Originally from Indiana, Ronald E. Smith came to Pennsylvania to help out his grandfather, who was in need of personal care. He noticed an advertisement for a job working in the kennel of the humane society that was coincidently within walking distance from his grandfather’s home. He applied for the job and was hired. The job was very rough, and Ron almost quit after the first weekend! However, he stuck it out, and worked in the kennel for 1 year.
In the fall of 1973, Ron saw an opportunity, and was promoted to the position of “humane agent”. He was the first to be promoted from a basic position to one of great authority. Ron attended many conferences to gain additional information, and soon realized that he was the only African-American humane agent in the entire area. For training, Ron rode with the top humane agent, known as a “super”, for about a week. After that he spent several days with another agent. He was then given a badge and told to “have at it”.
He found it shocking the power he possessed to easily obtain a search warrant.
Also, when Ron started there was still a staff member who investigated the neglect of children. Few people know that when the humane society was first established it covered both human and animal cases.
Oddly enough, in the beginning, humane officers wore suits and drove Chevy impalas. After a while Ron lobbied with his superiors that these vehicles were just not cutting it for the type of work they were doing, and eventually that was changed. In 1993 there were a lot of problems with the regulation of humane agents. It was very easy to pay a small fee and obtain a badge. Rogue groups of agents would apply strong armed tactics and commit unwarranted confiscations. A harsh Post Gazette article was published that questioned the legitimacy and power of humane agents. Many lawsuits followed questioning humane agents overall. Although something bad had to first happen for a good result to occur, Ron found this to be a blessing in disguise. ‘In 1996 it was mandated that humane officers must receive training and certification which ultimately yielded increased credibility for humane officers’.
When asked what inspired him to continue his work in such a difficult profession, Ron easily replied, “Because someone needs to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.” Humane officers used to be responsible for many different counties. Ron recalled one instance where he had to travel so far that he needed to stay overnight to finish processing a complaint. Now, officers are sworn-in in each county they work.
Although each is case is different from the last, Ron finds each case to be etched in his mind. Whether it would be from one animal in a critical state to multiple, Ron stated that he always tries to focus on the outcome. Each new situation brings a different variety of animal. Humane officers deal with the basic dog and cat household, but they often encounter some strange breeds. Oddly enough, Ron gets many calls about livestock. He has dealt with alligators, snakes and big cats in the 70’s… in the 70’s it used to be fashionable to walk around with exotic animals so to make a fashion statement.
Legal change over time has helped humane officers greatly. A simple word like ‘neglect’ was not part of the law for a long time; humane agents had to prove “pain and suffering”. Also, the addition of the ‘Level 1’ statue really helped since 90% of the cases are that in first stage of violation.
I asked Ron about some barriers he had to overcome on the everyday job. ‘Owners are always an issue.’ Officers try to present people with a complaint in the least possible confrontational manner. In the past people reacted very poorly and it was hard to enforce the laws. Certain bad neighborhoods housing gangs and felons posed additional threats and thus extra special sensitivity was required for certain geographical areas.
Ron further explained that officers deal with a variety of personalities and each must be handled differently. Currently economics, family pressures, and other factors can promote hostile behavior. If humane officers cannot resolve a situation, search warrants and police back up may be required. Ron explained that this happens at least once a month. He stated, ‘I try to give an individual every opportunity to resolve the situation before resorting to these more drastic measures.’ Officers must document all efforts to remedy the situation, but if the animal’s life is still in jeopardy, police will be called.
Fortunately, the D.A. Debra Judan is very aggressive to animal cruelty cases. The magistrates are up to speed as well offering additional support. Ron believes this has a lot to do with the professional manner in which Humane Society Police Officers conduct themselves, and this gains them great respect.
Humane society officers themselves experience personal obstacles as well. They must enforce the law, but there is a strong natural tendency to apply one’s own personal standards. Ron explained how many people don’t last long on the job because they may end up turning their own beliefs into law. As difficult as it is, officers must work to remove all emotional attachment.
But straight from the mouth of a man doing this for almost 40 years, ‘You can never completely desensitize yourself. The feelings you get in some situations with animals is overwhelming. You always try to do your best for the animal, get it into the shelter to receive treatment as quickly as possible.’
Ron has just completed his 39th year of service. His partner has just completed his 36th. Another female H.I. team member recently finished her 17th year. Lastly, the new kid on the block, who Ron believes will carry on the legacy, is still in his first year. When asked about what he thought the future would bring, Ron quoted his first boss who said, “The Humane society was here long before we started, and will be here long after were gone.”
by Stephen Sverchek