So, you think it's easy being an animal control officer on Martha's Vineyard? Forget about the calls from summer families who return to the Island and find a large family of raccoons nesting in their luxury kitchen. Never mind the fifth injured seagull call of the day or the eighth skunk call of the night. Don't be too concerned about those loose sheep on North Road. For most local animal control officers, handling these sorts of calls is second nature.
But what do you do if you get to court on a sickening case of animal abuse, and after a year of investigation and court appearances, the defendant claims he doesn't own the injured animal?
What happens if a homeless person who was arrested requests that you bring his dog down to the jail?
What should you do if you notice a rooster with its chest and back feathers removed?
The answers to these difficult questions and many others were covered this week in a two-day seminar organized by the local chapter of the Massachusetts Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA), and the Animal Control Officers Association of Massachusetts.
More than 25 animal control officers, animal inspectors, animal shelter workers, and veterinarians attended seminars at the West Tisbury fire station.
"We've got speakers here that are incredible professionals in their fields. They're just a wealth of knowledge," said Jennifer Morgan, projects coordinator for the MSPCA. Ms. Morgan helped organize the event.
Lectures and demonstrations covered rescue and capture techniques, handling exotic animals, disaster response, animal disease and transport regulations, coyote population, law enforcement, rabies laws, and quarantine protocol.
Among the most popular seminars was a presentation on rabies offered by Mike Cahill, the rabies program coordinator for the Massachusetts Division of Agricultural Resources in Boston. Mr. Cahill is a seasonal resident of Oak Bluffs.
Rabies was first confirmed in Massachusetts in 1992, and despite a determined effort to keep the disease from spreading across the Cape Cod Canal, rabies was confirmed on the Cape in 2004. It has since spread throughout the Cape, carried primarily by raccoons.
While there has not been a confirmed case of rabies discovered on the Island, experts believe the eventual arrival of the potentially fatal neurological disease is all but inevitable, given the number of people who bring domestic pets to the Vineyard. "Aside from just natural ways that it ends up here, it's going to be somebody that brings an animal that's been exposed to it," said Ms. Morgan. "That's what the concern is. It's going to be human error."
Vineyard Sound forms a natural barrier to the spread of some species that create problems on the mainland. Coyotes have become a nuisance in many Massachusetts communities, as they have established themselves throughout southern New England in the last 50 years. None is known to have made it to the Vineyard, but they are often sighted on Cape Cod, and are thriving on the Elizabeth Islands.
John Maguranis, animal control officer in Belmont, and an expert on coyote behavior and control, believes coyotes will make it to the Island soon. He says they have been known to swim long distances, and they are losing their natural fear of humans as their habitat disappears.
"Even if they don't swim, sooner or later, they're going to get on that ferry," said Mr. Maguranis. "There are a lot of them that are getting urbanized, they're getting used to people. They learn, they adapt, they get close to people because their learned behavior is they can do that without getting hurt. It's just a matter of time."
Mr. Maguranis told the group that problems associated with coyotes include preying on domestic pets. But he says coyotes get blamed for far more than their share of problems, because people fear them. He said there have been only three reported cases of coyotes biting humans in the United States. He contrasts that to approximately five million dog bites annually.
Mr. Maguranis believes that problems caused by coyotes are far outweighed by their benefits. They prey on raccoons and skunks, the two species primarily responsible for the spread of rabies. His advice, if you see a coyote? "Take a picture, and be glad you saw one."
Law and order
Officer Chris Charbonneau of the Animal Rescue League of Boston and Officer Lori Miranda of the MSPCA offered their expertise on the laws protecting animals from abuse and neglect. They explained the complexity of the statutes, and advised the group on how to make sure their investigation stands up if a case goes to court.
A simple matter of failing to establish an animal's ownership can get an important case tossed out of court. "It's very difficult, because our victims cannot speak. Sometimes people will get away with crimes against animals," said Officer Charbonneau.
Officer Miranda emphasized that education is often a better alternative than prosecution. "Most of the time, it's giving that person the opportunity to correct a problem," she said.
The officers also gave a brief primer on dog fighting and cock fighting, a problem that has not been discovered on Martha's Vineyard, but one that is growing in other parts of Massachusetts. Each told of their experience investigating "blood sports," and their efforts to strengthen existing state laws.
The officers advised the group that wounded animals are an obvious sign of illegal activity, but often the clues are far less obvious. They report evidence of dog fight organizers removing vocal chords from the animals so barking will not give away the location of fights. Another sign of abuse is removal of feathers from a rooster's chest and back. That exposes the birds to small sharp spurs used in cock-fighting, for those who want to make the fight bloodier and quicker.
Armed with information
Many of the conference attendees agreed on the value of learning from the experience of the speakers.
Dave Tuminaro, a veterinarian who has practiced animal medicine on the Island for the past eight years, said it was interesting for him to learn about the animal control officer's responsibilities. "I do get brought in for cases of neglect, it gives me a better perspective," he said, adding that he has never seen a case of malicious cruelty to animals here.
"Being in a small community [we're] a little better off, because you kind of know your neighbors and you can see that they're having a problem in their life that may affect the way they take care of their animals," Dr. Tuminaro said. "You can step in because you know that person. In the same respect, you think you know people better because you're in a small community, and you wind up making assumptions that we shouldn't make because we think we know them. They could have other issues that we don't know."
"I always learn something, or you learn a better method of dealing with things," said Betty Prada, who has 24 years of experience as an animal control officer in Edgartown "You have to be really careful about how you present your cases. I never would have thought to ask someone if they actually own their dog."