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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.

Tiffany Hill

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.”

 

 

› 8:30 a.m.: The Complaint


Photo: Rae Huo

Ling maneuvers the truck up a steep, narrow Palolo driveway where an emaciated dog is tied up in the front yard, according to a caller. “Sometimes the situation isn’t as extreme as the caller says, which is a good thing,” says Ling. “But we’re still obligated to check it out.” 

The owner of the house comes out and Ling identifies himself and says he’s a humane investigator with the Hawaiian Humane Society. “I always pull up close to the house and honk my horn so people know that I’m out front,” he says, noting that, because of his uniform, people might mistake him for a deputy sheriff. “I make sure to identify myself with a friendly approach.” 

He lets the owner know that he’s received a complaint. Two smaller dogs peer out of the front door screen and start barking. She knows immediately what Ling is talking about and walks around the house. The dog is an older female Ridgeback.

She is, indeed, underweight, but can stand up, and, tail wagging, walks over to her kneeling owner to lick her face. “She’s been sick, that’s why she’s skinny,” says the owner. “She’s 12 years old and has a tumor on her neck. I’ve also been treating her for fleas.”

Ling brings over a dog weight chart and tells her that a healthy dog is rated a five, whereas the Ridgeback is around a three or four. “I’d like you to take her to the vet for peace of mind and have her checked out. You can have the vet’s office fax the paperwork over to me,” says Ling. Investigators have the authority to mandate that owners take their animals to a vet, and follow up with them afterward. Ling notices that the dog is tied up using a choke collar, which is supposed to be used only to train dogs so they don’t hurt themselves. Ling lets the owner know of the recently passed law making it illegal to tie a dog up using a choke collar and asks her to put a different one on. He then asks if the dog’s registration is current. It’s not, so he has her fill out a new form, and she writes a check for $28 made out to the city and county.

Investigating complaints of tied-up dogs is common for Ling, but, as we leave Palolo, he recalls a rarer, more unpleasant type of investigation. “The worst is going to homes where the owner is dead and the animals are protecting the body,” he says. “That happened to me before, and it was my birthday.” Ling went to a home where a man had been dead for several days and his dogs were inside. “They were barking and growling and I had to get them away from the body.”
 

› 9:43 a.m.: The Investigation


Ling has been deputized by HPD, and his badge lets people know he has the authority to enforce animal-related laws.

Photo: Rae Huo

“I’m crossing my fingers they let us in; I’m not the regular investigator,” says Ling. We’re navigating the back roads of Waimanalo. He’s on his way to check up on a large-scale dog-breeding operation—more commonly known as a puppy mill. Owning and operating a puppy mill is not illegal in Hawaii. A federal law is in place, but if federal authorities from the U.S. Department of Agriculture don’t investigate, neither HHS nor HPD have jurisdiction to shut down puppy mills. “We can only enforce animal cruelty laws,” says Ling. So, for the last couple of years, HHS has inspected the facility to make sure the dogs have food, water and clean cages. 

Ling pulls up to a barnlike building. Beagles, cocker spaniels, labs, terriers and other breeds—all males—are housed outside in a fenced area. The dogs start barking when they hear the truck. The female dogs, some with newborn litters, are housed inside a “nursery,” sectioned into fenced, wooden cubiclelike cages. The dogs have water and food dishes; in several cages the kibble is scattered on the floor. It’s clear by the amount of the feces in the cages and tattered newspapers strewn about the dogs that they are not let out often. Large areas of the linoleum floor are wet with urine. Despite the grunginess of the cages, and the animals themselves, the dogs appear to be well fed and healthy.

The owner isn’t on the premises, but two men work in the nursery cleaning the cages and giving the dogs water and food. “We usually have the cages clean by now, but we’re short staffed today,” says one of the men. He’s friendly and lets Ling inspect the cages; he even mentions that he used to be homeless before he got this job. He promptly moves a cage housing two beagles when Ling points out they are in the sun and panting.

The puppy mill is on dual agricultural and residential land, explains Ling, but the operation facilities are on the agricultural zone of the property. “The [county] law states that people cannot have more than 10 dogs per household,” he says, but this operation isn’t in a residential area. The puppy mill has 124 dogs. The owner purchased a local pet store where he sells the puppies—and he is looking into buying another store—as well as through online sales on websites such as Craigslist, according to HHS. A normal female dog usually gives birth to two or three litters during its lifespan, while dogs in puppy mills give birth a couple of times every year until they are no longer able to reproduce, at which point many are euthanized.

Ling seems satisfied that there are no instances of animal cruelty, and jumps back in his truck. “It’s a big improvement from the last time I was here about a year ago,” he says. “They built more adequate facilities. The dogs used to have fleas; I’d leave and just see all the fleas on my pants.” Until an anti-puppy-mill law passes in Hawaii, Ling and the other investigators can only make sure the dogs aren’t being abused or neglected.
 

 


Photo: Rae Huo

› 11:24 a.m.: The Trap

Sometimes Ling’s work is done for him. He walks up to a sheet of paper taped onto a fence with a map of the backyard and a handwritten note by the homeowner informing Ling that there’s a cat in one of HHS’ feral cat Trap-Neuter-Return-Manage (TNRM) cages. Ling opens the gate and finds a cage with a white towel covering it. He lifts it up and, inside, a small, white kitten with black splotches on its ears and back peers up at him. Ling sets his own metal cage next to the trap cage to transfer the month-old male kitten. It’s scared and starts meowing and clawing on the opposite end, trying to escape. Ling finally picks up the kitten by the scruff of his neck and puts him into the cage. “It’s all right, little guy,” he says to the kitten. “At the end of my shift, I’ll take it to HHS and a vet will assess him. If we can put a band on him without the kitten biting or scratching, then he has a good chance of getting adopted.”

For a $100 deposit, the society loans residents TNRM cages, in which people can trap feral cats and drop them off to HHS or have the humane investigators pick them up. The purpose is to curb the feral cat population on Oahu; last year, 2,378 feral cats were sterilized and re-released through the program. You can tell if a feral cat has been neutered because veterinarians put a small notch on the top of its right year.
 


At one time, Kathleen owned 20 cats. Today, she has only five, all of which she feeds and cares for.

Photo: Rae Huo

› 1:02 p.m.: The Check-Up

Kathleen sits in the shade on a low rock wall on Kaheka Street, between Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church and Don Quijote. Beside her is a modified bike with stacked wire cages on the back covered by a blue tarp. Inside, two kittens, about two months old, nap. On the other side of the rock wall, three adult cats are leashed to small palm trees, lazing like zoo lions in the shade. Two milk jugs with the tops cut off provide water for the cats and a current newspaper sits on the ground under a handful of dry cat food.

“Hi, Kathleen,” says Ling. “How are you today?”


One of the adult cats peers out of its enclosure; Kathleen constructed makeshift cages atop her cargo bike.

Photo: Rae Huo

“Fine,” she says. “It’s hot out.”

Kathleen has a reputation at the Hawaiian Humane Society and within the community—she’s even been written about in Honolulu newspapers. Kathleen is known as the “Cat Lady.” Ling has visited her regularly during his eight years as an investigator. At one point she had 20 cats, all of which she kept inside cages. At the time she was living on Kakaako’s streets. “We would get complaints about her daily,” says Ling.

The society humane investigators finally persuaded her to relinquish most of the cats. A verbal agreement was made that limits her to five cats, a promise she has kept so far. Ling says goodbye to Kathleen, warning her that she’s safer on Kaheka Street than in Kakaako. 

Ling parks in the back of the Hawaiian Humane Society, where he will drop off the kitten and wrap up some paperwork. It’s been an emergency-free day, which he likes. The feral kitten might even find its way into a loving home because of him. “There were some happy endings,” he says with a big smile.