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Add Animal-Law-Enforcement Officers to “Fighting Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder Act of 2023”

Sherry DeGenova is out of a job but won’t stop caring for animals. Photo Courtesy of Sherry DeGenova

ANIMAL WATCH

ANIMAL WATCH - Proposed federal legislation, called the Fighting Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Act of 2023, which would establish mental-health programs to help police, fire, emergency-medical and 911-dispatch personnel cope with the stresses of repeatedly responding to crisis situations, was re-introduced in January by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). The bill unanimously passed in the Senate in 2022, but stalled in the House of Representatives. 

It is important that this latest bill (S. 465) adds the nation’s Animal-Law-Enforcement Officers, including animal control officers and humane officers—who work for a variety of government, private and non-profit organizations. 

These emergency responders face the same stresses as other law-enforcement and EMT personnel in dealing with horrendously tragic situations where animals and humans are suffering due to a criminal act, accident, fire, brutality or gross negligence and require immediate action to stop suffering and save lives. 

These officers, who are specially trained in emergency first-aid for four-legged companions, birds, reptiles and other species, suffer the same mental anguish and sense of hopelessness as any of the protection services for humans and are often the first on scene where an act of horrific violence has resulted in one or more victims found in various stages of life, dying and death. 

Common examples are dog-fighting and cockfighting events in which there are numerous victims and far too few officers who enter the gruesome scenes of animals stabbed and bleeding from the wounds of slashing knives attached to their opponent’s feet or dogs in a pit that are inflicting the most savage injuries possible on each other to mortally wound or kill their opponent—and for their own survival. 

In animal-fighting cases animal control may be the first—or only—agency to respond to deal with the crowd of criminals and their weapons, drugs, gambling, prostitution, and child-victims of human trafficking. 

These images live in all officers’ minds and hearts forever, robbing them of normal relationships in the same way as police, fire and EMT responders who wake up reliving the incidents, the eyes of those they could not save, and constantly dealing with the depravity of those who do not care. 

Animal law enforcement officers respond to scenes of both human and animal carnage. They see the horrible acts of cruelty and neglect that humans inflict on each other, on “man’s best friend,” and other helpless living creatures. 

Just like their traditional law-enforcement brethren, they rush to the danger, pick of the pieces, too often are powerless to save a life despite heroic efforts, and endure the solitude of experiences too horrific or depraved to share out loud. 

They also deal with the same hardened criminals as their police counterparts, because really bad guys have two things in common with the rest of us—kids and dogs. But animal law-enforcement officers are fewer in number, have less back-up, usually are unarmed, and too often command far less respect and cooperation—making their job even more difficult. Increasingly, they are expected to have the same level of investigative skills, with major animal-related crimes being relegated to them. 

Animal-law enforcement officers are also called, along with police officers and sheriff’s deputies, to the same crime scenes, fires and deaths of isolated people whose only companion was a pet, whose life also ended in the tragedy. 

Fighting Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Act of 2023 must extend to ALL officers who serve to protect and save lives of those who can thank them and the many voiceless and helpless animal victims who cannot. Those faces and their cries for help linger in their minds and hearts long after being forgotten by others. 

This important bill (S. 645) is a long-overdue effort to provide the same mental- health programs that have helped millions of military veterans regain their faith in themselves and the country for which they have risked their lives to save strangers. 

The Fighting Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Act of 2023 would establish mental health programs at the federal, state and local levels for America’s first responders for animals, who, just like all first-responders, often face long-term and potentially life-threatening effects from these moments of crisis. 

Bi-partisan Support Needed to Expand this Bill 

The bill, as introduced, has bi-partisan support and is cosponsored by Senators Chris Coons (D-DE), Todd Young (R-IN), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Josh Hawley (R-MO), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), John Kennedy (R-LA), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). 

The re-introduction as S. 645 is an opportunity for an amendment to include the ignored Animal-Law-Enforcement Responders (including humane officers) who rarely make public statements as they help other agencies by performing heroic efforts to capture terrified or injured animals. 

This is a realistic bill in that it admits there is a large segment of our population that chooses professions to help others by risking their own lives and that it is important to assure that they can reach out to professionals to guide them in facing their own post-traumatic stress, caused by this choice. 

The same is true of those in animal-law-enforcement who respond daily to calls to either rescue an animal or protect people from an animal, and pray that they will get there soon enough. When they don’t—especially when the victim is an animal—they internalize the guilt and feeling of failure and hopelessness just as other first responders. 

Police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and 911 dispatchers routinely develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which increases the risk of suicide. So do animal law-enforcement responders, but often no one notices. 

Here’s how The Fighting Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Act would work

It requires the Justice Department to establish evidence-based treatment programs for first responders across the country, similar to services available to military personnel who develop PTSD or acute stress disorders. 

The bill also requires the Justice Department to consult with stakeholders, including public safety officer organizations, in developing the program(s), which would be available to serve first responders in communities of all sizes across the country. 

Comments from a few of the supporters of S. 645: 

Senator Grassley said: “In times of crisis, we count on first responders and dispatchers to deliver life-saving aid—often at their own exposure to tremendous risk. Beyond the physical scars, this essential service can also take a mental and emotional toll. This bill takes an essential step toward ensuring that the brave individuals who respond in critical situations have access to mental health services needed to manage stress, stay healthy and continue to serve our communities.” 

Senator Coons said: “As the co-Chair of the Senate Law Enforcement Caucus, I have heard from officers from Delaware and across the country about the need for more programs to help address trauma in the line of duty that gets overlooked far too often in our first responders. This bipartisan bill will bring us closer to ensuring that those who put their lives on the line every day to protect and serve our communities have needed resources and care for their own mental health as well.” 

Senator Hawley said: “First responders risk their lives every day to keep our communities safe, putting themselves in the middle of stressful situations that could affect them for the rest of their lives. We must ensure they receive the care and resources they need to cope with the traumatic situations they encounter every day on the job.” 

Senator Blumenthal said: “This measure will help expand critical mental health services for our heroic first responders. The stresses and trauma first responders face every day stays with them whether they’re on or off the clock—highlighting the need for evidence-based and trauma-informed care and support. The Fighting PTSD Act is an important initial investment in the wellbeing of those answering the calls for help and keeping our communities safe.” 

SOMETIMES THERE IS JUSTICE, BUT TOO OFTEN, THERE IS ‘JUST US.’ 

This lonely sentiment is shared by public safety officers from all types of agencies and missions all across this great country—those who feel alone and are intended to be aided by this bill. 

Animal control, humane, and other ‘animal law-enforcement officers’ arguably already meet the federal definition of public safety officers. However, too often this fact is not recognized or even considered. 

Animal law-enforcement officers need to be expressly listed in this bill, just as tribal law-enforcement officers currently are. 

Please help: 

If you are an agency, support group/association, individual/voter, media outlet or local legislator at ANY level, or you just deeply care about those who help animals, CONTACT YOUR FEDERAL REPRESENTATIVE AND ASK HIM/HER NOT TO FORGET THE ANIMAL-LAW-ENFORCEMENT OFFICERS who protect and serve the victims without a voice, and themselves suffer in silence, and ADD THEM to the list of those covered by the Fighting Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Act. 

(You can find your representatives here.) 

Text of the Fighting Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Act is available here. 

(Phyllis M. Daugherty is a former Los Angeles City employee, an animal activist and a contributor to CityWatch.)