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Animal Cops

I watch Animal Cops. It’s an embarrassing thing to admit, and I’m used to the frowns of consternation. “Why?” my friends ask, even my husband. “Why would you watch that?” I ask my husband the same thing about Futurama, but he argues that it’s not just a matter of taste. “Animal Cops is painful and torturous,” he says. “Why do you do that to yourself?”

It is true that at least one animal per show dies or is euthanized for behavioral problems. It’s an interesting choice that the show’s producer makes to include these cases. You might think that they would include only the situations where there’s a happy ending. Knowing what I know about animal rescue, however, I surmise that there’s an insistence on the part of show participants that some level of realism be maintained. Yes, many of the animals are shown at show’s end in loving, new “forever” homes. Yes, these often produce smiles and giggles we might deem sentimental.

Yet I don’t think these shows are sentimental. They look too closely at depravity to be sentimental. I love the hard faces of the animal cops, whether they be in Houston, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Francisco, or Miami. They are tough, and these are reality shows where reality is not entirely sidelined, though, of course, the various cops featured are carefully selected for their personalities. My belief in their heroism is engineered, no doubt, and I’m sure they all have flaws and petty squabbles that aren’t shown on TV.

Still, the camera follows their eyes as they examine pit bulls ripped to shreds by dog-fighting, or fifty or more cats living in inch-deep feces in a tiny house, or a horse walking on the top of its swollen and infected hoof. On one call I remember, a dog had been reported injured, with a broken leg, but the truth was it couldn’t stand because it had been weakened by months of starvation. In Miami, there was a case of a young man slaughtering pet cats and bringing their sliced-up bodies back to their owners’ yards for display. Frequently there are cases of dogs that are brought back to health only to fail behavioral tests and be euthanized. One of the behavioral experts tears up every time she has to condemn a dog to death. She knows, as I know, that most of these dogs got that way through abuse and could even yet be saved if there were time and resources to devote to it. But our attitude toward pets in the U.S. is schizoid—we treat our own like family but condemn thousands to die every year for lack of resources.

I face these pictures every now and then on TV, but the animal cops face these scenarios every day. Their weariness is often visible in the faces. Charles Jantzen, a chief cruelty investigator in Houston, often wears, along with his cowboy hat, the pointed, drawn expression of a haunted man as he toils in the Texas heat to round up dogs, cats, horses, chickens, even emus. Lisa Yambrick is sometimes brought to tears by the limits of the law in Miami, which doesn’t allow her to take every animal in need. In Detroit, Debby MacDonald has a head shake like no other; she explains repeatedly to the camera and to ignorant pet owners what needs to be done in no uncertain terms. Mike Dowe, also a Detroit investigator, has one of the softest voices I’ve ever heard. He seems continually amazed at what he sees and works gently with each animal he encounters. What a beautiful sensitivity this man has in the face of all this disgusting cruelty.

I also remember the time when I did volunteer animal rescue work myself (for two organizations, Centre County Paws and A New Beginning). I remember the kitten that a woman brought in right after she had stopped to pick it up off the highway after watching a man throw it out of a car window while the car drove 45 mph down the road. It was skinned all over and had a broken leg, but lived and thrived. I remember the dog that a woman dropped off one day, saying that her husband would kill it if she brought it back home again; he killed it less directly, for the dog was so afraid of and violent toward men that we had to have it put down, something my organization was seldom called on to do. I also remember the dozens of references I checked to make sure our pets were going to sound homes.

I have come to the conclusion that it is probably the most useful and meaningful work I’ve ever done in my life. I intend to get back to it when circumstances allow. But I would never have the strength to do it every day or to handle these worst-case scenarios all the time. So perhaps I watch these shows because I admire something in these cops that I don’t have. I share with them a devotion to animals, but not the brutal strength they have. I have art, which is not nothing, not by any means, but in these days when I question my future, I wonder about the relative merits of choices I could have made. A life saved is a life saved, after all.

Animal Cops is not art, of course. The shows harp on the same simple messages over and over again: these organizations depend heavily on donations, so please give; if you acquire animals, you must take care of them responsibly; and people who don’t take care of their animals are criminals. The shows do, however, have one thing in common with literature: they demonstrate the vast array of evil and just plain old messed-up-ness in the human race. The dramas that play out in the court scenes, where people often protest the seizure of starving or injured animals left unfed and untreated, is instructive if not literary. They often feel that they have done nothing wrong, and they often have befallen terrible times themselves. Sometimes it feels odd that someone can step in to help the animals, but not the degraded people in their ignorance, poverty, and callousness. That, I suppose, is what social services and art are for. We can only wish that they would work better and also receive the resources to do their work. Our country is schizoid not only about the animals, but the humans, divided so between fortunate and un-.

14 responses »

  1. Oh God, I can’t watch those shows! 😉 They make me so depressed and have nightmares. Here’s the reason why– it’s much harder for me (and provokes much more tears for me) to watch a suffering animal who cannot have an intelligent discussion about their abuse than it is for me to see the suffering of a human being who can more intelligently comprehend their suffering (or even abuse) or at least be able to talk it out and work it out in therapy whether through cognitive therapy, art therapy, doing anything creative really, or just having a weekly psychologist sesssion. The same can be said for a patient suffering from illness– they can usually express their suffering in ways an animal cannot and they can usually comprehend their suffering in a way that an animal cannot. This inability for expression/ release (which can be cathartic and part of treatment) and inability to cognitively comprehend what is happening– is what makes me sob just to even see those damn Sarah McLachlan commercials with the poor abused animals footage and pictures. I will change the channel every time.

    And perhaps having been a patient all these years and having dealt with psychological abuse at home growing up, I feel the pain of those poor animals much more so than someone who hasn’t. The water works will come on.

    That said, my mother and I have both saved abused animals. And I volunteered during the oil spill relief efforts in Louisiana for the pelicans. I barely did anything and I only saw a few birds but it felt so great to be able to be the one that helps. Watching a show of this taking place makes me feel a sense of lack of control that makes me feel much more vulnerable and teary-eyed than when I am doing helpful stuff myself for an animal.

    • You point out the importance of action, I think. I agree that doing is almost always better than watching. It’s exciting that you helped with the pelicans.

      But I am also amazed by the lack of comprehension and the lack of understanding shown by the humans on the show. They often seem so ignorant and degraded, even less expressive and less able to process the suffering that they’ve caused than the animals themselves. I’m reminded of In Cold Blood and the way it shows the “two sides” of this country–the prosperous, “safe,” happy side and the poor, degraded, depraved side. I suppose I fear being wrapped too tightly in my cocoon of middle-class pleasantness with my three pampered cats and forgetting about what goes on out there. So I sometimes watch.

      I do look forward to the day when I can be more active again in rescue efforts. It is indeed so satisfying.

  2. I, too, love the animal cops shows. Some people only see the suffering. I see the joy. The animals who have been rescued and now have a chance for a happy life. The ending of misery, not the misery itself. I find it so encouraging to see how much these investigators love animals and how they are so devoted to their jobs. I see happy endings. These people are saints.

    • Thanks for your message. You know, I was trapped in an airplane seat next to a guy the other day who kept insisting to me that money is all that matters. I tried to tell him about Daniel Pink’s info on motivation–and how money is really not what drives us. I tried to tell him about others who are motivated besides things besides money, like the people who work so tirelessly for the benefit of animals. It all fell on deaf ears. But you know when you watch an episode of Animal Cops–as one example–that things besides money are most important.

  3. Thank you for expressing what I have felt thru the years about some of the episodes you cite. Can YOU get the answer to why Charles Jantzen lost so much weight and is he okay? Lots of people ask but I don’t know of any answers yet.

    • Thanks for your note. No, I don’t know anything about Charles Jantzen’s weight loss. It’s kind of odd that we don’t know whether unexplained weight loss is a good thing (successful dieting) or a bad thing (illness). I assume that Jantzen is healthy since he doesn’t seem to have lost any strength. But, even though I’m very open about my own health, I respect his privacy in that regard.

  4. Gail McCartney

    These shows serve a great purpose – because I watch Houston SPCA I have become educated to animal requirements that were never clear to me before, despite a life time of raising dogs and cats. My vet has nagged me for years to treat my dog for heart worms but never offered details and so I did not follow through until last year, when this great show gave details about the importance of heart worm treatment, and the consequences of not doing so. Not watching the various SPCA shows means missed opportunities to learn about various animals, the requirements of caring for them and the difference between cities that have ample budgets and those that are just scrapping by with limited resources.

  5. Charles Jantzen known to us as “Matthew” is an awesome person….I am proud to call him my cousin..

  6. p.s. he lost weight why anyone would lose it,he is NOT sick ….I was looking his address for his christmas card and found these rumors….it is kind of insulting

    • People are nosy, indeed. That’s why I suggested people should respect his privacy in that regard. Still, glad to know all is well. I’m sure Mr. Jantzen’s celebrity brings its share of crazy people, but most of us just really respect what he does. Thanks for commenting and happy holidays to your whole family.

  7. are they ever going to bring back the cops of animal planet, i miss them. i have watched the reruns over and over, would like to see new ones. i miss the people that work there. i sure dont watch nor like the other reality shows, they are stupid!! give us back the people that do good, not just to be on t.v. and make asses of them self.

    • Lois, I wish I knew what had become of the various shows. The Animal Planet site still lists Houston, Detroit, and San Francisco, but Wikipedia gives years for the shows and lists Houston as the only one still ongoing. There are a number of complaints on the Animal Planet site that they seem to have quit making these shows, but I can find no information on why.

  8. I am a trans woman and am married to a sweet young woman who showed that cats are nothing but big loving babies.We have 5 big babies which we adopted from the Erie County S P C A in Tonawanda,New York.
    We love to watch Animal cops and we can not be leave how some people be so cruel to animals.


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