Is it reasonable to expect some minimum level of competence for animal control officers who investigate allegations of abuse and neglect?

Is it fair to the animals these officers are supposed to protect not to require at least entry-level expertise in conducting abuse investigation?

A Facebook post from a few weeks ago prompts the questions. The owner of an equine rescue facility complained of being hassled by a local animal control officer, who reportedly was responding to calls about horses in very poor condition at the rescue. This sounds ridiculous on its face—horses wind up at rescues across the country because they are abused or neglected, and it would be a rare rescue, indeed, that did not have some animals early on the road to recovery and looking rough.

I’m not suggesting that rescues should get a free pass from animal control. Most rescues do a good job with limited resources, but a few do not. Seizures of horses and other animals from rescues are uncommon, but not unheard of, and in Kentucky it is illegal for an animal control to refuse to perform his or her statutory duties. If there is a complaint, an animal control officer should investigate.

On the other hand, this doesn’t give animal control officers free rein to harass legitimate equine rescue operations. One visit to check things out should be enough to decide whether a complaint is legitimate—if the officer knows what he or she is doing.

And there’s the rub.

Training Not Required

Animal control officers should contribute to the solution and not add to the problem. But that requires more than a big heart, or maybe being someone’s brother-in-law who needs a job. It takes job-specific training—in animal handling and behavior, in recognizing abuse and neglect, in basic investigative techniques, and in building a legal case that will stand up in court.

The statutory requirements for becoming an animal control officer in Kentucky are the same as those for other non-elected peace officers or deputies. They include United States citizenship, minimum age (over 21), no convictions for crimes of "moral turpitude," no recent work as a private security guard or private detective. Conspicuously absent is anything directly related to the job of enforcing the state’s animal abuse and neglect laws. When it comes to training, animal control officers are on their own.

A few years ago, the Kentucky Horse Council stepped in to help out. With support from the Kentucky Cattlemen’s Association, KHC’s Livestock Investigation Training programs offer multi-day training for animal control officers. The courses include instruction in animal behavior, techniques for handling horses and other livestock, body condition scoring, state and federal law, basic veterinary care, working with a veterinarian, and preparing a case for prosecution. The courses are substantive, not fluff. They’ve been approved by the Kentucky Animal Control Advisory Board and attendees can receive continuing education credit from the state Department of Criminal Justice Training.

I’ve been a presenter on Constitutional law issues (mainly search and seizure) for the Level II class the last three years. I always come away impressed with the quality of the program and the dedication of the animal control officers who take time from a busy schedule to learn how to be better at their jobs. The training isn’t required, but it should be, in Kentucky and everywhere else.

How well does animal control function in your state?