Animal Welfare in Rutland County

Animal Welfare in Rutland County

RUTLAND HERALD 01/29/21
By Michael Shank

For those who have been following this story in Brandon regarding our recently dismissed Animal Control Officer (ACO), a story the Rutland Herald covered recently, there’s some additional information and background that will be helpful in both unpacking what happened and preparing and equipping ourselves with the fullest legal capacity to protect and promote animal welfare throughout Rutland County going forward.

Let me tell this conflict using a story. Let’s say there’s a farm in Brandon that has some goats, sheep, horses, pigs and other animals. These animals aren’t being used for agricultural production like milk or meat, which would exempt them from local oversight and, instead, put them under Vermont Agency of Agriculture’s jurisdiction. They’re just there as “pets.” And let’s say they’re being abused and neglected, infected with parasitic worms because their food is mixing with feces, with untrimmed horns and hooves growing into their bodies. This isn’t an exaggeration; I’m citing from an actual Brandon experience.

A story like this doesn’t have to have an awful ending. Vermont law (Title 13, Chapter 8) allows a town to equip a trained ACO – whose education and experience is in animal welfare – with the power of a “humane officer” to seize these animals being cruelly treated (even without a warrant if it’s possible to save the life of the animal).

Not only does Vermont law allow for a humane-officer-trained ACO to have the power to intervene and seize that animal, but also put a lien on the animal for all expenses incurred to ensure the abuser pays for all veterinarian bills, temporary housing costs, etc. Vermont put this law in place because abuse and neglect of animals is all too common. And too often animal sanctuaries are stuck with the bills.

We had an opportunity to take full advantage of this law, as we have witnessed multiple cases throughout Brandon that would warrant it. And yet one of the main disagreements between the town and the recently dismissed ACO was over the rights and responsibilities articulated above.

Despite acknowledging, last summer, that Brandon’s ACO had these state-given legal rights as a humane officer and could fulfill the duties articulated above (see the Brandon Reporter’s coverage of the town’s conversation), in actuality, the town wanted a more limited role (see the Town of Brandon’s published ordinance language), primarily focused on household pets like dogs and cats. That contradiction ran counter to what the ACO wanted – and what I and many other taxpayers footing the ACO’s marginal salary wanted – which was for the Vermont law to be in full effect in order to ensure animal welfare – of all sizes – was protected throughout Brandon.

That the ACO was dismissed shows which preference will likely prevail going forward. It also shows the Town of Brandon isn’t willing to pursue all of the protections possible for animal welfare. Had the town’s and the ACO’s respective missions been more aligned, other identified concerns — like reporting structure, public outreach and engagement and more — would’ve been more manageable. Because the main conflict regarding ACO mandate hadn’t been resolved, the operationalization of the job was challenging across the organization, with shifting reporting structures and ever-evolving job descriptions. Smaller HR concerns like these can be mitigated with good management. What’s much more difficult to resolve are missions and mandates. And that’s where the dismissal is so disappointing.

Having followed the ever-evolving nature of Brandon ACO rights and responsibilities over the past year, what’s become clear to me is the welfare of animals big and small isn’t a priority issue for the town. It saddens me that we apparently won’t pursue all means at our disposal to protect animals from abuse and neglect. I wish we would send the message loudly and clearly to the community that a Brandon Animal Control Officer – trained as a humane officer – can, should and will intervene and seize an animal being cruelly treated and ensure the abuser pays for subsequent health and housing bills so animal sanctuaries don’t get stuck with the abuser’s bills, which has happened in the past.

That was, in theory, stated publicly last summer but the ACO has never been empowered, in practice, to follow the letter of the law. Brandon should state unequivocally as a town, that abuse and neglect is not okay. It’s happened way too often under the previous status quo, and we must do better. I will keep pushing for stronger local structures and staffing to protect animal welfare – in every Rutland County community – and request your help in doing the same.

Michael Shank is a resident of Brandon.