted to move to an urban area, he got a job at the Washington Humane Society, which handles humane law enforcement in the District of Columbia.
Officers and Educators
As these two officers' stories show, there's no one clear way to get into the field of humane law enforcement. Even the job itself can differ in different places. In some cities, the officers who enforce animal treatment laws are part of the regular police force, and in some, they're not.
But there's one consistent element: The species that it's most important to get along with is actually humans. The officers spend a lot more time getting people educated than getting them arrested.
"You're dealing with people sometimes that are intentionally doing bad things to animals," D'Eramo says, "but most of the people that we deal with are being neglectful mainly out of ignorance rather than any real ill will toward the animal."
For example, one of DiGiandomenico's cases involved an underweight mother dog with puppies. She gave the owner advice about feeding them and told him they might need deworming.
"He was more than willing to do that. He was unaware of the fact that that could be an issue," she says. "He was able to get them dewormed, they were starting to gain more weight, and that was all that was needed in that case."
And that's the best kind of success story. "If there's a way I can make the situation better and keep the animal in the home that it's in, that's the first choice every time," D'Eramo says.
Negotiators and Persuaders
D'Eramo may never see a cow in D.C., but his farm rescue background was good preparation because of the people skills and perspective that he learned. "It's this really hard-to-deal-with dynamic," he says. While the farmers were doing things he's morally opposed to, he says, "They're not bad people, they're not mean people."
He sees a similar dynamic in his current job despite the different context. "Even dog fighters — they don't hate their dogs. If anything, they're insanely passionate about their dogs," he says.
The ability to persuade people with different points of view is critical because it may be the only option. Even when officers would like to make an arrest, it doesn't always happen.
DiGiandomenico once managed to track down a man who'd tried to surrender his dog by pretending it was a stray and then abandoned it outside the shelter. He even admitted that he'd left the dog running loose; someone else had tied it to the fence to keep it out of traffic. Unfortunately, the attorney's office declined to prosecute. "They didn't think that the criminal intent was there," DiGiandomenico says.
And even when they do seize an animal, it's not hard for people to get another. "That's why it's so important to try to change the way they view their animals — you can take their animal, but they can have another one within a few days," D'Eramo says. "You have to be good at talking to people because that's really your best shot at making the situation better for the animal."
Rehabilitation and Rewards
There's no question this is a job that can be stressful and frustrating, involving encounters with death and the sort of suffering that most of us would find unbearable to see. But there are many satisfactions, including seeing those abused animals rehabilitated, healthy and rehomed through the work of shelter and medical staff. D'Eramo says, "It's great to see an animal that I got with sores, emaciated and covered with urine and feces, and now the people show me pictures of the dog lying in bed with them, and every room in the house has a dog bed for him."
And while many offenders aren't punished the way the officers might like, they do get to see successful prosecutions. In one challenging case that DiGiandomenico handled, a sister reported her brother beating his dog, but he never did it when anyone was watching. The sister made audio recordings, and a behaviorist testified that the dog's vocalizations indicated it was being abused.
"It was very rewarding when the judge made the decision to find him guilty, and he even said to the individual, 'You should be ashamed of yourself.' To say that in open court is a big deal," she says. "This individual who thought he was going to get away with it didn't, and this dog now has an opportunity to live in a loving home."
But it's also a great day at work when they get to help a pet stay right where it is, with someone who has learned to be a better pet owner.
"It's always refreshing and surprising when the people that I get called out about just want to know everything I can tell them," D'Eramo says. "They want all the information and all the fliers. They do everything I ask them to do and then some. You can tell that they love their animals. They just didn't know what they were doing."
You may also be interested in reading: Meet an American Veterinary Crime Fighter: Dr. Ernie Rogers, Animal CSI