The new face of animal services in Fresno

Smiling person scratching the chin of a brown and white dog
Best Friends embed program assists Fresno Humane Animal Services in setting up a city animal services program.
By John Polis

It was a typical early fall day when Officer Salo Moua of Fresno Humane Animal Services answered an urgent call for help. A lady walking in her Fresno, California, neighborhood was frightened when a large white dog approached her rather quickly.

Salo, accompanied by April Moore, a senior manager with Best Friends Animal Society’s shelter embed program, spoke with the woman to collect some details, and soon they were canvassing the neighborhood. Conversations with neighbors led to an adjacent area where they spotted Duke (the big white fellow) with a scruffy little canine friend in tow.

A bit more investigation revealed the identity of Duke’s person, who was at work. They also were able to contact a neighbor willing to care for Duke and his little buddy until his person came home. It was the perfect example of the “new age” of animal services officers who are making it a priority to build trust and goodwill and work with residents to solve problems.

Best Friends recently completed an eight-month shelter embed field services project with Fresno Humane, made possible in part by a grant from Maddie’s Fund®. Through the shelter embed program, Best Friends works with agencies to put together lifesaving plans to help increase save rates and then places Best Friends staff in temporary leadership positions within those agencies to help implement their plans.

Teamwork under pressure

Fresno Humane has provided animal sheltering and services for the county since 2015. Then in June, it took on the same services for the city as well. That’s when the embed began — with two Best Friends staff people working alongside the Fresno Humane staff to assist them taking on such a large task.

Among the many things to be done were the hiring and training of animal services officers for the city, a priority for Teri Rockhold, Fresno Humane executive director.

[How shelter embed programs are saving pets’ lives]

“The ‘dog catcher’ mentality was king here,” she says, “and we were fighting an uphill battle with community engagement. April brought many strengths including community resources, which is a giant part of field services.”

“Most of Best Friends’ work was foundational in nature,” says April. “We worked to get operations up and running. And we trained the officers, then provided them with access to more training in the future. I have high hopes that the staff here will grow this program and far exceed the goals they have set for themselves.”

Training to help both animals and people

High on the list of skills critical for animal services officers is human relations. “Honoring that human-animal bond is the most important thing,” says April. “When we have the chance to get animals home and also create relationships, we help not just the health and safety of the pet, but also the pet’s family and the community at large.”

During the embed, April led training sessions that included FEMA courses and certifications, as well as training from industry experts on community engagement, conflict de-escalation, DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), report writing, investigations, and defensive driving. As a result, animal services officers in Fresno are utilizing a raft of new skills that enable them to better connect with the public.

Keeping pets and their people together

Just this past December, Officer Mai Vang of Fresno Humane demonstrated firsthand the emphasis on community when she responded to a call about five loose dogs in the southern part of the city. Mai learned that the dogs belonged with an unhoused couple who were dedicated to the dogs and keeping them safe. The couple accepted leashes and new collars for their dogs, and Mai let them know about vouchers for low-cost spay/neuter and access to dog food. To date, all is well with the family, and there haven’t been any more reports of the dogs running loose.

“Mai’s a great officer,” says April. “She’s very community-focused, motivated, kind, and good with people. I can’t say enough about her. She’s a very passionate and truly genuine caring individual.”

Fresno Humane animal services officers are responsible for a wide variety of cases. “They run the gamut from a stray roaming dog to a pig running down the road,” says April. “Their job duties are a delicate balance between engagement (just meeting people where they are and establishing a relationship) to enforcement (dealing with animal bites and enforcing quarantines).

Being prepared for any situation

Officers carry an array of resource tools so that they are ready to help with any animal-related issue, including leashes, food, hand tools, and humane tethering systems. So when Officer Michael Savoy followed a dog to a home that doubled as a day care center, he was well-prepared. Construction of a playground on the property had allowed the family dog to get out.

Seeing the animal services officer, the kids were afraid Michael was going to take their dog, but he took time to explain he was just there to help the dog. Michael wanted to assist the family in safely keeping their pet on the property while they worked to complete the playground construction.

“That very day, Michael was able to set up a humane tethering system,” says April. “The humane tethering system was a safe containment alternative because it allowed the dog freedom of movement, as well as access to food, water, and shelter. It changed their perception of what an animal services officer does.”

Animal services officers at Fresno Humane work hard every day to make sure that free-roaming dogs (and sometimes pigs and goats) get their best shot at making it back home. “Sometimes the officers can easily connect pets with their families through microchips,” says April. “But more often than not, it happens after the officers knock on doors and talk to neighbors.”

Going the extra mile

Fresno Humane often goes beyond the norm to reunite pets and their people ― from providing free engraved dog ID tags to helping arrange temporary lodging for a pet whose person is in the hospital. It’s all about providing practical, humane solutions to everyday people-pet issues. In the span of just one month, officers were able to return 39 animals to their families without having to first admit them to the shelter.

Teri says working with Best Friends brought together people with different backgrounds in a team effort. “We all have different opinions and experiences,” she says. “But (during the embed), we were all just a team sitting around talking and planning ― no preaching, just respectful conversation.”

[Teamwork saves pets after Texas tornado]

Today, Fresno Humane animal services officers are aware of and looking for opportunities to build goodwill throughout the city and county. Take, for example, the day Officer Justice Jackson of Fresno Humane was driving through a neighborhood and saw a dog in front of a corner store whom she recognized from an animal shelter where she previously worked. It was Princess, who had been in the shelter because her person was unable to care for her.

Justice pulled over to wait for Princess’ person to emerge from the store. When he did, she offered a collar, leash, or perhaps a sweater because it was getting cold out. He gratefully accepted a pink sweater for Princess and exclaimed: “Looks like Christmas came early for us!”

Animal services officers, particularly those at Fresno Humane, aren’t the heartless dogcatcher stereotype of yesteryear ― far from it. Today, they are community servants, humane ambassadors, and tactful problem-solvers working hard to build trust with the community.

Because of that, Princess is wearing a new collar and is no longer in violation of the city’s leash ordinance. And she’s certainly warmer on those chilly nights in Fresno.

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