On a lumpy residential street in the 7th Ward, Amanda Pumilia and I pull over in the toaster-shaped fiberglass van and mobile kennel driven by humane law enforcement officers in New Orleans. A chicken saunters across the street as Pumilia peers into the rugged laptop mounted beside the driver’s seat and frowns.
We’re here to investigate an alleged dog bite case, and Pumilia rattles off the details to me: a blue house, two dogs, a man walking on the sidewalk, a bite to the face. In the picture she shows me, there’s a shallow laceration on the man’s chin.
“Bite cases get a little hinky,” she tells me, on our way to the scene. “Every time an animal bites a person, there’s a rabies quarantine that’s supposed to happen … even though the threat of rabies is minor, it’s still there.”
As Pumilia looks around, a problem becomes apparent: there’s no blue house. But nearby, we can hear the telltale woof-woof of several dogs.
Bite cases are just one of several kinds of calls humane law enforcement officers like Pumilia respond to through a dispatch at their home base, the Louisiana SPCA. Through a contract with the City of New Orleans, they provide animal control, investigate cruelty cases and more: I see a dog with a pink collar running down the street. My neighbor’s dog is on a chain without food and shelter. There’s a kitten trapped under my car hood. Another dog attacked my dog. (This department doesn’t handle wild animal removal, but they will pick up injured wildlife.) Because of their connection with the city, officers are empowered to issue a variety of municipal citations for infractions such failure to vaccinate against rabies or using an animal to solicit tips without a permit, a la many a Bourbon Street street performer.
Much of what she does involves conflict resolution and defusing high-tension situations between neighbors. People get touchy about their pets, especially when there’s been a biting incident or if someone calls in a dog that’s been chained up outside a house without shelter.
“We don’t ride with other officers, so we’re going to people’s houses cold knocking," she says. "You learn how to approach people differently. You learn a lot about people, just the way that they’re standing, how you should address them. ... If you compliment a a lady on how pretty her garden is, she will tell you anything.”
The big fear in the community, Pumilia says, is that officers want take your pets away. Most of the time, that isn’t the intent . “We don’t want your dog [at the shelter],” she says. Instead, humane law enforcement officers are there to assess the situation and provide materials and information to make that pet’s life better. They’ll distribute food, blankets and dog houses to community members and connect them with low-cost vet and vaccination services. The point is to teach the rules, including lesser-known statutes like the new-ish Orleans Parish requirement to neuter dogs over six months old, and to keep pets with their owners, unless there’s a real danger to the animal.
Pumilia tells me all this before we make our way to the site of the call. We’re not meeting the bite victim, so a lot of what we’re about to do is guesswork. As we get out of the car, more chickens, including a puffball chick and a surly-looking rooster, scatter at our feet.
We follow the barking to a house on the corner. It’s not blue, but a green-yellow color like a cartoon lemon . But we do see a grassy area near the sidewalk very much like the scene the victim described, along with two dogs in a fenced-off backyard with an unruly hodgepodge of objects: tarps, tomato plants, lumber and a wheelbarrow.
Beyond testy pet owners and growling dogs, Pumilia is occasionally involved in instances of real peril. Humane law enforcement officers are sometimes called to help break up large-scale operations, such as dogfighting rings or hoarding incidents. Though she can’t comment on specifics due to ongoing litigation, Pumilia has taken part in several busts, usually in concert with other animal welfare groups such as the Humane Society of the United States.
“When you’re on a scene like that, it’s very taxing mentally, physically and emotionally, but you try to separate your feelings from what you have to do,” Pumilia says. “Ultimately your emotion isn’t going to solve that case or document evidence appropriately.”
Today, it looks like we’re destined for one of her more low-key afternoons. Though the dogs we find potentially match the victim’s description, we can't move forward without gathering more information from the owner. Pumilia steps around to the front of the house to deliver a businesslike knock on the house’s front door. One of the dogs in question pops up in the window, but no one answers.
So she uses blue painter's tape to tape a notice to the door — this is Louisiana SPCA, give us a call, we want to chat with you about your dogs — and heads back to the van, boots crunching on the street.