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Humane Law Enforcement

Robyn Watts

The Best Job

“I’ve always loved animals,”; says Humane Law Enforcement Officer JoAnn Sandano. “When I was a little girl, I dreamed about becoming a veterinarian.” As she grew older, however, Sandano followed another dream: to become a police officer. She studied criminal justice and worked in law enforcement, including a stint in the New York City Police Department. But Sandano didn’t forget her first love. While volunteering with her local SPCA, it occurred to her that there might be a way to combine her two passions.

Humane Law Enforcement


Sandano contacted the ASPCA about joining the humane law enforcement team, but the ASPCA wasn’t hiring at the time (see “Too Few Defenders”). But Sandano was determined, and checked back frequently. Persistence—and credentials—won out, and in August, 1999, she was hired.

Job Description

As Sandano ends her second year on the job, she sees her role as “speaking up for animals because they can’t speak for themselves.” She finds defending animals satisfying. “In most cases, they’re defenseless,” she says.

But being an animal cop, like any form of law enforcement, has its risks. Sandano investigates animal abuse throughout New York City, including areas of high crime and drug activity. Even in “safe” neighborhoods, she can never be certain who she’ll encounter during the course of an investigation.

Sometimes people see her uniform and react to her as if she’s just another police officer, she says. Other times, citizens are more helpful because they distinguish her as someone who helps animals. As a peace officer, Sandano is expected to make arrests for any crime committed in her presence and to report suspected crimes to the NYPD, and is mandated to report all suspected child abuse.

A Typical Day

Sandano works from 7 A.M. to 5 P.M., four days a week. On a typical day, when she arrives in the morning, she gets into her uniform, inspects her gun and addresses any pending paperwork. She reviews cases that need follow-up, receives new complaints to be investigated and then sets out on the road.

On one such typical day last May, Sandano and her partner, Annemarie Lucas, received an urgent dispatch to check out a complaint about a dying dog at an apartment building in Brooklyn. At the location, some of the tenants led them to a backyard where the landlord’s seven-year-old German shepherd mix, Sheila, was confined. The tenants said that they had repeatedly told their landlord that Sheila was sick, but the landlord neglected to seek care for or even feed the dog.

The officers found Sheila not only emaciated but covered with ticks. Because the dog appeared to be near death, Sandano and Lucas rushed her to the ASPCA’s Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in Manhattan. Veterinarians there discovered that Sheila was severely anemic; the 500 ticks on her body had literally drained away her blood.

Even though Sheila was malnourished and had other health problems, she miraculously managed to survive. Now almost fully recovered, she’ll hopefully be adopted soon from the ASPCA shelter.

Officers Sandano and Lucas arrested Sheila’s owner and charged her with misdemeanor animal cruelty. As it happened, an Animal Planet crew was on hand filming material for Animal Precinct, the new series featuring the “A’s” HLE department. They covered Sheila’s case from initial investigation to the arrest of her owner—who was incredulous that neglecting a dog could be a crime. “I simply don’t understand how people can be so uncaring and apathetic,” says Sandano, “but kudos to the neighbors for calling the ASPCA—they saved Sheila’s life.” The case aired on Animal Planet over the summer.

The hardest part of the job for Sandano is when animal abuse is not taken seriously by the courts, and abusers get off with a slap on the wrist. Still, Sandano says she loves her job. She believes that animals like Sheila remember her when they meet again. “Maybe they recognize the uniform and recall being saved. When an animal’s been rescued from horrific conditions, it’s the greatest feeling in the world to see that tail wag.”

Robyn Watts is associate counsel in the ASPCA Legal Department.

Too Few Defenders

The ASPCA currently employs 13 Humane Law Enforcement (HLE) officers to serve not only New York City but the entire state. While these 13 peace officers have arrest powers much like regular police, ASPCA receives no federal, state or local funding. Although it is clear that many more HLE officers are needed, the ASPCA budget — which is met entirely by member and private donations — cannot support additional staff at this time.

© 2001 ASPCA
ASPCA Animal Watch – Winter 2001

Courtesy of
424 East 92nd St.
New York, NY 10128-6804
(212) 876-7700

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