The Hawaiian Humane Society Investigator

The Hawaiian Humane Society’s 13 animal officers ward off aggressive dogs, rescue cats from storm drains and enforce animal cruelty laws. To find out what the job is really like, we rode along with an HHS investigator.


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Vernon Ling, a human investigator with HHS, gets to work with man's best friend—and other animals—on a daily basis, including rescuing them, returning them to their owners and making sure they're licensed.

Photo: Rae Huo

When we’re looking for a loose dog we try and think like them. ‘If I was a dog, where would I go?’ Sometimes it leads us right to them,” says Officer Vernon Ling. He’s patrolling a Navy neighborhood near the airport after receiving a dispatch call about a loose German shepherd. It’s nowhere to be found. “He must have gone home,” says Ling. With a buzz haircut, brown uniform slacks and a tan, collared shirt—complete with a silver badge above his left breast pocket—Ling looks like law enforcement. Technically, he is, but, instead of writing up parking tickets or arresting thieves, Ling enforces state and county animal-related laws. He is a humane investigator with the Hawaiian Humane Society.

Five days a week, Ling arrives at the Waialae Avenue shelter before dawn for his 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. shift. “As long as I have my coffee I’m good,” he laughs. Ling has been a humane investigator for eight years. Last year, he and the other 12 investigators responded to 17,487 calls, which included everything from your neighbor’s barking Yorkshire terrier, to an injured wild dove, to animal cruelty cases. The HHS investigators undergo special training and have been deputized by the Honolulu Police Department. Ling does not have arresting powers, but he can issue citations for a pet owner’s actions, mandate when animals need veterinarian services and issue court summonses for complaints lodged against pet owners. Ling does all this without a gun, a Taser or even Mace. “We use verbal judo,” he says, smiling. “My weapon is my mouth.” A large part of a humane investigator’s job is to educate pet owners about their responsibilities under the law and to step in when animals’ rights are violated; humane investigators work as much with humans as they do with animals.

“Animals can’t talk, so I’m their voice,” he says. This means Ling also has to have strong people skills and be able to diffuse tense situations. It’s not uncommon for owners to get defensive, even hostile, when Ling investigates a barking-dog complaint, or a report of an emaciated animal tied up behind a house.

Ling is on the road by 6:30 a.m. after retrieving paperwork from his inbox detailing some of the day’s calls from dispatch. He tunes the dial to 96.3. “I listen to Krater in the morning; it’s more mellow.” In the afternoon he’ll switch over to KSSK. That station has the best traffic reports, he says. He would know; Ling spends most of the day in a white Ford F-250, which is owned by the society. He monitors dispatch calls, checks case files and has access to pet-owner information using a touch-screen, Internet-accessible laptop. “It’s the best thing that ever happened,” he laughs. “It makes doing paperwork easier.” The trucks are also hooked up with GPS devices. HHS dispatch operators can track the exact address of the truck, how fast Ling is driving or if he is at a standstill in H-1 town-bound traffic. Dual air conditioning keeps Ling and the animals he picks up cool. Unless the animals are injured, they ride with him until his shift ends, allowing him to respond to more calls. The compartments in the back of the truck hold metal cages of different sizes for the animals. Ling also has leashes, bottled water and bags of dog and cat food for his rescues, and for pets of homeless or impoverished pet owners he visits.

Ling is one of only four humane officers out on patrol every shift—two dispatched to each side of Oahu. For the past eight years, Ling has been covering the East side which includes Pearl City, Hawaii Kai, Waimanalo and Kaaawa. “I’ve always had a passion for animals,” he says. “I grew up with dogs, birds and a cat.” Today his wife and three kids, ages 4, 9 and 16, own a Chihuahua. Ling, who was born and raised here, always wanted to become a police officer. He worked as a security guard at a Waikiki hotel for five years before becoming a HHS humane investigator, combining his passion for animals with his desire to be in law enforcement. “I get to interact with people and it’s hands-on with animals. Every situation ends on a good note for the most part.”

› 7:20 a.m.: The Rescue Job

“There’s a bird behind the fridge. One of those walk-in refrigerators,” says Ling. It’s a wild zebra dove, those small, common birds you see everywhere, but Ling takes the situation seriously; it’s a Priority 1 case, a classification that includes injured animals, loose, aggressive animals and animal-related calls from HPD. His truck doesn’t have sirens or lights, so despite the need for a quick rescue, he still obeys the traffic laws.

Photo: Rae Huo

He drives to J’s BBQ in Kakaako. The bird had wedged itself between a wall and the metal fridge. Ling walks in the small eatery, bustling with customers making a pit stop before work. The owner knows the drill and gives Ling a ladder—this is the second time a bird has flown through the window and gotten stuck. Ling puts on a latex glove, climbs the ladder, stands on top of the fridge and scoops up the bird with a black net. Its wings beat noisily against the fridge as Ling deftly puts it into a small metal cage. The bird is fine, if subdued, after its experience. “It’s OK, little bird,” Ling says, holding up the cage before putting it in the truck. He decides to take the bird back to the shelter, where someone from the Wild Bird Rehab Haven will assess it. HHS partners with the nonprofit, which treats wild birds on the Island and re-releases them.

Retrieving the bird was easy, but Ling recalls a tougher rescue case. A call came in after someone heard meows coming from an Aloha Stadium storm drain. It took Ling an hour and half to rescue the scared cat. The fire department was even called in. He then notified the owner through the cat’s microchip information. “It was missing for a month and a half. She had flyers up and just started bawling when I called her. That’s what we’re about—rescuing.”


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Honolulu Magazine November 2018
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