Officer Cathy Bricker has worked with animals since she was eighteen, first in obedience classes and grooming sessions; she even opened a pet supply store. Kathy has trained dogs since 1971 – for forty years now. Considering the way her love for animals evolved over the years, it isn’t surprising that she found her way to the Humane Society.
Cathy began working at the Fallen Timber Shelter in Elizabeth Township in the late 1970s. Fallen Timber is very close to her home; when it opened, she felt she had to work there, as she was still drawn to animals after many years. She left her job with Bell Telephone and came to work at the shelter.
Cathy started her new career in 1993 at the “satellite shelter,” which is a smaller and more rural shelter than the one on the North Shore. She is the only officer on site and has worked with the small shelter from the beginning; for a couple of years she even worked on outdoor maintenance, cutting the grass and doing other work on the property. Then, after working as an assistant manager
for four years, she went on to become an officer. After years of involvement with the shelter, Kathy felt familiar with the investigations department, but actually serving as a Humane Investigations Officer was a little different.
Her very first day was rough and a little wild. She remembers training in the field with Officer Bob Gosser. They went to a house in Applewald; the officers could smell the house’s odor a block away. Cathy couldn’t believe what she saw; she couldn’t believe the magnitude of the stink, either. The owner became hostile and defensive and waved garden tools at the officers. Eventually they worked their way inside. In that four-bedroom house the officers found 200 cats living in waste and neglect. It took months to work the case through to the end. On a scale of 1 – 10 of severity, Bob rated it a 10.
What she didn’t know when becoming a Humane Investigations Officer was how much education is involved. As a law officer, her first goal is rectifying a situation; prosecution is not always the priority because it does not necessarily solve any problems, she explained. By educating owners on laws they may know nothing about and forming some kind of relationship between Cathy and the owner, the owners feel less alienated and more involved and even in control of their situation. And by showing respect, Cathy stands a greater chance of success and cooperation from the owner.
Every day on the job is different for Cathy. Most of the time she deals with the standard animals – dogs, cats, rabbits. Sometimes, though, the job surprises her. Ten years ago she dealt with iguanas because owning the reptiles turned into a fad; pot bellied pigs, snakes and alligators have also popped up on Kathy’s radar. Sometimes birds and dog fighting rings have appeared as well.
People skills are essential and thinking on your feet is a must in this line of work. Cathy never knows who will answer the door when she knocks; and while most people are extremely defensive, some are downright unpredictable.
Cathy says making people feel comfortable with her is the best skill she’s developed over the years. Sometimes this means talking with the person she’s visited from the beginning; sometimes it means she stands quietly while that person vents to her about whatever is on their mind. Either way, Cathy judges the best way to make some progress on the job and with the person.
Some people avoid showing her information as well; a lot of Cathy’s people skills come from officers Bob and Ron who taught her from the beginning how to work with difficult owners. The key is to approach situations in a manner that doesn’t invoke feelings of being threatened; owners have to feel that the law officers are on their side rather than against them. It helps invoke feelings of respect from both parties.
But Cathy says she must not be too open with the owners, either. She must handle everything calmly and coolly, keeping her emotions out of the picture and remembering what her job is. And as angry as some people might make her, she must act respectfully and kind, hoping that this will have a positive impact on the owner and help to positively resolve the situation for the animal in need.
Cathy receives 30 calls a month at the Fallen Timber Shelter and issues three to four citations a month on average. Some calls are unfounded and come out of overly concerned people; others involve vendettas and anger between neighbors, or disputes between spouses. No matter what the situation, a common problem is that the animals sometimes become the pawns, and Cathy’s job is to give the animals a voice in the disputes.
Her job also calls for judgment calls and thinking on her feet; she must decide the best course of actions for animals. It’s not always easy to know the best course of action. Cathy believes that over the years she’s also learned to be a better person thanks to working as an officer.
Her people skills are above average, to say the least. While she feels she’s never dealt with blatant sexism or harsh judgments about her as a woman or as a person, she manages to understand where people are coming from when she knocks on their door. She’s learned to avoid judgment on her part, or to ignore her prejudices and stereotypes completely; this allows her to handle each situation from as fresh a perspective as possible. Because she’s spoken to and worked with people who live differently than she does, she has a better understanding other people and what they deal with in life. And because she speaks to families, she often hopes that the children listen and learn from what she tells their parents. In this job she’s found there are a lot of lessons to be learned by all parties.
by Stephen Sverchek