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When Animals Are at Risk, Special Netherlands Police Force Defends Them

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Hours before a rare snowstorm hit this city last month, Sgt. Erik Smit got a call from dispatch: A Jack Russell was locked out on a third-story balcony.

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When Animals Are at Risk, Special Netherlands Police Force Defends Them
, New York Times

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Hours before a rare snowstorm hit this city last month, Sgt. Erik Smit got a call from dispatch: A Jack Russell was locked out on a third-story balcony.

Neighbors heard it barking and knew that the owner, who had left for work at 7:30 a.m., would not be back until the end of the day, when the terrace would be covered by several inches of snow.

Smit, a 39-year veteran of the national police force, rang a few doorbells and yelled some questions to curious but uninformed residents. He then radioed for a 22-ton firetruck with a crane and platform.

A half-hour later, at a taxpayer cost of roughly 500 euros ($620), the rescued dog was warming up in an animal ambulance. Smit got back into his squad car and continued his day.

“He’ll have to call me and explain the situation,” he said of the dog’s owner, who would eventually be fined 150 euros for animal neglect.

Smit is one of roughly 250 full-time members of the animal police force in the Netherlands (many more are trained but do not carry out the function exclusively). Of the approximately 3 million calls made to The Hague area police each year, roughly 3,000 involve animals.

Like a Humane Society with guns, handcuffs and badges, members of the animal police force are regular officers with extra training and special equipment. A 911-type emergency line for animals — dial 144 from any phone in the Netherlands — dispatches the officers and supplies the vast majority of their leads.

The work is a mix of animal protection and human social services, finding practical solutions — like monthly visits to a troubled dog and its owner to ensure all is well — and judicial procedures like fines.

“Obviously, the first thing I do is to look after the animals, but often when you look further, you see the things aren’t going so well for the owner of the animals,” said Smit, who estimates he sees malicious intent in only about 20 percent of cases.

During a normal working day, he might help rescue a sick seal at the beach, help to leash or confine an aggressive dog or investigate private residences where people collect animals. That included recently rescuing 60 guinea pigs from a home after neighbors complained about the smell.

Well-known in the Netherlands, the animal police force was created when the far-right Party for Freedom briefly supported the mainstream Liberals that led a minority government in 2010. For their support on key votes, the Party for Freedom demanded formation of an 800-person animal police force. When the party’s support weakened in 2012, some wanted to abandon the idea, but the national police argued for keeping at least a smaller version of it.

Legislation known as the Animals Act became law in 2013, guaranteeing animals freedom from thirst, hunger, physical and emotional discomfort and chronic stress.

“Animals — and our entire society — need the animal police. There is a direct link between violence against animals and violence against humans,” said Marianne Thieme, head of the progressive Party for the Animals, which holds five of Parliament’s 150 seats.

Still, Thierne and some other animal activists wish the animal police were empowered to do more, including helping the millions of animals raised for food on commercial farms, which are regulated by the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority.

“The law says that when an animal is in serious problems, you should help the animals, but in the factory farming there are about 6 million pigs dying every year without veterinarian support,” said Hans Baaij, director of Dier en Recht, a small nongovernmental organization that aims to use the court system to get the government to precisely define what constitutes animal abuse.

There are successful prosecutions, however.

Last week in Hague district court, for example, a man was convicted of having beaten and kicked his dog, after a 40-minute trial with testimony from neighbors, a court-appointed veterinarian and the defendant. He was sentenced to 56 hours of community service and prohibited from acquiring pets for a year.

“People learn more from community service than a fine,” said Tamara Verdoorn, the prosecutor in charge of animal cases in The Hague district court. In lesser cases, she can hand out fines and community service without taking the case to a judge. But about 100 times a year the cases go to court, with maximum penalties of three years in prison or fines of nearly $25,000, though such sentences are rare.

Like Smit, Verdoorn sees a lot of people whose run-ins with animal law-enforcement reflect larger problems. “Most people who neglect animals are also neglecting themselves,” she said.

While some animals caught up in the legal system are given up for adoption, certain dogs are examined to ensure they do not pose a threat.

One of the first officers to be trained in the animal police force, Smit says he has learned most skills through talking with veterinarians, farmers and other experts.

And while his job leads him to some gruesome scenes — a week before the snowstorm, a pony in a city farm was fatally beaten — many encounters end happily.

During a visit to an apartment in a low-income neighborhood in the town of Delft, southwest of The Hague, Smit was invited to tour what had been a problematic household. Inside, three fish, two lizards, two rabbits, four cats, a chinchilla and a large dog shared a small living room. The owner was proud to show him how clean everything was.

Smit, who visits the place every couple of months, was welcomed, he said, because he had helped the owners put a litter of kittens up for adoption.

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