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Placer County, meet the new animal cops on the block

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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A wrinkle in California law allows officers of non-profit humane societies fighting animal abuse to carry sidearms, wear a badge, issue tickets and obtain search and arrest warrants. While the Auburn-based Humane Society of the Sierra Foothills isn’t quite ready to put gun-toting animal welfare officers on the street yet, it’s now positioned itself to start writing tickets and serve warrants in its battle against neglect and abuse. Wearing badges and black polo shirts with the Sierra Foothills group emblazoned on the chest, Humane Officers Curt Ransom and Rosemary Frieborn said they want to work closely with animal owners. Most situations can be resolved cooperatively in what they describe as a win-win situation. But if a complaint can’t be resolved, Ransom, Frieborn and a third Humane Society of the Sierra Foothills officer, Audra Mackay, have the authority to issue tickets and go to court for arrest and search warrants. And they can instantly write tickets for breaches of the law like having a dog not tethered in the back of a pickup or keeping a pet in a hot car. Bestowed the powers of peace officers by court order but not officially acknowledged under state law as peace officers, they can seek their own warrants but have to notify local law enforcement to serve one and wouldn’t be making any physical arrests, Ransom said. Ransom’s work as a humane officer dates from the 1970s and he can tell war stories of finding 164 dogs stuffed into a two-bedroom Missouri ranch house or helping with what is believed to be the biggest cockfighting bust in U.S. history – 5,000 birds in San Diego. Ransom has helped to save animals from the homes of hoarders where he has had to crawl over debris to enter a building. “I’ve had situations where I’ve found road kill in a refrigerator and then had a rat jump out at me,” Ransom said. Frieborn helped found the Humane Society of the Sierra Foothills and has played a key role in opening a used-book outlet in the Raley’s shopping center to raise money for the organization’s work. For several years, Frieborn lobbied hard for Placer County Health & Human Services reform of its animal services division, frequently taking on an adversarial role with staff and the Board of Supervisors. The Humane Society was formed in 2007 and ran into some potential roadblocks last year when the Placer County Board of Supervisors were the instigators of a bill sponsored in the Senate by the late Dave Cox that Frieborn said would have blocked humane officers from going out into the field to do the work of peace officers. As the bill moved through committee, some of the more stringent requirements were dropped. But Frieborn said it will become more expensive for humane officers – there are about 130 licensed in the state – to be approved. The bill introduced criminal background checks and psychiatric evaluations for all officers. Before the bill’s passage this fall, there had been two levels – with just officers carrying firearms required to take the tests. Frieborn said the local group supports the new evaluation requirements because they increase the professionalism of officers. As for the possibility that Placer County was targeting her group, Frieborn would only say that she isn’t sure what was behind it, other than the intent to clear up ambiguities in the law. The county’s lobbying firm in Sacramento claimed credit for much of the work in a report last December to the Board of Supervisors and the California Association of Sheriffs added its support. “We’re hoping to have a relationship with animal control,” Ransom said. “Our mission is different because we’re enforcing state codes.” Mike Winters, county animal services program manager, said the work of his division and the Humane Society is different, with the county more involved in cruelty cases and welfare checks. “But there’s plenty of work for everyone,” Winters said.