Three San Juan County deputies trained as animal control officers

Animal cruelty is a crime.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, animal neglect and abuse can be found in all social and economic situations and is common in both rural and urban areas. Animal abuse most often reported involves dogs, cats, horses, cows, and other livestock.

Much like the rest of the country, animal abuse and neglect is not uncommon in San Juan County, and in the past often went unreported or unresolved.

The most common examples of animal neglect here in the islands are starving livestock and dogs chained 24 hours a day in squalid conditions. Not surprising, considering the county has a long history of being a farming community, raising animals for food and other agricultural purposes and a large percentage of San Juan County residents are known to be animal lovers with pets of their own.

According to Jan Murphy, former manager of the Animal Protection Society of Friday Harbor, a local non-profit founded in 1982 in Friday Harbor, “I was the manager at the animal shelter for about eight years, and it’s a small community. So people started contacting me in my capacity as the manager of the animal shelter, but also in my personal life, reporting on different animal neglect and abuse cases all around the island. So I was constantly being made aware of these situations where dogs were tied up 24/7, or cows were being starved to death.”

“What I learned was there were other concerned citizens on the island too, and because I was in a leadership position at the animal shelter I got a lot of phone calls,” says Murphy. “What we found—and when I say we, I have a core group of about 15 to 20 people that have been trying to get animal control on the island for at least 10 years, that I’m aware of—And what we found was that our Sheriff’s Office was largely unresponsive, unaware, and uneducated about what the laws were, what the codes were.”

Although many incidences of cruelty and neglect were, and are, regularly reported, the San Juan Sheriff’s Office in the past was often either unable or unwilling to investigate or enforce laws meant to protect animals. For Murphy, attempts to offer free training for officers fell on deaf ears, “So we all kind of threw our hands up at that point and it truly felt like we had hit a wall, and that we’d have to wait for a change in leadership.”

That’s not to say some within the department didn’t try.

Retired San Juan County Deputy Jon Zerby recalls serving as the de facto Animal Control Officer for the islands for many years, not because he was tasked with the role, but because he liked animals and got along with them so well.

According to Zerby, the request for an animal control officer has been going on for at least 25 years now, but the department never felt there was a big enough need to dedicate time to animal control training.

“It hasn’t been a necessity in the past,” said Zerby. “We’ve always been short-handed, and to send someone away for 80 hours of training, there’s 80 hours of other training that the deputies need to perform their law enforcement duties. So we’ve never had the actual ability to send one person for 80 hours, let alone three people for 80 hours.”

“Officers were going to child abuse investigation classes, financial investigation classes, crime scene investigation classes, and they’re all running around 40 hours, some of them longer,” adds Zerby. “[Animal control] just didn’t pop to the top of the list. I think we were able to well manage it without having to devote that amount of time and the training, but now that it’s here it’s gonna be great.”

For Cristin Felso, current Executive Director of the Animal Protection Society, the addition of three animal control officers in San Juan County is a welcome and much-needed addition to the Sheriff’s Office.

“I think for the shelter one of the most important things is that when a deputy gets a call from somebody concerned about animals, now they have somebody who can go out and know what they’re looking at,” says Felso. “I think that that was often the problem (in the past). Deputies would go out and address the call, but they didn’t necessarily know what they should be looking for. How do I know this is neglect? How do I know this is abuse.”

So that alone is a huge step forward, adds Felso. “I think that it shows a commitment from the Sheriff’s Office. We often got many calls from people about animal control issues, and I think there was a level of frustration as they would call the Sheriff’’s Office and felt like they didn’t get any response. And it’s not our place to go out and address the situation.”

“Now we can call the Sheriff’s Office and there are people who have gone through the training,” adds Felso. “They’ll answer your call and be able to do something. So it’s just nice. It’s nice to have a place to refer people to, and to know that they have the training to act on the call.”

Deputy Nick Wainwright is one of three San Juan County officers who recently took the animal control training at the Criminal Justice Training Center in Burien. Wainwright, who lives in Friday Harbor, is primarily assigned to San Juan Island, Deputy Jason Gross is assigned to Orcas Island, and Deputy Walker Vandenhazel is assigned to Lopez Island.

“The class is really designed for dedicated animal control officers, which most of our state has,” says Wainwright. “Some of the (training) was basic academy stuff, like how to take a report, how to write things, how to talk to people. Then we had training I didn’t think of, but is super practical, like equine scoring, how to tell if a horse is being neglected or abused, and what they need. And the same obviously with dogs and cats.”

“And then a big thing for us is resources,” adds Wainwright. “We now have all the official RCWs, and I know exactly what qualifies for various different things. But I also have a huge list of resources now. I’ve listened to these people, I’ve talked to them, I know what they’re capable of, and what can be provided. Or if I have questions, I know the right people to talk to. So it was a very good, very productive class.”

Having three officers on three different islands has numerous advantages, according to Wainwright. “One advantage is that spreads us out so that’s not just one officer, but in fact three islands and three officers. And we’re still resources to each other,” says Wainwright. “Jason had a potential horse abuse or horse neglect case, so he went and then after he finished we talked for like an hour about it. And went down stuff with each other, like what’s an old horse versus neglected?”

Animal control officers have a wide range of things they have to look into on abuse and/or neglect calls. They need to have an understanding of issues related to animal health, such as guidelines on “Body Condition Systems”, a method of determining if a specific type of animal is within the proper weight range and body mass index. So for Wainwright, it’s especially helpful having more than one officer in the county, because they can bounce things off each other.

Wainwright added that although the Animal Control training occurred very quickly under the newly elected leadership of Sheriff Eric Peter, it came as no surprise to him that Sheriff Peter would fulfill his election campaign promise early in his tenure as sheriff.

“He had me signed up before he even took office,” says Wainwright. “He was my sergeant before, so he was already going in December. He was getting the ball moving, and he’s like, ‘Hey, we got this animal control class and we need somebody.’ I volunteered. He’s like, cool. And then boom, we’re going.”

For Murphy, this is a tremendous advancement, long in the making. “I think what it means to anyone that lives in our county is that we now have a resource to go to when an animal is threatened, or animals are threatened. Or people are threatened by animals at large. This is a positive change for the humans of our community as well as animals.”