Washington Humane Society's emergency response vehicles are equipped with flashing yellow lights, but not the emergency lights and sirens that other emergency responders in the District have.
It’s a sunny Friday afternoon when Raymond Noll, Washington Humane Society’s Director of Animal Control Field Services, meets up with Animal Control Investigators Shinkino Butler and Ed Owens at a house on Fifth Street in Northwest D.C.
They’re here to pick up Max, an 8-year-old Akita with a serious temper. Standing on his hind legs and leaning against the fence, he starts barking and snarling the moment we approach the yard. The dog is furious as he bites Owens’ catch pole, breaking a tooth on the metal handle. He doesn’t seem to notice the pain, or the blood.
It takes two catch poles and three animal control professionals, all full-grown men, to wrangle the incensed dog into the vehicle. Max’s owner, Francis Harper, stands by, watching. His hand is partially wrapped in white gauze.
He says that a few days ago, he came home to feed the dog. When he walked outside with Max’s food dish, the dog he’d had for the better part of a decade did something he’s never done before.
“When I tried to walk down the stairs, that’s when he grabbed my left hand, pushed me down and then he lunged at my stomach,” he says. “I tried to push him off me, and then he grabbed my right pinky and pretty much the top of my right pinky is gone.”
After being hospitalized and losing half his finger, Harper knew it was time to say goodbye to his canine companion. He called the Washington Humane Society and signed Max over to be humanely euthanized.
In this situation, the dog was kept in a secure enclosure until Animal Control could come pick it up. But that’s not always the case. Scott Giacoppo, the vice president of external affairs at WHS, recalls one scenario when danger was real, present and unleashed.
“It was pouring rain out, long weekend, Friday afternoon, 5:30-6 o’clock at night, so anyone who’s ever been in D.C. knows what the traffic at that time is going to be like,” he says. “We had one officer on duty. Because of our financial limitations we’re only allowed to have a certain amount of officers on the street, and because we’re 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, there are times when we only have one officer in the field."
"So a call came in from the Metropolitan Police Department saying that there was a dog running at large and that he was acting aggressively,” he adds.
Giacoppo says the call came from Northwest. At the time, the only animal control officer on duty was across town in Southeast. The officer spent 45 minutes trying to get to the scene. While he was stuck in gridlock, repeated calls came in from MPD, asking for an estimated arrival time and saying that the situation was escalating.
“The next to last call came in and said that the dog had just attacked another dog and there were people trying to intervene and that they were going to get hurt,” Giacoppo says. “Five minutes later we got a call saying, ‘We had to shoot the dog.’”
He says using lethal force was unnecessary, and had the WHS officer been able to arrive sooner, he could have humanely defused the situation. Also, he says, the delayed response time can be stressful for officers.
“They know an animal is dying and that there’s a problem that they need to get to and their job is to fix that problem, but meanwhile, they’re doing 20 mph by a speed camera, and they’re stopping at a red light and they’re waiting,” he says. “Every second, that officer is thinking to himself, ‘am I going to be able to get there quick enough, or is this animal going to die or is someone going to get hurt? Is a child going to get hurt? Is there going to be a motor vehicle accident because someone tried to swerve around a deer or a dog or what have you?”
He says rather than worrying about their response time and cursing traffic lights, officers should be focused on the task at hand and thinking about what they will need to do when they arrive at the scene.
A former police officer himself, Giacoppo says WHS has a great relationship with MPD. The agency trains police recruits on canine behavior and taught many of the special units how to use a catch pole. But, he says it’s still preferable for WHS to handle these kinds of situations.
“In a lot of the cases that we respond to, we wouldn’t want members of the Metropolitan Police Department to intervene because they’re not animal handling experts,” he says. “So we don’t want them to get hurt either, or be forced to use lethal force.”
Giacoppo says if WHS vehicles had the same lights and sirens as police cars and ambulances, officers could respond to emergency situations much faster. That’s the idea behind the Animal Sirens Amendment Act of 2013. D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) sponsored the bill.
“We need to be able to get animal control there right away, and the police themselves would like to have this happen,” she says. “Now, this is primarily about protecting people, but I just want to add that it’s also about protecting the animals.”
Last month, before adjourning for summer recess, the D.C. Council Committee on Transportation and the Environment held a hearing on the bill. Noll told lawmakers that D.C. traffic often results in “less than ideal” response times, which can endanger residents.
“We have dealt with rabid raccoons in highly public areas…deer that have been struck by vehicles, causing a traffic hazard and potential for additional motor vehicle accidents,” he says. “We often respond to situations where dogs have bitten children and are running off with the potential to bite somebody else.”
Dr. Rikin Mehta, senior deputy director of the D.C. Department of Health, which oversees WHS, also testified. He says his department agrees with the spirit of the bill, but has some general concerns.
“First, the bill must take into consideration the increased risk to drivers and pedestrians at intersections and crosswalks where emergency vehicles may be operating lights and sirens, the operation of which are otherwise strictly controlled,” he says.
The bill requires drivers to undergo the same training as other emergency responders in the District. Noll, who’s also a former police officer, says WHS is already figuring out how that will work.
“Policies and procedures are already in the works to ensure that no WHS officer operates these vehicles without proper training and a full understanding of consequences for violating both the laws and our internal policies,” he says.
The DOH offered one more suggestion for the Council to consider.
“Secondly, the definition for an animal-related emergency should be amended to read: “An urgent situation, as deemed by an officer of the Metropolitan Police Department, or in response to an immediate threat to public health or safety such as an animal that is dangerous to humans or other animals or significantly impeded public space,” Mehta says.
The bill currently defines an animal-related emergency as “an urgent situation, as deemed by an officer of the Metropolitan Police Department or the Animal Care and Control Agency.” The DOH statement left Cheh, chairperson of the Committee on Transportation and the Environment, feeling a bit confused.
“It looks like it’s removing animal control officers from determining whether something is an emergency,” she says, asking Mehta is that was the DOH’s intention.
“No. I think what we want to do is to make sure that when responding to emergency situations that it’s a coordinated response between the agencies,” he says. “I think the police department would be in a better position at times to make a determination on the emergency of the situation.”
In response, Cheh says that according to Noll’s testimony, WHS and MPD are often in touch, coordinating how to respond to certain situations.
“I wanted to see what the point of the suggestion was,” she says, “and we will certainly take it into account and make changes that, you know, make sense.”
WAMU 88.5 made repeated requests for a follow-up interview with the Department of Health, but a spokesperson there did not make an agency official available for comment.
Giacoppo is confused by the agency’s stance.
“They would want us to call someone at MPD and get the okay to use lights and sirens, which makes no sense because it’s going to cause confusion, who’s going to be authorizing that,” he says, “and it basically shows that they don’t have the confidence in our abilities to make these determinations.”
Cheh says she hopes to move the bill to mark-up soon after the Council returns in September.
“I think this is a long time in coming and I wish we had had it in place before,” she says. “There probably would have been a number of instances where animals didn’t have to die and people didn’t have to be in fear.”
But for now, WHS vehicles will be left sitting in traffic with the rest of us.
Music: "This Is Why I'm Hot (Instrumental)" by MIMS from Music Is My Savior