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INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC SAFETY ASSOCIATION
Together we are stronger

Why we need mental health, wellness programs for animal control officers

06 Oct 2020 8:14 AM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

By Sarah Guenette, Learning & Development Manager, Calgary Community Standards, IPSA Mental Health & Wellness Committee Member

When discussing front-line mental health one group that is often overlooked are animal control officers. Yet the situations they face and the psychological repercussions of the work they do can be just as impactful as it is for law enforcement officers, firefighters or medics. It is important for all agencies to remember to include their animal control officers and municipal enforcement officers in their psychological health and safety planning.

When thinking about the role that animal control officers play, most people probably visualize them chasing aggressive dogs with catchpoles. Dog bites and attacks are significant risks in the field and something that all officers need to be aware of, but there are many other situations that these officers are placed in that can negatively impact their psychological well-being.

Violent scenes

Investigating dog attacks on people, especially children, exposes officers to gruesome scenes. People may be permanently disfigured and sometimes the attacks are fatal. Unfortunately, these stories are common worldwide. Behind each one of these news stories is an animal officer investigating it. Attending sad and disturbing scenes can have a lasting impact for any front-line members.  

Animal attack scenes are not the only situations that officers face that could affect them. Officers are often called in by law enforcement to attend scenes of homicide, suicide and decomposing bodies where the animals have been abandoned. These scenes are disturbing and dangerous because the animals involved are stressed and anxious about what’s going on around them and may lash out.

Safety

Animal control officers face similar officer safety risks as other enforcement groups. They often work alone and some in rural areas where back up may be some distance away. In 2012, Canadian Peace Officer Rod Lazenby was ambushed, beaten and killed by Trevor Kloschinsky when he responded to an animal complaint call in a rural area. A provincial inquiry in June 2017 led to widespread changes to the peace officer program in Alberta to increase their safety.

In November of 2012 California Animal Control Officer Roy Marcum was shot and killed by a pet owner in Sacramento. He had been called to remove pets from a home where the owner had been evicted. The owner returned to the home and shot Officer Marcum before barricading himself and having a standoff with police. There are sadly other examples like this. Like other enforcement officers, animal control members can find themselves in potentially high risk situations that they are not prepared for. The risk from people can be just as dangerous to them as the risk from animals, if not more.

Psychological impact

However, anger is not the only emotion that officers are faced with. They also deal with grieving pet owners, sad situations where animals need to be rehomed and cases where mental health issues have led to a horrible existence for owners and animals alike.

It is well known that psychological issues in other animal care professions are increasing and suicide among vets has been declared an epidemic. Many of the categories of stressors applied to vets can just as easily be applied to animal control officers. Veterinary stressors have seen an increase in recent years –“--the importance of the human animal bond has significantly increased, placing pressure on vets in their care and treatment of animals and having to assist clients' grieving for lost pets. Having little training in the area of grieving clients and trying to be sensitive whilst working against the clock, leaves it extremely difficult for any vet to perform professionally under such strain.”

In the case of animal control officers, the increased human animal bond in modern times creates two stressors. First, as mentioned above, responding to a call for service that involves someone’s animal can bring out heightened emotions in that person. Secondly, the officers may form a bond with an animal. Officers see animals in abusive, neglectful and hoarding situations. Seeing animals in such horrific environments may add to the ongoing chronic psychological stress of the profession.

Some of the situations are very extreme with animals having to be euthanized. It can be disheartening for officers to see neglectful or abusive owners having their animals returned to them. Some of these cases are chronic and the officer has to return to the property themselves to deal with that person multiple times after they have acquired more animals. Animal hoarding is symptomatic of mental health issues on the part of the hoarder, but is also emotionally difficult for those rescuing the animals.

Agency considerations

Animal control officers face a combination of stressors, those from the animal professions like vets, and the other traditional first responder stressors. It is easy to see why animal control officers need to be a focus for agencies to ensure that they have adequate support programs in place for them.

It’s important to ensure that officers have training in how to interact with the public, especially defusing potentially dangerous situations through verbal de-escalation and defending themselves physically if necessary. It should also include training in grief and loss to ensure the officers feel adequately prepared to engage with grieving pet owners.

As with first responders, public and animal safety is the priority for animal control officers. Self- care and healthy processing of the emotions from an incident come last, as described by Officer Shirley Zindler: “I can’t be crying over every sad thing I encounter at work or I wouldn’t be effective. Whether I am confronting an angry gang member or a cranky housewife, I need to maintain a professional demeanour. When I scoop some poor broken creature up off the road after it has been hit by a car, I don’t have time to cry about it. I need to suck it up and get that animal to the emergency clinic as quickly as possible. When I’m prosecuting a cruelty case I’m all business. The tears come later, sometimes when I least expect it”(p. 175).

Promotion of wellness programs, both physical and psychological, need to be undertaken by agencies to ensure that officers have information on healthy coping mechanisms to assist them in processing emotions coming out of incidents.

Most importantly animal control officers need to receive the same psychological health and safety education and supports as all first responders. Especially critical is education on how to remain resilient and how to recognize symptoms of increasing stress. Employee Family Assistance programs and Peer Support teams should be something considered for any animal control agency or shelter. Understanding symptoms of increasing stress can help officers to recognize when they need some additional support. Providing this education and a support system also assists the agencies involved. Through supporting the psychological health and wellness of their officers, agencies will have a healthier workforce.

Whether animal control officers are part of the local law enforcement agency or an independent agency, having a formal psychological health and safety program for them is critical. Even though they are often not included in the first responder category, the impact of their profession on their well-being needs to be recognized and addressed. They play an essential role in both public and animal safety and deserve to be adequately supported by the agencies they serve.

About the Author

Sarah Guenette, M.A., is the Learning & Development Manager for Calgary Community Standards. She oversees recruit training and continuing education for 9-1-1 call evaluators, bylaw and animal control officers, business licensing inspectors, livery inspectors and animal shelter services employees. Sarah has a background in 9-1-1 and was a call evaluator, dispatcher and operations manager for over 10 years. She has overseen the Psychological Health and Safety portfolio and the Peer Support team for Calgary Community Standards since 2013. She is passionate about creating and maintaining a healthy workplace for employees. Sarah is also the proud wife of a Calgary Police Service Officer.

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