Note: This is a chapter in the Community Cat Programs Handbook.
Working closely with field services officers (often called animal control officers or ACOs) and dispatch staff is critical to the success of any community cat program (CCP). Because these people typically find themselves on the “front lines” (fielding complaint calls, addressing nuisance complaints in the field, etc.), they provide an indispensable resource for community outreach and education. Oftentimes, the public first learns about a CCP through conversations with ACOs or dispatch staff.
However, successful collaboration requires some understanding of the role that field services and dispatch staff have played historically in municipal animal control. For many years, some animal control agencies have responded to complaints about stray, abandoned and “feral” cats by rounding them up, contributing to a high rate of killing in shelters. This practice persists today in some places, although in many other communities ACOs will now respond only in cases deemed high-priority (e.g., a sick or injured cat, report of a bite).
It’s important to recognize that the philosophical shift to trap-neuter-return (TNR) is a significant one, requiring some of those involved to rethink their measures of success (see below). Although it’s unlikely to happen overnight, this shift does have the potential to transform an organization. The same staff who regarded the CCP with great skepticism can become its greatest ambassadors, and the program’s emphasis on lifesaving efforts can cause field services and dispatch staff to see every aspect of their jobs through this new lens.
Of course, some staff already share the underlying philosophy of the CCP and will immediately embrace their new role. CCP staff should be prepared for a broad range of responses.
Guidelines recently adopted by the National Animal Care and Control Association (NACA) acknowledge the philosophical and cultural shift taking place within animal control agencies across the country, as these organizations increasingly adopt a CCP model. From the 2014 NACA Guidelines: “NACA recognizes that in some circumstances, alternative management programs, including Trap Neuter Vaccinate & Return (TNVR) programs, may be effective, and recommends that each agency assess the individual need with their community and respond accordingly.”
While no two organizations are exactly alike, the structure of the field services and dispatch departments of most animal control agencies tends to be similar in that there is a clear chain of command. For this reason, it’s important for those in charge to be committed to the philosophy and goals of the CCP. Their buy-in must be communicated to the rest of the team through initial training sessions and, as the program rolls out, during regular team meetings.
CCP staff can play a critical role in this training, especially in the early days of a program — or better still, before the program launches. Among the various training resources to consider are the following:
- Presentations that explain the CCP’s rationale, describe the benefits to staff and showcase the results of model programs
- Brochures, door hangers and other collateral that will help ACOs as they describe the program to residents. See the appendix for examples of documents explaining that the CCP complies with all relevant laws and has the support of the municipal shelter and elected officials.
- Scripts and role-playing exercises for interacting with residents
No doubt, some of the best training tips will come from the field services officers and dispatch staff themselves. After all, they have the direct experience and interact with the community on a daily basis. Again, some will embrace the program more eagerly than others. Encourage these individuals to share tips about what works (as well as what doesn’t) with the team regularly.
In a CCP, problem solving is no longer about “taking the cat away.” ACOs and dispatch staff are required to better understand the nuance — and underlying cause — of nuisance complaints, and they often play the role of diplomat, negotiator or counselor. Training ACOs and dispatch staff in such skills is therefore essential to the success of the CCP. (See “How to Address Various Complaints” for additional information on this topic.)
Benefits to ACOs and dispatch staff
In some cases, the benefits of the CCP may not be immediately obvious to field services officers and dispatch staff. This is especially true for agencies in which field services and dispatch services are separate from sheltering services. (Sheltering staff typically observe a reduction in intake and shelter deaths almost immediately upon launching a CCP.) However, experience demonstrates that these individuals will benefit considerably, as:
- The policies regarding community cats (impoundment, response to nuisance complaints, etc.) are clarified, reducing ambiguity and misunderstanding — and the associated stress — among staff and residents alike
- There’s a decrease in the number of cats and kittens picked up in the field and/or impounded via shelter intake, thereby reducing workload
- Resources once allocated to impounding community cats are re-allocated to other tasks — for example, at-large dogs, injured animals and cruelty investigations
- Caregivers and the rest of the community start respecting ACOs rather than seeing them as villains
- CCP-related public relations and community outreach efforts help inform residents about the program, reducing the burden on field services and dispatch staff
- Workload is further reduced because healthy ear-tipped cats are only rarely impounded
As with any collaborative endeavor, a successful CCP depends on effective communication. Because they serve on the front lines, field services officers and dispatch staff play a key role, often acting as the conduit between residents and CCP staff. It’s important, therefore, that these individuals receive proper training and are given appropriate resources (as described above).
Language tip: Be consistent in the terminology used to describe your community cat program. It’s probably best to avoid referring to it as TNR, since trap-neuter-return is actually just the method being employed by the program, not the larger program — which typically includes community outreach, adoption and foster opportunities. Furthermore, the term has negative connotations for some people, and can therefore become a barrier to effective collaboration. The terms most often used are shelter/neuter/return (SNR), (RTF) and community cat program.
Processes and protocols should be established to ensure consistent communication wherever possible. Callers should receive the same information regardless of whether they speak with a field services officer, a dispatcher or CCP staff. Among the various questions to consider are:
- How do residents obtain information about the CCP?
- Who receives incoming calls about the CCP (e.g., dispatch, customer service representatives, 311 operators)?
- What information do callers receive?
- Is key incoming information about community cats passed effectively and efficiently from ACOs and dispatch staff to CCP staff?
- How will all staff involved in the CCP program understand their role in the network of communication?
Measures of success
As mentioned above, the philosophical shift necessary to launch and operate an effective CCP will require some field services officers and dispatch staff to rethink their measures of success. Their traditional role in animal control efforts often involved responding to complaint calls by removing cats or kittens from a particular location, often with fatal consequences. Removal of the cats or kittens completed the job. They considered the cessation of complaint calls success.
A successful CCP may very well lead to fewer complaint calls, but this is just one favorable outcome. Among the others are:
- Reduced intake and shelter deaths of cats and kittens
- Reduced number of young kittens brought to the shelter (an indication that the population of community cats is being stabilized or reduced)
- Reduced colony size and/or number
- The number of positive interactions with residents who support the CCP and, perhaps more important, those who were skeptical of the program but who have seen its impact in their neighborhood
- Improved relationships with shelter staff, caregivers, elected officials and the community overall
Admittedly, some of these measures are difficult to quantify and track. However, the value they represent to various stakeholders, generally speaking, far exceeds anything captured merely by tracking impoundments. In any case, some process of documenting and tracking an agency’s performance must still be implemented if stakeholders expect to see ongoing future improvements.
Finally, collecting and sharing success stories can be remarkably effective at demonstrating to ACOs and dispatch staff the significant contribution they’re making to the agency and their community. Such stories can also be integrated into an agency’s training program.
In addition to the shelter intake tools commonly used by field services officers and dispatch staff (e.g., Chameleon/CMS for tracking intake and outcome data), a number of new mapping tools, such as Google Maps and Microsoft MapPoint, and geographic information system (GIS) technology allow CCPs to track intake and colony locations. Visualizing such data can be enormously valuable not only to various staff members, but also to elected officials and the general public, as a compelling way to demonstrate a CCP’s progress. (See “Data and Statistics” for additional information on this topic.)
 The absolute number of calls is an incomplete — and very likely misleading — metric, however, as such calls vary considerably. A call from an overwhelmed caregiver is obviously very different from a call from a resident frustrated with cats climbing on his car, and each requires a very different response. See “How to Address Various Complaints” for more information on this topic.
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