When you first get here, it's like a cop on a gun run. A cop, when he gets a call for a gun, immediately thinks there's a guy with a gun out there that's going to do harm to somebody. So you're a rookie and you get a job that says, “Dog out with no food, water, or shelter.” And you are like [excited voice], “Oh, there's a dog out without food, water, or shelter! It must be dying!” You think the worst. When you have seen as many bullshit calls come through this office as I have, then you say, it could be a neighbor dispute or that dog is out all the time and has a shelter but someone says that “it should be inside with the owner like my dog is.” You look at these people, and say, “What, the dog should have a coat on in front of the fireplace? Get the hell out of here.”
—Humane agent, five years on the job
PEOPLE DISCOVER who they are by observing the consequences of their actions in the social world. Individuals use this looking-glass self to imagine how they are seen and judged by others, and in this way, they develop self-feelings that tell them who they are (Cooley 1902). Although the looking glass plays a major role in the development of identity in children and adolescents, the process of discovering one's identity continues into adulthood and relies heavily on the reactions people get to their jobs. As Hughes (1958, 42) observes, a person's “work is one of the things by which he is judged, and certainly one of the more significant things by which he judges himself.” Indeed, occupation has become the main determinant of status and prestige (Goldschalk 1979). People are granted power or refused it, shown respect or denied it, based on where they work and what they do there. They are not just teachers but college professors at a powerhouse research university. They are not simply stockbrokers but financial counselors at a prestigious Wall Street firm. All of these occupational trimmings reveal things about people to others, who in turn tell them what they think and feel about their work.
Sometimes what is revealed about one's work, and in turn one's self, is negative. Workers suffer low status and tarnished identities for several reasons. According to Hughes (1958), certain jobs involve work that is widely considered to be disgusting, degrading, or undesirable. For example, death work (Pine 1977; Sudnow 1967) and cleaning work (Gold 1964; Perry 1978) offend aesthetic sensibilities, while sex work (Jackman, O'Toole, and Geis 1963; McCaghy and Skipper 1969) and money lending (Hartnett 1981) offend moral sensibilities. Low status is also attached to work that is seen as ambiguous or unimportant, such as that by occupational therapists (Gritzer and Arluke 1985). When the public misunderstands or disrespects what workers do, they will be uncertain about their mission and how to carry it out, especially if they have gone through training that instills high and clear expectations for what they should be doing. They may start to wonder whether their work matters and to question their self-worth.
As workers deduce their identity from the behavior of others toward them, they often try to surmount the tarnished image that goes along with low-status or dirty work. In different ways they control information to buffer their identities from shame and help them feel better about their work. Some attempt to neutralize discrediting reports by justifying the importance of their work, as do prostitutes who claim that their “service” prevents domestic violence (Bryan 1966). Others attack discrediting reports by defining their critics as disrespectable, as do animal experimenters who point to the violent and immoral tactics of animal rights activists (Arluke and Groves 1998). And still others avoid discrediting reports by either hiding aspects of their work that are subject to public scorn or derision, as do shelter workers who avoid talking about euthanasia to outsiders (Arluke 1994b), or by separating themselves from peers, as do bailbondsmen who become social isolates (Davis 1984).
Those who use these strategies view the immoral, unclean, ambiguous, or devalued features of dirty work as constraints that need to be managed and overcome. But such limitations or problems can be seen as resources for workers to use to build more positive identities. In some jobs, for example, unclear or disputed content can allow workers the flexibility to pass in ways that flatter or exaggerate their true authority or expertise. The reverse can be true, however, in those jobs where it is a burden or insult to overextend work roles because doing so diminishes rather than enhances the perception of their worth. For example, regular police expect to go on patrol and enforce the law, but they find that most of their work involves managing many problems unrelated to their legal mandate. Rookies must determine which incidents, outside their mandate, they will police and how they will deal with them. Complaints about “noisy kids hanging out,” for example, usually have little legal relevance, but police may resolve the problem by moving juveniles along or telling them to quiet down (Meehan 1992). Doing such extra-legal work, especially when it represents the bulk of what they do, easily raises questions about their identity as law enforcers. However, such confusion can be an opportunity for some workers to stake out their occupational turf and claim wider expertise. In other words, the very fuzziness of core tasks permits people to jockey into a more positive social role because outsiders might not know better.
This is exactly the approach taken by humane law enforcement agents. These agents, or “animal cops,” have coped with dirty work since their inception in the mid nineteenth century, when humane organizations in major cities created cruelty agents, entrusted with police authority, to investigate and prosecute cases of animal abuse. Supported by anticruelty legislation that has changed little to this day, the first humane agents focused on preventing the mistreatment of horses, because American society was so heavily dependent on the horse for transportation, industry, and defense. By the end of the twentieth century, many large cities had entire humane law enforcement departments with up to a dozen full-time agents who managed thousands of yearly complaints, usually alleging the abuse of cats and dogs (Alexander 1963).
After sixteen weeks of training at the state police academy, followed by a short course on animal protection, humane agents in Boston and New York are licensed to carry guns and are empowered to make arrests. In New York, they are indistinguishable from regular police, wearing similar uniforms and driving squad cars with shields on the side and sirens on the top, while in Boston their green uniforms, soft caps, and unmarked Bronco wagons blur their police identity. As a testament to the importance of this identity, several agents in Boston want to wear official-looking police hats and drive policelike squad cars, complaining that no one takes them seriously because they look more like park police than real police.
Beyond these superficial trappings, there is a more fundamental difference between regular police and humane agents. Unlike regular police, humane agents enforce only a single legal code, the anticruelty law, which focuses on protecting animals rather than humans. Their investigations and prosecutions are limited to people who are thought to violate this code, and their police authority is restricted to these cases. These cases reflect how seriously society values animals and views their mistreatment. This reflection, in turn, shapes how agents regard themselves.
Agents discover that few complaints of cruelty are serious and clear violations of the law. Many people who report abuse and neglect view them as trivial problems and view agents as either glorified dogcatchers or animal activists. The result is that humane law enforcement becomes dirty work, a notch below the already low status of regular police work (Skolnick 1966; Neiderhoffer 1969). In fact, the occupational status of agents is closer to that of dogcatchers (Palmer 1978) or campus police (Heinsler, Kleinman, and Stenross 1990) than it is to regular police. Dogcatchers collect and dispose of dead, stray, sick, and unwanted domestic animals. They are degraded because they are seen as society's zoological garbage collectors. Campus police jump-start cars, transport students, unlock doors, and perform other mundane tasks. They are demeaned because they are seen as janitors, mechanics, and social workers.
While campus police and dogcatchers cannot overcome the constraints of their jobs to feel that their work matters, humane agents are more successful because they take advantage of what constrains them. Agents use the ambiguity of cruelty law and confusion over their role to craft positive identities for themselves, dramaturgically manipulating symbolic properties of their work in order to be taken more seriously. By passing themselves off as having more authority than their license gives them, agents piggyback on the image of regular police and acquire a courtesy status that would otherwise be more difficult to attain were the public clearer about what agents are supposed to do and what legal codes they are supposed to enforce.
Agents learn that the public has an extremely broad and ill-defined definition of animal cruelty, often including complaints that are not covered by the existing code, which is itself vague. From their perspective, this confusion “stretches” the meaning of cruelty and puts pressure on them to investigate complaints that are beneath their pride and practice. Facing the prospect of carrying out such dirty work, agents try to exert some control over this unselective process by grumbling over the legitimacy of cases. Although this grumbling creates an alternative and more precise definition of cruelty, they still end up investigating many complaints that fall short of what they regard as serious and clear-cut offenses. To agents, the public appears to consider cruelty to be, at best, vague, and at worst, unimportant.
Constrained by the application of law, agents assess complaints to determine which ones actually constitute animal cruelty. This evaluation shocks rookie agents because they hope to find and fight “real” cruelty but quickly discover that most complaints are “bullshit.” They are ambiguous, trivial, or inappropriate. As one discouraged novice said: “When I walked in I wanted to make the arrests. I wanted to do good. You know, I wanted to save animals’ lives and jump on everything. You're like ‘cruelty—lock the guy up!’ But then you find out that the dog has a fly bite on its ear.” Agents investigate infinitely more “fly bites” than flagrant cases of cruelty. One SPCA, for example, received 80,000 complaints of abuse between 1975 and 1996 but prosecuted only 268 of them or approximately one-third of 1 percent of all calls (Arluke and Luke 1997). These prosecuted cases come close to what rookies expect to encounter: beating, shooting, stabbing, throwing, burning, strangling, drowning, crushing, poisoning, or hanging animals. Although some egregious cases are not prosecuted because of insufficient evidence or unknown identities of abusers, adding these few cases to the total still leaves agents with the overall impression that clear-cut cruelty is very rare and poorly understood or unappreciated.
Instead, there are endless “bullshit” calls, mostly citizen generated, that make up the bulk of agents’ investigations and leave them grumbling about a public that is very confused about the nature and significance of cruelty. One type of bullshit complaint involves borderline situations that are “not straight-out cruelty” but merit attention because animals need help that, for some reason, animal control officers are not providing. Some of these situations are “emergencies” where animals might suffer, in the eyes of dispatchers, but are not victims of cruelty. Agents might be asked to intervene with injured animals if animal control cannot, as one dispatcher explained: “It's hard because only certain things are cruelty. An animal hit by a car is clearly an emergency, but it's not necessarily cruelty. It's going to be an animal control issue, but if somehow we have an officer in the area and animal control is not around, we'll have an officer go out there and see what they can do.” Cases of abandoned animals are also considered borderline. In one case, described by a dispatcher, a woman without family who was institutionalized had three cats at home. “Larry [a humane agent] was going over there every three days and leaving food for her cats because she ended up being in there for a couple of months. Those are the toughest, especially when somebody has no family or friends or anything like that because technically, it's not something we really deal with, but we're not just going to say okay. We're not going to leave the cats in the house, so you try to find something to do.” Hearing about stray animals also can trigger a borderline investigation. One dispatcher, for example, was concerned about a cat walking in the middle of a busy highway and asked a sympathetic agent to check on the situation: “You tell Nancy there's a cat in the median and she's probably going to drive up and down the strip a couple of times just to pick up the cat. It's not in her job description to do that. It's not really a law enforcement issue. It's basically a stray cat, but if she's in the area, she will probably stop by to pick it up.”
A second kind of bullshit complaint involves situations in which there is a breakdown in interpersonal relations within families or between neighbors. Callers want agents to remedy problems unrelated to animal welfare and will lie or grossly exaggerate, claiming there is cruelty to get police intervention. For example, a landlord who hoped to “clean house” by removing his tenant's animals filed a cruelty complaint. To the agent, this was a bullshit complaint: “The landlord is saying, ‘I want the animals out of there. They're shitting and pissing all over the house.’ If they're in good condition, then that's not an urgent situation from my standpoint.” Other bullshit complaints, according to agents, are lodged to create trouble for people by getting law enforcement involved in neighborhood disputes. As one agent elaborated: “A lot of calls we get are fake. These people, they don't care about the dog, but they get mad at the guy next door and they just want to cause problems.” In one case, for example, an agent investigated a complaint of “a dog that was a mess, disgusting looking,” only to find a well-groomed dog that was old and overweight. As the agent said: “There's nothing there. [The complainant] called to put the pins to her landlord because he was tossing her out.” Civil bullshit complaints also arise when animals are used as pawns in domestic struggles between parents and their children or between spouses. Agents feel there is “no reason” to investigate these cases because animals are not at risk. To illustrate, one agent gave the example of a divorced couple who wanted to hurt each other by making false accusations of cruelty: “People don't always have the best interest of the animal at heart. They have their own agenda when they call. It's a husband trying to get even with his ex-wife by getting the dog taken away. Yeah, the people are separating and the ex-wife's got the animals and the husband's saying that she doesn't take care of the animals and she says, ‘Well, he's got a dog over at his girl-friend's place. You should take a look at that one. The dog hasn't been to the vet in two years.’ So now you have to go and investigate him and it's just bullshit.”
A third type of bullshit complaint involves animal welfare more directly but does not qualify as cruelty under the law. Agents argue that the definition of cruelty used by complainants in these cases exceeds what can be enforced under the law. “It's like everyone has their own definition of what proper care is,” one agent acknowledged. “A lot of them are not really cruelty violations, but moral issues with animals—animals are not being handled the way this person feels they should be, but it's not a violation of the law either.” A common example is some-one hitting as opposed to beating his dog, with only the latter prohibited by law. An agent explained, “You have to understand whether the complainant is just upset because a person hit their animal or in fact actually beat their animal.” Another agent offered the example of a complainant who does not like to see dogs in the rain: “I got a complaint—‘two dogs tied out in the pouring rain.’ This was on a Friday afternoon. I had just left Ocean City and I had to go back. I got back and I mean there was torrential rains. I knocked on the door and the guy [respondent] comes to the door. I woke him out of bed. He works nights. He comes to the door half undressed. I told him who I was and that somebody complained about his dog. He started—‘You son of a bitch.’ I said, ‘I understand what you're saying, but we have to respond.’ He finally threw a pair of pants on, came outside with no shoes on, walked down to the back in the mud, and both dogs had doghouses. And I was pissed because somebody was just pissed because the dogs were out. The dogs chose to stay out in the rain, but they both had their doghouses. They were both out in the rain looking at me.” This type of complainant, while seen as genuine, is “demanding” to agents. “You get a situation where you have to answer the complainant, and they become very demanding as far as ‘I want you to do this or that.’ I'll say to them, ‘Look, I may not agree with the situation, but this is the way the law is.’ A lot of people—unless someone is kissing their dog goodnight when they go to bed—they're not happy with the way that animal is being cared for.” One agent encountered a demanding complainant who had insisted to a dog owner that he not leave his dog outside at night, or at least keep hay or straw in its doghouse. “I told him about the hay,” the complainant reported to the agent, “the dog would be more comfortable with it. . . . But there is no straw there.” The agent replied, “Well, I'll be rechecking it, but I can't make him put straw in the doghouse.” Most agents are impatient with demanding complainants, sometimes because their exaggerated definitions of cruelty come from the greater value they place on animals than on people. One frustrated agent noted: “Some people will say, ‘An animal's life is more valuable than a person's life.’ That bothers me.” Humane agents are also impatient with complainants’ ignorance, which causes them to see suffering or cruelty when they do not exist. An agent gave the following example: “A person could drive by and see a horse with a sloped back and think, ‘Oh, my God, that poor thing.’ But it's like a person. You've got horses that have sway backs. Either they rode them too early or their spine isn't right, but they are fine. Most of the time when you see sway backs, they are old, their spine just drops. And somebody will call a complaint in and say, ‘Oh, the poor thing.’” At other times, agents’ impatience is stirred by moral bullshit complaints that stem from mistaken impressions of animal suffering. One complainant, for example, claimed that a dog was a “bag of bones” and was “suffering in terrible condition,” only for the agent to find an older animal. “You find out that the owner takes her dog to the vet all the time and the vet says that it's just an old dog. It's not suffering. It looks like hell. Its skin is terrible. It might be missing a lot of its fur or it might have a poor coat. It might be very thin, but there's not much they can do for the dog. It's just getting to be an old dog.”
A final type of bullshit complaint are those incorrectly referred to humane law enforcement or left unmanaged by animal control officers, local police, or other authorities. These “garbage” or “nuisance” complaints have nothing to do with cruelty but result when other organizations, at the town or state level, shirk or inadequately perform their duties. For example, odor problems with big farms might get “pushed off” on agents when the town's sanitation department should be the first agency to be called and take action. In one case, agents repeatedly investigated a pet store that violated numerous regulations involving proper sanitation and hygiene because the department of agriculture failed to monitor and prosecute these civil violations. In another case, an agent had to pick up and transport the decomposed body of a Beagle, a dirty job that in his opinion should have been done by the local animal control officer: “It really bothered me. I just don't like seeing something so decomposed. I just couldn't look at it. It's kind of evidence, I guess. I had to carry it about a quarter of a mile. I had it double bagged, but it was dripping on me. I wouldn't have felt right leaving it there, plus the woman was standing behind me saying, ‘I can't believe that the animal control officer wouldn't take this.’ He left it there. I didn't want to do it either.” Humane agents often get calls from people who “get no satisfaction” from their animal control officer. “‘The dog barks all the time,’ [they say,] and we'll say, ‘Sorry, there's nothing we can do about that. We do cruelty.’ We get a good percentage of that, and that's frustrating because it's not our job and you get out there and we are driving a long way to come up there when it's probably going to be a waste of time.”
Although theses cases are considered bullshit, if animals can be helped, most agents approach them cases as professionals and conduct investigations when necessary. Nevertheless, they disparage the complaints and grumble about having to check them out. What frustrates them is not only that many of these ambiguous or trivial cases waste their time but that they jeopardize their precarious and limited authority by reinforcing the public's confused perception of them as either low-status workers or political activists.
Dogcatchers and Extremists
Just as cruelty is ambiguous, so too is the role of agents to enforce the code. Newcomers quickly learn that many people accord little status to their work, viewing what they do as dirty—and not very important—work and confusing them with either animal control officers or animal extremists. These flawed images challenge the authority of humane agents to investigate complaints, carry out the law, and prosecute cases. If agents can disconnect themselves from these images, they can regard themselves more positively and perhaps be taken more seriously.
The most common image problem is for agents to be mistaken for “dogcatchers” or animal control officers. “You know,” one agent explained, “I've got a mouthful of food and people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, the dogcatcher's here. Sorry to bother you, but there's this barking dog in my neighborhood.’” This confusion feels like an insult to agents, as one complained: “My good friends, like from college and stuff, they still don't understand what I do. They introduce me like, ‘This is my friend the cat cop.’ People are like, ‘What do you do, rescue cats out of trees?’” These encounters frustrate and anger agents. Many, for example, point to pretrial hearings or trial experiences gone sour because court officials question their status as police officers. One agent described such an experience: “I got pissed off. The defense attorney came up to the judge and said, ‘The dog officer came up to his door and saw the dog.’ I felt like saying, ‘Gee, did somebody else come because I'm a police officer?’ It bothers me to some extent. I don't like being called a dog officer. We work hard and we have to go to the police academy, so we should get some recognition.”
Humane agents are also mistaken for environmental police, fish and game wardens, park rangers, and other officials whose work has nothing to do with animals. For example, while standing in downtown Boston, one agent was approached by out-of-town tourists who opened a map of historic sites in the area and asked him for advice about what to visit, thinking that he was a park ranger, whose uniform, except for the brimmed hat, was very similar to those worn by agents. And on rare occasions, they are seen as security or delivery personnel. As one agent admitted, “I had someone think I was from UPS once. I like what I do and I feel comfortable with what I do until I hear some comment that shouldn't affect me, but it does.”
At other times, people know that humane law enforcement agents are police of a sort but realize that they are not “regular” police and therefore do not take them seriously. This dismissive attitude is especially irksome to agents when it comes from regular police, who agents see as colleagues. In this vein, one was troubled by the reaction he got from regular police when they were asked to investigate a case of a teenager beating his dog: “Quarrytown pissed me off really bad. Mind you, six or seven of them were good friends of mine at the [police] academy. I tell the lieutenant what's going on. I said, ‘Look, I was wondering, while you guys are patrolling, if you could just take a peek over there and see if you see the dog maybe, and get me some information on the kid.’ ‘Hey pal, what are we, the fuckin’ puppy police? Let me tell you something, we have outstanding warrants for home invasion and stuff like that that we can't execute. You want me to go harass some kid for beating on his dog? We've got better things to do.’” Regular police showed their disregard by ridiculing agents. Ridicule from regular police is hard to write off as just innocent teasing or to forgive because of ignorance. Every agent confronts this attitude as a rite of passage into humane law enforcement work. One talked about the dismissive feeling he got on the first days on the job: “You can get that feeling right away when you walk into a police station and they say, ‘Here's the dog officer.’” Another recounted his bad experience with police: “District Five, that's the one I hate the most. When I go there, I always hear cracks and comments. So I went to meet this officer. And I'm standing at the general public counter because I'm not allowed behind it, and this guy looks up, ‘Yeah?’ ‘I'm here to meet Sally Smith.’ So he gets on the intercom to call her, and goes, ‘Woof, woof, your doggie guy is here.’ I was like, ‘Hey, thanks buddy. Call me when you're in a jam.’” Similarly, two agents in a marked car resembling the city's police department were embarrassed and angry after regular police officers pulled up next to them at a street light, loudly barked over their car's loudspeaker, and broke into raucous laughter. Regular police also conveyed their disregard by referring most cruelty cases directly to animal control, even though they knew that humane law enforcement wanted to manage such cases. Agents felt that regular police, who saw them as lowly dogcatchers, did not consider them to be fellow professionals engaged in important work with valued victims and serious or even dangerous criminals. And when the occasional case of extreme cruelty to a dog was handled by regular police, they dismissed all other animal cases as insignificant.
If not dismissed as lowly dogcatchers, humane agents are criticized for being zealots or animal rights activists. As with the dogcatcher image, regular police often level this charge, according to agents, who hear it very negatively. In some towns, one agent reported, the police “just think we are idiots—we're way off base—we're animal rights type people—not in the real world.” Another agent recalled the following incident: “I ran into a police officer and he saw a bunch of our people at court. And he said, ‘Gee, I didn't even know you guys were cops until I saw you at court. I thought you were back-of-the-woods, tree-hugging do-gooders.’” Environmental police also consider agents to be extremists who “make a big deal” over animal cruelty, especially those working in rural areas. For example, two agents found a film crew mistreating crows and pigeons that were being used in a movie and reported what they saw to the local environmental police office only to be “laughed at because there's basically an open season on crows.” “You can go out and shoot them any time you want, so why are you making a big deal about these crows?” they were told. “And we contacted federal people because they're migratory birds, but they didn't give a damn. We took a lot of harassment.” Another agent explained, “Environmental police feel like the SPCA is trying to out-law everything that's their job. Like we banned traps and the next thing you know we're going to stop hunting. Next thing you know we are going to stop fishing. That's their outlook.”
Agents who are accused of having the wrong priorities, for going to extremes to protect animals, fear being labeled as animal activists. One agent said of his father: “He doesn't get protecting animals. See, protecting people is a noble job. They need protection. They're civilization. Animals, well, they're things for people to own or possess or use. He doesn't think that an entire police department should be dedicated to helping animals—that we go a little overboard for protection. He doesn't look at it as though helping animals is important.”
Devaluing the importance of fighting animal abuse undercuts what little legitimate authority agents have to investigate what are often vague, borderline, or bullshit cruelty complaints. Even with good cases, their efforts are encumbered because people are often confused about who they are or write them off as second-class law enforcers. Moreover, they are protecting animals from cruelty—a notion whose inherent ambiguity makes it easy to challenge the propriety of many complaints. To effectively counter the perception of their work as trivial and vague, agents may present themselves as having more authority than they do, though usually after first taking a softer, more educational approach to respondents.
Initially, agents tend to downplay their authority when investigating cases. They take this approach because many respondents are unnerved or even angry when they find a uniformed police officer is “checking” on their animals because “complaints” alleging their mistreatment have been made. De-emphasizing the law enforcement role can calm these riled respondents. Agents also downplay their limited authority because so many of their cases are ambiguous, not clearly constituting a legal definition of cruelty, or they are too minor or excusable to call for a law enforcement approach. One agent estimated that only 10 percent of his job constituted law enforcement work, saying “most of what we do isn't really law enforcement. Well it is, but most of the things that we see, we couldn't arrest someone or drive them into court. Most of what we see is just ignorance and just plain not knowing.”
By abandoning, at least temporarily, most trappings of law enforcement and adopting an instructional stance thought to be more practical and effective, agents become humane coaches and teachers more than police. One experienced agent spoke about the need to give up the rookie's “toughness,” noting, “At the academy they drum into you that you've got to be this tough officer. So you come out and you're tough, but through the years you learn that you really can't get your job done if you continue down that path. I educate people on what they should have done or what to do in the future.” Many agents rethink their occupational identification because so much of their work puts them in the position of humane teachers rather than law enforcers. One admitted, “I don't look at myself anymore as a law enforcement officer. I think of myself as an educator. . . . Law enforcement is very minor.”
Part of agents’ educational approach is to teach respondents to be more responsible animal owners. “You always try to better the situation if you're there, although you find in most instances that it goes in one ear and out the other,” one agent pointed out. This approach can involve teaching respondents to be more sensitive or thoughtful about their animal's needs, especially in “borderline” cases where “some things are not quite right, but not really bad enough to seek a complaint.” When respondents are not seen as “cruel” or criminal, agents give advice to push them gently to be more caring or sensitive owners of animals. This “humane standpoint” seeks to improve an animal's quality of life beyond that stipulated by law. An agent gave the following example: “Say it's summer time, we get a complaint—‘dog tied out, no water.’ The law says dogs are to be provided with proper food, drink, shelter, or protection from the weather, so they don't necessarily have to have water in front of them twenty-four hours a day. From a humane standpoint, it would be beneficial to the animal, especially if they're outside for long periods of time, to have access to water, especially if no one is home. You'll explain to the person, ‘Gee, it would be better if you leave the animal out there for long periods of time to have water out there for the animal.’ Say you get a comment: ‘Oh, the animal spills it if I put it out there, so I don't leave water out there.’ So then you try and give them a solution as far as how they could secure it, so they're not going to spill it.” The decision about how far to exceed the legal definition of cruelty is left to individual agents, who base their thinking on what they believe is best for animals and what they can reasonably expect of respondents. Some agents suggest changes that are clearly beyond the cruelty code but that are part of their own admittedly blurry definition of suffering. In this regard, one agent talked about where she drew the line when owners were doing the minimum they had to by law: “I've sort of tried to tell them things that they could do to make it better. For instance, with psychological needs of dogs, everyone's standard is going to be a bit different. I don't go to a place and expect them to—I mean, my dog has been fed and is on the couch, spoiled rotten. I don't expect everyone to do that, but I also don't expect them to keep them chained twenty-four hours a day and never spend time with them. You kind of try and tell them. But they could choose to or choose not to, and I can't do anything about it, so you just close it.”
Most agents, however, do not believe their teaching will result in lasting change. They see respondents as adults with long-term, ingrained beliefs that resist change. One reported, for example: “We try to get them [respondents] involved, but generally people's attitudes are made up. You're not going to change this guy's attitude on Maple Street about how he's going to care for his dog. He's a grown-up. He's not going to change. You can go and get frustrated trying to get him to play with his dog and take it in and socialize with it, but if he's not going to do it, and it's not a violation of the law not to do it, well what are you going to do?” Agents also consider some respondents not only ignorant or devious but also too disadvantaged to care for animals properly. When agents see that respondents neglect their children or themselves, it is hard for them to imagine that these people will be concerned about their animals. As one observed: “It's difficult to explain to people that they should be caring for their animals in a certain way when they don't care for themselves as good or any better than they do their animals. Or they don't care for their kids any better than what they do for their animals. And yet you're trying to tell them, ‘You need to do this and you need to do that and you need to have all these stupid things for your animal,’ but yet they don't have it for themselves or their kids. So if someone is living in squalor, you can't expect them to give the dog steak. If you look at their house and their house is basically a shack that's falling down and their animals basically have a shack that's falling down, well, you know, everything's relative there.” And finally, many respondents ignore advice when they believe their firsthand knowledge of and experience with a particular animal trumps the agent's. This attitude, combined with the perception of agents as having little if any authority, often inspires rudeness and disrespect. Agents have doors slammed in their faces, business cards ripped up in front of them, and obscenities yelled at them. Recalling such a moment, an agent said, “So I knock on the door and I say ‘Hi, I'm with the SPCA and we got a call on your dog.’ And they go, ‘What's your fucking problem pal? It's my fucking dog. I'll do what I fucking want.’”
The humane educator approach, which fails to make most respondents into more responsible owners, is dangerous for agents to use because it feeds into the image of low-status work they so resist. Unless they show some authority, they see themselves as perilously close to being not much more than animal control officers. To transcend this problem, agents use their symbolic skills to capitalize on the fact that most people do not know the substance or extent of their license to enforce the cruelty code or the content of the law itself. The very constraint posed by the vagueness of their work allows agents to present themselves as having more authority than they do.
To encourage more humane behavior, agents create an illusion of having more authority than they do. Some of this illusion, referred to as “the knack,” depends on respondents’ making mistaken assumptions. For example, the mere appearance of a law enforcement officer, according to one agent, can make respondents comply: “I have a certain amount of power. I have my presence. I have a gun belt, wear a gun, wear a holster, wear an OC [oleoresin capsicum, also known as pepper spray], I carry extra ammunition, I carry handcuffs, the radio, the baton. All of those things present a certain picture and a certain message for people.” He continued: “You want to go there and be able to say to them, ‘I'm telling you, this is what you've got to do.’ And hopefully, just from your presence, they're going to listen to you.”
Agents show their presumed authority by the way they speak to respondents. Some admit that they carefully word their statements to respondents to increase the likelihood of gaining access to property and viewing animals. How they word their statements makes it possible to “go in giving people the attitude ‘I have the right to look at these animals.’” Regarding a case where he spoke with a respondent on the telephone and wanted to visit the latter's property and examine his dog, one agent noted: “I said to him, ‘I'm going to go down and check on the dog.’ He didn't say I couldn't go down and check on the dog. Until he tells me I can't go in his backyard and check on the dog, he's given me permission to go back and check on the dog. Just like I'll say to people, ‘Why don't we take a look at the dog?’ or ‘I'm going to take a look at the dog and I'll come back and talk to you.’ Sometimes I'll ask them if we can look at the dog. Sometimes I'll tell them we can look at the dog. Or I'll say to them, ‘Can we look at the dog?’ I'm saying to them, ‘I'm going to look at the dog.’ People are under the misconception—if people knew what you can do and what you couldn't do, we wouldn't get our job accomplished. You bullshit your way into a lot of situations. I knock on someone's door and say, ‘I had a complaint. You've got some cats in poor condition. Where are the cats? I'd like to see them.’ They invite you in and you look at the cats. All they have to tell you is, ‘Screw you, get off my property. I don't have to talk to you.’ And there's nothing you can do.” Aware that strict interpretation of the law could discourage responsible animal ownership, agents speak vaguely when giving advice to respondents to create the impression that advice is legally required when it is not: “People are not legally obligated to accept your advice, but you can plant the seed. Like, by law, you don't have to have water out for a dog all day long, but nobody ever questions you when you just tell them that. I say, ‘Gee, it's a hot day, put some water out for the dog.’ But you can't say to them, ‘Look lady, the law says you don't have to have water out,’ because if you do you're kind of defeating your whole purpose of being there.”
Agents realize that their advice will sometimes be ignored no matter what or how they speak to respondents. And if prosecution seems out of the question, agents can do little. As one noted, “If it's not a violation, I really have no right to go back. Some people, you'll approach them. The animal will be in a situation that's not the best for them, but it's not the worst. You can try to improve it. Talk to them. But if they're like, ‘Get the hell off my property you little —’ or ‘Don't ever come back here,’ there's nothing you can do if they're not breaking the law.” Another agent described a case where a dog did not have water: “Bottom line is, if they say, ‘Screw you, I'm not going to leave water out there for the dog,’ and the dog's condition doesn't reflect the fact that it's not being provided with adequate water, then at that point, yeah, you can educate them. But as far as prosecuting them, there is no prosecution as far as that's concerned.”
In such cases, agents know successful prosecution is out of the question, but they do not tell respondents, hoping that this uncertainty creates a veiled threat that will push people in a humane direction. Agents do take some action, however, so that they do not turn their backs on cases where the welfare of animals could be improved. They continue their coaching by returning to “recheck” respondents, providing clear advice with each visit and warning of future checks if respondents fail to act. An agent gave the following example of his response to an obstreperous respondent: “The complaint was this dog is full of fleas. It's got a tumor on it. It runs loose all the time. I said to the woman, ‘I'm here concerning your dog.’ ‘The dog's not around anymore.’ ‘When was the last time you saw the dog?’ ‘A day or two ago.’ ‘Okay, fine. Does the dog have a tumor on the side of its back?’ ‘Yes, it does.’ I say, ‘Last time you saw the dog, was it full of fleas?’ ‘I didn't really notice.’ I said, ‘We got a complaint that the dog was full of fleas and had an ear infection.’ She says, ‘I really didn't notice.’ I say, ‘As soon as the dog comes back, I want you to make sure you notice. If the dog has those problems, you've got to get it to a vet or else you've got to take it to an animal shelter and get rid of the dog.’ She said, ‘I can't afford a vet.’ ‘When you decide what you're going to do, here's my card. But if I don't hear back from you, I'm going to be coming back.’” By relying on the unchallenged assumption that they have a right to make these revisits and hold respondents to a higher standard of animal care, agents create a sense that respondents are humanely deficient, even if the law does not say they are.
If the situation calls for it, agents escalate the knack by threatening to seize the respondents’ animals. In one case, an agent investigating a complaint of a dog without shelter spoke to people in three different units of the multi-family building. After long questioning, they all denied knowing who was the owner. But, the agent pointed out, “When you threaten to take an animal, the calls come real quick.” Agents have mixed feelings, however, about seizing animals and would rather not, although they do not share these misgivings with respondents.
Threatening to take an animal can backfire. One agent pointed to a rookie whose efforts to seize animals jeopardized her future interactions with an animal hoarder. “Anna went out to one of these cat collectors and she was real tough, and she ended up getting them signed over. The lady still has about sixteen cats. She ended up hiring a vet to come in and take care of the cats. And now, I can guarantee that Anna is not going to get back into that house. I go the other way. I bend over backwards for these animal collectors.” Taking respondents’ animals can cause significant emotional distress for respondents and their families. One agent said that the situation of “needy” families might call for the surrender of animals but that doing this might seriously disturb children: “You have cases where it's a family that's having a hard time and can't afford the feed or the dog or cat needs medical attention. It's real hard when you go in and you got some children there, and they're not even taking care of the kid properly. They're living in a dump or whatever and you have this dog and because they can't really afford to take care of it, do you take it away from them and upset the children like that?” Adults, as well, are not spared pain. An agent was surprised in one case because he assumed that the respondent was a “cruel person” until he started crying after relinquishing his dog: “I had a case where a Rottweiler's leg was broken and it eventually fell off the dog. It was up by the elbow, and it was just the bone sticking out. It upset me very much. I was real hard on the party and said, ‘You'd better sign this over to me, and if you don't I'm going to lock you up right now.’ And so they agreed. The ambulance came out and the guy turned around when we put the dog in the ambulance and he was crying. He had a love for the dog. The dog loved him. You get a sense whether the respondents are caring for the animal or whether they don't give a damn. Like this guy with the Rottie sounds like he cared for the dog but just didn't have money. I turned around and read it all wrong. When I got there, in my mind he was just a cruel person. And it made me think when I saw his emotions.” Agents, too, can be upset when seizing animals because they feel partly responsible for their deaths. One spoke about this dilemma: “When you take animals away you end up turning them over to the shelter, but they end up being euthanized because when you take them away, these animals need special care, medical attention, and you just don't have the money to do it. So you're kind of signing a death warrant for the animal.”
Depending on the animal's situation and the respondent's attitude, an agent can use the knack to push harder for humane changes by resorting to the “next step”—threatening the respondent with court, even if prosecution is unlikely. An agent described this graduated approach to working with a respondent who, after reason and education have failed, continued to leave her dog outside in the sun without shelter: “At that point you go to the next step where you say to them, ‘Hey look, this is the second time I've been here. I keep getting complaints. You say you only leave the dog out a certain period of time. I'm finding out that you are leaving the animals out. Look, I've spoken to an individual and she says that yesterday it was ninety degrees and your dog was out from ten to two. The only thing I can tell you is that one of your neighbors wants to get involved and will give me a statement that keeps track of the amount of days the dog is out. If she wants to keep track of the amount of time that the dog is out and the weather conditions, and I feel it's adequate to pursue a court case, you're going to find that you're receiving a notice from the court.’ Then at that point, you've gone just that one step further.”
Trying to preserve their image as “good guys,” agents threaten but do not pursue court action. As one noted, “Whenever I am working on something I say, ‘Look, if you don't straighten this out, there is a possibility I may have to sign a complaint against you.’ Try to tell them, ‘I don't want to sign a complaint because it is paperwork for me, and once I sign a complaint, we have to go through with it. So do yourself a favor and correct it.’ So you try to get them to think you are the good guy, you are trying to help them.” No matter how hard they try to preserve their good-guy image and avoid court, agents still encounter respondents who remind them that they are “assholes.” In one case, an agent recommended that the respondent have his Lhasa Apso euthanized because it was in “real pitiful shape.” But then, the agent reported, “He starts to cry. He says, ‘I realize that, but I haven't had the heart to do it.’ So you sit there and you try to reason with them and explain to them that this is what he should do. I went back two weeks later. The guy still hasn't made any decisions as far as having this dog euthanized and it is starting to look much worse. And the guy's like, ‘I'm at the point now, I really can't face the decision.’ I say to him, ‘I hate to put it to you this way, but you're just not being fair to the dog, and right now the way you're keeping the dog, you're in violation of the law. I would really hate to have to take you to court, but if you don't do something fairly quickly, like within the next week or so, I'm going to end up having to pursue a court case against you.’ So he takes the dog two days later to get it euthanized. Then he turns around and basically his attitude is, ‘You're an asshole for making me put my dog to sleep. Thanks for making me kill my dog.’”
Agents take this next step because they believe that most respondents help their animals only to avoid legal repercussions. Complying with agents becomes a way to avoid the time and expense of going to court. As one noted, talking about horse owners and farmers: “I think mostly with them, if you tell them what the law is and they know the law, then they have to make a decision that ‘I'm either going to do it or I'm going to have to go to court and explain why I didn't do it.’ And most of them don't want to take the time to come to court, so they just do it.”
Humane agents are most likely to threaten court action with “jerks.” Some respondents with “bad attitudes” lie or conceal information in serious cruelty cases. One agent confronted a respondent who denied killing his dog, despite strong evidence to the contrary: “I told him, ‘If we find out different, if the animal was inhumanely killed, there is a good chance you could be prosecuted.’” Other jerks are respondents who create difficult encounters and are extremely frustrating for agents to manage. In fact, one devised a special coding system on his day sheets to indicate particularly difficult respondents by noting “AH,” for ass-hole, next to a person's name. In one such case, an agent explained why one pet store owner was a jerk who needed threatening: “Supposedly there's an injured kitten there that's for sale. If the injured kitten hasn't been treated and they don't take it right away to a veterinarian, then I will take out complaints against this guy [the store owner] in criminal court for cruelty because he's such a jerk. Since the day he opened his store—we went to the place once and we saw him hiding under the counter.” And yet other jerks blatantly neglect animals, “bullshitting” agents directly to their faces. One agent on a no-shelter complaint found a dog without water in extreme heat separated from her eight puppies, which were crammed into a small, stifling hot shed: “I said, ‘No good. Why are they separated from the mother? They still need their mother.’ And the kid said, ‘My father said she's a bad mother because she won't nurse.’ And all of a sudden all of the puppies headed toward the mother and starts nursing these puppies. And I'm like, ‘Obviously the mother wants to nurse.’ So he said, ‘Well, my father wants this and my father wants that.’ And I handed him my card and said, ‘If your father doesn't want to go to court have him call me.’ Because I mean, this kid was really giving me an attitude. And he didn't even care that the dog didn't have any water and it was ninety something degrees out that day. I made him bring all the dogs inside downstairs into the basement. It was cool down there and they could all be together. He didn't want them in the house.”
Even with jerks, agents believe that threats of court action must be used cautiously and selectively. Some respondents shut down when court is mentioned and do not hear what agents say and are unreceptive to them in the future. As one agent warned, “If you use ‘SPCA’ and you threaten them that if they don't do something, you're going to take them to court, you're probably not going to get through to the person and you're just going to create problems. Next time, they won't let you in.” Agents feel, however, that there is a limit to how many times they can warn a respondent before they lose all credibility. In some cases, agents believe that court action must be pursued: “How many times are you going to speak to them? After a while they know you're just bull-shitting them, that you're not going to do anything, and it loses its effect after a while. You can only speak to someone so many times.” If agents reach this point, they need to follow through. According to one officer, “You never want to tell them that you are going to take them to court unless you are going to take them because if you say that, and you don't take them, your credibility is gone.” For example, an agent described how he handled a respondent who did not telephone him after he left his business card: “If I know that the allegations are such that I might want to pursue it further, I might in some cases put on the card, ‘Failure to contact me may result in court action without further notice.’ Most of the time, if you put that on the card, the next day the people are on the friggin’ horn. I don't put ‘will result.’ I never do that unless I know that there's a possibility that I might be pursing some type of further action. You never draw lines in the sand unless you're willing to step over the line, the reason being you lose your credibility. If I was to put on something, ‘Failure to contact me will result in court action’ and two or three weeks down the pike or a month down the pike the people don't get a notice to appear in court and then six months from then I get another complaint on this individual, and you go out there and you have to catch them there, and the first thing out of their mouth is gonna be, ‘I thought you were going to take me to court three months ago.’” Agents also avoid going to court if winning a conviction seems remote. In this circumstance, they will be reluctant to pressure respondents, as the following example illustrates: “Sure, I could have said, ‘That's a violation of the law relating to the dogs in the sun and blah, blah, blah.’ She could have really went off. If I back myself in a corner like that, she could tell me to go stuff it. Then if I really felt that strong about the violation of law, I'd have to go to court, and I'd probably be laughed out of court.”
Nevertheless, once an agent's’ bluff is called and he or she is unable to work with a respondent, court action is often taken. Frustrated agents who feel they have been “strung along” can take out a complaint against a respondent. The result is that “most the time, they will scurry and get things done.” For example, over the summer one respondent repeatedly ignored an agent's advice and failed to build an appropriate shelter for his farm animals. The agent finally stopped “working” with the respondent and gave him an ultimatum: “‘John, you have until next week. If it's not up by next week, I'm signing the complaint.’ I go back the next week. No shelter. So I went down and I signed the complaint. Two days later he calls me, ‘The shelter is all done.’ I said, ‘It's too late.’ I signed the complaint.” After this encounter, the agent warned the respondent that any future mistreatment of animals would result in immediate legal action. As he said, “Hopefully now he is going to know that if I go there and see a problem, I'm not even going to fool around with him. I'm not even going to call him up. I'm just going to go down to court and sign a complaint.”
The danger in taking court action is that the agent can be hurt more than the respondent if the illusion of authority is exposed. Complaints are often refused, and those that ultimately lead to trial are usually dismissed or given no hearing. Respondents walk away unscathed, without even a stern warning that what they did was wrong, while agents leave court wondering whether what they do has value and meaning. Without a different kind of impression management to further buttress the agent's image of power and authority, the knack would certainly fail.
In many ways, agents’ decisions about handling complaints, investigating cases, and prosecuting abusers are influenced by the specter of the extremist label. “I don't want to be seen as a crusader,” one agent said, “because I don't want to be labeled as a radical. I don't want any part of that. I just want to be categorized as a professional in my work.” Behaving unprofessionally, agents believe, risks denigration by the public and likely failure on the job. Indeed, their ability to successfully bluff power is thought to depend on their coupling it with actions that will be seen as professional.
Agents use their understanding of what it means to be professional to organize how they think about themselves and act on the job, as well as to manage the more unprofessional aspects of humane law enforcement. They are not alone in this regard; others describe themselves as professionals and use this folk symbol in strategic ways (Becker 1970), especially to justify their structurally subordinate positions by putting a positive spin on demeaning aspects of their jobs. Paralegals are one example (Lively 2001). However, agents use their front (Goffman 1959) differently than do paralegals, for whom professionalism calls for their ability to be nonpersons and remain invisible during interactions, reaffirming their subordination and lack of power relative to attorneys. In contrast, humane agents’ use professionalism to gain authority in encounters with outsiders who might otherwise question their mandate.
Agents think of professionalism as an ability to maintain emotional distance from cases. Maintaining such distance is not a problem for those who view their work as “just a job” and not a mission. “I mean, my life doesn't revolve around animals. It's my job,” one agent admitted. “I don't think I ever went home and cried. I mean, it's never affected my life in a negative way. I can honestly say I've never gone home and felt bad because that poor dog's out in the rain.” Others admit to being disturbed but attempt to avoid such sentiment, as the following agent suggested: “I do my best to not get wound up about any of this. You can't take it personal. If there's a problem, you deal with it.”
To avoid getting “wound up” in their cases, agents try to suspend personal beliefs and emotions about how best to treat animals. They claim that it is wrong to expect respondents to behave toward their animals as they would themselves. “Let's get this straight, I love animals. I have a dog. I'd run through fire for him. But am I one of these people who is going to break into somebody's property for a dog with no shelter that is healthy just because my heart tells me to? If I arrested everybody because of my heart, half of Queens would be locked up.” Another agent elaborated the problem: “You can't take every dog home and cuddle it. You can't expect every respondent to take their dogs to bed like you do or to have them all wrapped up in a rosy blanket. People aren't going to do it. And if you go out there thinking you're going to get that done, some people will say, ‘Get the F out of here. It's my dog. I'll leave him out there if I want to leave him out there. And I'll feed him when I want.’ Like you go out there and somebody is feeding their dog table scraps, somebody will say, ‘Well, you can't feed him that.’ And it's like, where in the law does it say you can't feed him that? Come on. You can't go in there with your emotions flowing.” Being bothered, then, by respondents whose mistreatment of animals is not illegal is thought to feed into an image of agents as “overly sensitive” or “too emotional.”
Some opinions are more extreme, according to many agents, and come close to espousing an “animal rights agenda” that criticizes the traditional use of animals for food, experimentation, or entertainment. One agent acknowledged that most people doing humane work are on the “extreme side” when it comes to animals, but they should not condemn people for having different views: “My dogs, we treat them as part of the family, although I never played with them like they were babies. I never talked to my animals like they are babies. I don't put hats on them. It's just how you feel about animals. Just because someone's going to raise an animal for foodstuffs and kill it doesn't mean that they don't take good care of their animals and feel for them. It's just how it is.” Having strong enough views to be labeled an activist by respondents is thought to “block” agents’ effectiveness. For example, one department member criticized a colleague for her uncontrolled thoughts and feelings: “Helen is a vegetarian. I don't think there are any problems with that, but I think if she was out in the field and told people that she was a vegetarian or she's working for an animal rights group, that could block her. If she told a farmer that she had a complaint on him, in his mind, she's just an animal rights person and that's going to create a problem.”
Agents who espouse such “extreme opinions” can further jeopardize their investigations because they become too eager to find “abuse.” One agent, for example, considered his colleagues to be “unrealistic” about what they expected a pet shop owner to do because they let their “personal opinions slant the way they do their job.” In his words: “They lose some of their objectivity and get very picayune about different things. You've got to realize that there are a lot of times that things just don't go the way you want them to go. Maybe the place didn't get cleaned as good as it should have because they were short help and it didn't get done in a timely a fashion. I take all of that into consideration when I'm doing a pet shop inspection.”
Agents are concerned that peers eager to find abuse may also become too “aggressive” with respondents, and that such behavior is very unprofessional. One explained this concern: “I've always loved animals and I've always wanted to help them, but I know that you can't over-step your boundaries and become a fanatic. Give the animal its proper needs. And yes, if you can get a little more by working with the person, but don't make it—‘You should do this.’ Say, ‘Well, it would be nice if you had this or you had that or if you could do this or that.’” This alleged “aggressiveness,” according to agents, means that their colleagues lack “good judgment” about when to intervene in cases, reacting too quickly to perceived “suffering” in animals. Another agent pointed out that it is sometimes necessary to walk away from suffering, allowing it to worsen until prosecution is justified: “You've got to realize when you're at a point when there's no more you can do until things either get worse or something can happen and you can prosecute the individual. You can't take it home. You can't be going to the house every day bugging them because that doesn't work. It's just a waste of time and everyone else's time. That's when you've really got to have good judgment and when it gets bad enough, do something about it. And a lot of people can't accept that. ‘I gotta do something now because the animal's suffering.’ It might be, but what are you going to do?”
Rather than allowing their “personal opinions” to stretch complaints so they can be seen as cruelty, agents believe that doing effective animal police work requires them to narrowly interpret and strictly apply the cruelty code. One agent talked about how he focuses only on respondents’ legal infractions, despite personal feelings: “I don't think you can take the job too personally. Yeah, it bothers me, but I try not to take everything personally—go after people that way. You have to kind of keep an open mind and say, ‘Okay, this is the complaint I got and does it violate the law—yes or no?’” Indeed, some agents sympathize with those having a broader conception of cruelty than that supported by law, but they nevertheless put these feelings aside and stick to the law, as one explained: “Complainants say, ‘The animal should be treated this way.’ My personal beliefs may agree with them, but the law allows the animals to be treated differently. For instance, someone leaves their dog out twenty-four hours a day tied to a doghouse. I don't do that to my dogs. That goes against what I believe, but the law allows them to have their dogs out as long as they are caring for them properly. Whether I agree with something or not doesn't even come into play. What comes into play is whether it's a violation of the law.”
Agents also claim that being professional means “playing the game” with other professionals. Playing the game means not getting too “personally involved” with work, to ensure that regular police, court officials, and others take the department seriously as “objective” and “professional.” As one agent said of his animal-inclined colleagues, “If they go into court and are vocal about some of their views, I think it affects their credibility. If we are perceived as an animal rights group, I don't think we can function as we do today.” “To be a successful officer,” another agent noted, “you have to not get too fanatical. You can't allow your personal beliefs or feelings to affect your job because you lose your objectivity and either drive yourself nuts so you can't do the job or you become totally ineffective. There are a lot of things that I believe personally but I try, whenever possible, and sometimes it's difficult, to not let personal feelings or attitudes get involved.”
They argue that missionary zeal and emotionality lead “people to look at us like a bunch of nuts,” one agent explained. “The way I look at this department,” he continued, “people won't take you seriously if they think you are too extreme. I don't like people looking at me as though I'm an extreme animal rights person.” Even worse, personal involvement in cases risks “radicalizing” humane law enforcement. As another agent said, “Some people have problems differentiating organizations like ours that have ‘animal protection’ type people and organizations that have ‘animal rights’ type people or people who tend to be more radical.” If the SPCA is perceived as an “animal rights” group, agents believe that people will see them as “very fanatical, very unrealistic,” and the organization will be “stigmatized.” To make this point, one agent noted that he has a good relationship with local police because he is not seen as a “wacko who pushes that animals have these rights and all that. I'm reasonable and we can work together.” Those colleagues who do not “play the game” with regular police officers will compromise their effectiveness, agents claimed. For example: “You have to be realistic. Some officers really have a hard time playing the game. If I'm dealing with the police and they say, ‘Aw, it's just a stupid dog complaint,’ if you start pissing and moaning ‘Oh, yeah, but this dog wasn't cared for properly and this and that,’ you lose your credibility. So you say, ‘I know what you're talking about, but over the scope of things—’ or you make a joke out of it. Some of our people have a problem dealing with that, but you have to do that because if you don't, you come across too fanatical. If you come across as though you're off in left field some place, people look at you and before long you don't get any cooperation and you don't get any help. Nothing.”
In the end, agents take advantage of the ambiguity of the cruelty code and their role to enforce it. By suppressing sentiment and bluffing power, they convince themselves, and perhaps others too, that “their” legal definition of cruelty is worth upholding. They also convince themselves, and again, perhaps others, that enforcing the cruelty code is professional police work rather than mere dirty work.
Not all agents agree with these interactional strategies for defining cruelty and enforcing the code. In the opinion of many of their peers, those who resist the department's conception of what it means to be professional are compromising their effectiveness with respondents and officials. For workers whose job already is not taken seriously by some because they “only” work with animals, emotionalism only intensifies the problem. In more sociological terms, it would seem that they also impair their ability to transcend a conception of themselves as dirty workers. Yet they too use the ambiguity of cruelty and their role to enforce the law to transcend dirty work. To them, work matters precisely because of their unprofessionalism. They have redefined their core task as a mission that requires an unusual degree of personal investment in the job.
Fewer in number, but definitely present within the department's culture, are agents who have a different identity and relationship to cruelty than those concerned about presenting a strong professional front to respondents and officials. These agents see humane law enforcement as an extension of their lifelong passion for animals and desire to improve their lot, leading them to approach work in ways that reinforce the department's negative image of animal rights activism. One such agent spoke of his own zeal to have other people care for animals as he would himself, even when the anti-cruelty code is not broken: “If you own a pet, you do everything for it. I don't care if you don't eat for a week, but not everybody feels that way and that's not the law. But I can show up at someone's door and make someone listen to me on how they should treat their animals. That's where my heart and soul is. I couldn't see myself doing anything else and really be happy because my life is so centered around animals.” Another agent was disturbed when a respondent violated no law but completely ignored his Shepherd, which was chained in the backyard to serve as a twenty-four hour watchdog. She commented, “I feel bad because they [dogs] just want company and to be loved and played with. A dog like that is probably one of the saddest things I see in my work. It's not a way to keep a dog. Why have one? The dog is going to spend its entire existence on that chain running back and forth. That's the sweetest dog, it wouldn't bite you in a million years—That's what bothers me, that I can't make them look at their dog the way I look at my dog and my cat that are side by side on my bed when I leave in the morning and have a bowl of water. Every time I give them a bowl of water, it just blows my mind that there are dogs that are begging for water. And that's why I'll probably never get satisfaction from this job.”
By their own admission, these agents blur boundaries between work, professionalism, private life, and ideological conviction. For example, one in his free time raises funds and writes a newsletter for an animal shelter and “fosters” stray cats until homes can be found for them. He spoke proudly also about how his concern for animals influences his dating habits: “After the first couple of dates I would be like, ‘Here's a multiple choice question. We have tickets to Phantom of the Opera. We've waited months to see this and paid hundreds of dollars, but we are running late. We are flying down there and see an animal thrashing in the street that was just hit by a car. Do we: (a) keep driving; (b) keep driving till we get to a telephone where we call someone that hopefully will respond and pick it up; or (c) pick it up, forget about the show, and bring it to an animal hospital?’ Anything less than c, I don't see her again. Well, the answer came from a situation. It was a ballet. There was a cat jumping around in the street. I stopped and said, ‘Sorry, we are going to an animal hospital.’ She broke up with me. She said that I was too—animals came first in my life and that she couldn't handle someone like that. I said, ‘Thank you. I'm glad I found out now because, yes, animals come first.’” And another agent found it difficult to separate feelings for her own animals from those she had toward the respondent's animals. Investigated animals “all become mine,” she said. “They're all mine. Even if I haven't seen it, it's still mine. I don't care if the owner is sitting there, that's my dog, you know. It's always been like that. Every animal that I talk to is automatically mine.”
Unable to separate work from personal belief, these agents admit that investigating cruelty complaints “bothers” or “gets to” them, a reality that their colleagues decry. One agent compared her work to that of a traffic officer: “I have a strange passion for animals. I'm not a normal person when it comes to them. It makes it a lot harder when things bother you as opposed to writing a speeding ticket for somebody. There's nothing emotional about that.” These agents admit that even the most minor cases trouble them. As one said, “I say that when I look at a dog tied to a doghouse and it doesn't bother me, that's when I should quit, because that's something that will always bother me.” Some of these agents talked about how the job still “gets” to them even after years on the job, unlike their more “hardened” colleagues. An agent commented: “The first few years of this job, you really have to play a lot of head games with yourself and get over it. Sometimes I think I'm dealing with this job a little bit better, then I'm like, I've been doing it for ten years! Eventually I hope to deal better with it.” Unable to turn off their feelings, these agents admit that they “take their work home” and worry about their cases—again a point of contention with the majority of their peers—as in the following case that “just really stuck” in one agent's mind: “It was a real friendly, white, fluffy medium-sized dog with a muzzle embedded in his mouth. The muzzle cut and scraped him since it was too tight and it never came off. I can tell them to leave the muzzle off until its face heals, but there's nothing illegal about putting it on. How do I know they didn't just say, ‘Yeah, whatever,’ and when I left put the muzzle back on the dog and the dog is still sitting there?”
They become angry at respondents for their treatment of animals and it affects how they manage cases—making frequent rechecks, insisting on specific changes, and showing their displeasure. As one agent said, “I've seen stuff that's really bad and you just go, ‘You've got to be shitting me. Look at this dog. You are a piece of shit!’” Another added: “I feel horrible for the animals and I get very, very angry. It's directed toward the people because it's not the animal's fault. I get mad at people. I don't mean mad like I'm going to go out and punch them. But I mean mad, like what can I do to these people to get this dog out of there or to get them to improve the situation.” Especially with rookies, anger can create edgy, even hostile encounters with respondents. One agent talked about how she handles cases: “I'm preachy and I'm critical of people. I mean, I'm working on toning that down. Like, the dog will have no shelter and I'll go, ‘The dog needs to have shelter.’ And I'll get one of those blank stares, ‘It does?’ And that kind of gets you going a little bit. ‘Well, would you like that?’ ‘But it's a dog.’ I may sound condescending to people, but I'm brand new, cut me a little bit of slack.”
These agents feel that their peers do not handle cases aggressively enough. One agent said: “I think Alan is laid back. Sometimes he'll spend too much time giving the people the benefit of the doubt and not really get tough on them quick enough. That doesn't work for me. I get really emotionally involved.” In a similar vein, another agent says: “Like Danny, I think he's an excellent police officer. But he has no emotion. I think he goes out there and if he doesn't see a blatant violation, I don't think he's going to say anything.” These agents believe that the less aggressive approach of peers can jeopardize the well-being of animals. In the following instance, an agent is critical of a peer's inaction: “We got a complaint on a guy who was out of his mind on crack. He owned a dog that he wasn't taking care of. He was feeding it raw chicken to make it vicious and he was beating the dog. I was out sick, and I said, ‘Look Jack, go deal with it.’ And he comes back and goes, ‘He's got a plastic container under the house that the dog can crawl in for shelter and it really wasn't much, but he was really strung out on crack.’ That meant to me to get that dog out, regardless. Well, the dog was very thin, and he talked to him. He went there with ‘no shelter and thin.’ Well, ‘Yeah, I feed it raw chicken.’ Well there's no law against that, if it keeps him healthy, which eventually it won't, but—so when I came back, he told me that, and I just shook my head. I went over there and put the guy through the ringer and the guy gave me the dog. Its primary diet was raw chicken and orange juice. So that right there indicates a health problem, okay. The dog had never seen a veterinarian, it was way under weight, and the shelter was not adequate. But Jack didn't find the same violations that we would.”
This advocacy reminds agents that their separation from animal control and animal rights activism is more symbolic than real. By having this connection, they jeopardize their image as police officers and endanger their ability to tell themselves, if not others, that they are a brute force for animals. Securing a safe identity removed from the “unprofessionalism” and “fanaticism” of these groups is impossible, leaving agents confused about who they are and what they should and can be as police officers. They are left with two identities that result in different approaches to cruelty: viewing cruelty work as a job akin to regular policing, and viewing it as a personal mission.
Although the police orientation is dominant, both identities are tolerated if they do not become too excessive in the eyes of agents. Alternative styles of humane law enforcement are carried to extremes when agents become overly absorbed with the police or the mission side of their work. Police-oriented agents occasionally take the “it's only a job” attitude to extremes when they become desensitized to the needs of animals and unwilling to push respondents to become more humane. They express this attitude when they do not take the animals’ perspective in complaints, fail to intervene in cases, or become pessimistic about accomplishing anything with respondents. Mission-oriented agents periodically carry their charge too far and show signs of oversensitization or work addiction (Schaef and Fassel 1988). They may feel overly responsible for “rescuing” animals, believe they are irreplaceable on the job, or have an exaggerated “we versus they” perspective with clients and the general public. When carried to extremes, these two opposing approaches cause friction between agents, who can become frustrated with and patronizing toward each other. The result is to stifle identification with animals and not press the envelope of the anti-cruelty statute, on one hand, or to soften the police perspective and increase their identification with animals, on the other.
For the most part, though, conflict is rare between these two kinds of agents. In its place lingers uneasiness and confusion in the department about the propriety of each identity that is expressed in debates over the humane correctness of matters that are sensitive and important issues to agents, such as vegetarianism, rodeos, and hunting. Agents’ thoughts and feelings about these issues convey moral statements about their character. The following agent, for example, explained why she feels that she is not humanely correct because her views on these issues are different from those of the SPCA and some of her colleagues: “I have my views. Trapping—I don't like that. But I like rodeos. I don't like calf roping. I think that's a big danger to the animal there. But I like the sport of rodeo and I think the people take pretty good care of the animals. But when I'm working, if someone asks me on the street what do I think, I'm representing the SPCA, so I have to give them the SPCA point of view—‘rodeos are bad.’ But personally, I would probably go to a rodeo if I had time. And John [a fellow agent] knows it and he's like, ‘Oh, you—’ And I'm not a vegetarian, although I tried. I ate Fritos for about a month and that was about it. And I'm seeing this guy. He hunts and traps. And people are like, ‘How could you go out with someone like that?’” Other agents do not see her as an “animal rights” person and claim to have a different reaction to events such as rodeos. As one said, “I can't say that Marilyn doesn't care about animals because she must, but she certainly isn't on the same level of protectionism as myself or even Tim. I would consider us closer to animal rights than anything else. Marilyn loves the rodeo. If I go to the rodeo, the only thing I want is to put handcuffs on everyone in sight and help those animals from the legalized torture they are enduring.” Another agent also falls short of the department's standard for humane treatment because he does not oppose ox pulls or pet stores and does not condemn those who own these stores or participate in these activities. He explained: “I don't think that because a guy pulls an ox, uses oxen, that they're bad people because they do that. We have some officers that think that. If a guy owns a pet store and the guy is pulling horses or oxen, he's a jerk or he's a bad person. And I don't categorize people that way. That's their party. If they choose to do it, and they do it in a responsible manner, I don't think they're a bad person.”
In the end, the debate over what constitutes humane treatment is more than an internecine squabble over who likes rodeos and why it is good to be a vegetarian. Seeing it this way trivializes the tension and portrays it as just a local issue. On one hand, it should not surprise us that agents place themselves and their colleagues into one of these camps and have an opinion about their correctness. Individuals whose work is defined by some abstract principle or standard of behavior often compete to achieve their goals. This competition is aggravated when the primary mission of the group is vague, as it certainly is for humane law enforcement agents seeking to prevent and prosecute cruelty.
On the other hand, the tension is more profound, reproducing larger societal issues about the meaning of animals and the importance of cruelty that have serious implications for the identity of humane law enforcement agents. How they come to regard themselves will mirror how we all think about animal cruelty. Our thinking about cruelty is confused because American society is divided over how humans should relate to animals, seeing them either as utilitarian objects to be used or as valued companions. Those who regard animals as objects tend to take the mistreatment of animals less seriously; those who regard animals as valued companions take it more seriously. Humane agents capture this dualism; the former identity encourages them to be “objective” in their management of cases so they do not become emotionally involved, while the latter identity allows for more passion and connection to animals and their plight. That agents should be unsure about whether they are truly a force for mistreated animals or more of a parody of one is the dilemma we should expect. Further confusing the picture is the fact there also is division about the nature and significance of animals and their mistreatment even among those who regard them as valued companions. Here, too, we see this conflict played out in agents’ two identities.
Although such uneasiness reproduces wider societal confusion about the proper treatment of animals, people actively create their identities rather than merely inhabit those available. This self-creativity is most apparent when people use cruelty as an opportunity not just to clarify a status as agents do but to develop entirely new ones, as we see next.