Periodically, we’ll introduce you to some of the wonderful staff members at the Seattle Animal Shelter. Today we’re spotlighting Humane Animal Law Enforcement Officer Caryn Cantu.

 

Tell us a bit about the personal and career paths that have led you to your current role at the Seattle Animal Shelter.

I grew up in a household that always had at least one cat, usually two, and at least one aquarium. I loved all animals as a child and often took neighbors’ dogs for walks and did a fair amount of pet sitting. I wanted to work with animals but felt that veterinary medicine was not the right path for me. I wasn’t aware of any other options for a career with animals so I followed my interest in the outdoors and obtained a degree in Forest Resources. I worked in forestry and wild land firefighting for 12 years and enjoyed it very much. That work often overlapped with wildlife management and I always enjoyed those projects best. I regrettably developed a bee allergy that eventually forced me into a career change which, in fact, turned into a blessing in disguise. TV shows like Animal Cops were changing the perception of animal control officers, and I saw the opportunity to finally follow my interest in helping animals. I started out volunteering at an animal shelter near my house and then took a veterinary assistant position at a local vet’s office to gain added experience required for the job. I’ve now been with the Seattle Animal Shelter for 6 and a half years and can’t imagine doing anything else.

What’s a typical day like at your job?

The first few hours are usually spent writing reports, checking voicemail and email for correspondence with suspects, witnesses or victims, making phone calls to take statements or contacting veterinarians to request records. Our dispatcher will assign a number of calls to each officer based on the area they are assigned that day. Before the officers head into the field, we conduct a truck check to ensure our vehicles are stocked with the equipment we may need when responding to calls. This includes documents, catch poles, nets, snake tongs, blankets, towels, a coffee can for the occasional bat, a variety of gloves, plastic bags, cat carriers and traps. That is where the typical part of the day ends.

The calls we respond to vary from day to day and can include nuisance noise and leash law complaints, animal bites and animal cruelty investigations, animal surrenders, deceased animal removal, and that is by no means a complete list. We contact involved parties, take statements, get identification, take photos, issue quarantine or animal cruelty notices, give verbal warnings, and issue citations. We may also be dispatched to additional service calls while in the field. These are usually high-priority calls that require immediate response such as police assists, injured animals, or loose aggressive animals.

Any specific stories that demonstrate the impact of what you do?

I remember reuniting an impounded dog with his owner at a gas station near UW a couple years ago. The dog had been found roaming and I picked it up from the finder and then called the owner based on the ID the dog was wearing. Once the paperwork was complete and the dog was out of my truck and on the owner’s leash, I got to watch a grown man cry tears of joy while the dog he was just reunited with bowled him over to lick his face ecstatically. They were both so relieved and happy to see one another! On a side note, I have also picked up a stray chicken from that same gas station.

Another case that has stuck with me as one that could have turned tragic without SAS intervention was during one of my first years as an ACO. I responded to an animal cruelty complaint regarding a dachshund being tethered out in freezing weather and the owner throwing water at it when it cried. I responded to the address and found a pitiful but sweet little dachshund that was so emaciated it could barely stand. The dog was ultimately surrendered to SAS and adopted out to a wonderful family. The new family sent us pictures about a year later and he was so fat and sleek it didn’t even look like the same dog.

What’s the main thing you’d like the public to know about your department?

We are not “the pound” of 50 years ago. The Seattle Animal Shelter has a 93% save rate, which is among the best in the nation. We are here to serve the citizens and animals of Seattle and we are in this line of work because we are all animal lovers. We are not out to impound animals at a whim or fine owners for random infractions; we are here as a resource for all of Seattle.

Any tips for pet owners and potential adopters in Seattle?

For the owners: Microchip and license your pets! Most pet owners don’t expect their animal to get lost, but when they do get lost, the pet’s ID can make all the difference in the world. For adopters, I would advise them to do their homework. Unfortunately too many adopted animals are returned to us due to unrealistic expectations by the adopter. Do the homework to know what kind of time and money commitment you are getting into. We want our animals to be adopted for life.

What’s the most rewarding thing about working at SAS?

There are so many rewarding things I can’t pick just one. Knowing that we have made thousands of lives better—not just animals, but humans, too—is incredibly rewarding. Seeing animals go from a neglected state and into a loving home where they flourish is the best. Reading the letters we get from people who have adopted shelter animals and how it changed their lives forever is rewarding. Seeing the compassion and dedication of my coworkers is rewarding.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

Seeing animals that have suffered at the hands of a human is very difficult to witness. Trying to stay professional with a person who has caused harm to an animal is very difficult, too. Being able to control your emotions is absolutely necessary in this line of work. There is no training to fully prepare you for every situation you may run into in the field. You must be able to think on your feet, adapt, and be creative. I’ve been here 6 and a half years, and there are still scenarios that arise that I have not encountered before and not had instruction on, despite attending the Animal Control Academy and various continuing education courses.

Why should Seattleites support the Seattle Animal Shelter?

Their support improves the quality of life for Seattle’s animals and its residents and it saves animals’ lives. Even if residents are not pet owners themselves, the Seattle Animal Shelter provides services such as removing injured or deceased animals—wild and domestic—from public and private property, responding to nuisance noise and leash law complaints, and keeping the city safe from loose aggressive animals. We also provide a safe, temporary home for animals that have been surrendered and are awaiting their new homes. Many animals received by SAS need veterinary care and their support helps pay for that care and the Shelter’s low-cost Spay and Neuter Clinic.

 

Photo: Officer Caryn Cantu with recently adopted Shelter dog Alexis. Officer Cantu and her husband have two cats of their own, including one adopted from the Shelter.