Denver Animal Protection Officers Help Pets As Well As People

Daniel Ettinger takes a selfie with a poster of a blind dog that was lost and found.
Daniel Ettinger takes a selfie with a poster of a blind dog that was lost and found. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
At a small strip mall near the light-rail station at Colorado Boulevard and East 40th Avenue, Daniel Ettinger shifts his Denver Animal Protection truck into park and waits. He's on the lookout for a red sedan.

A Denver resident who'd recently bought a puppy on Craigslist had called Denver Animal Protection to report that the animal had parvovirus, a highly contagious virus that can easily kill dogs if left untreated.

Ettinger suspected that other puppies being sold by the same person through Craigslist could have parvovirus, too. So he'd contacted the seller, expressing his interest in getting a dog. The two had arranged to meet at this strip mall.

After about fifteen minutes, the seller texts Ettinger to say that he’s actually going to be arriving in a black truck instead.

Ettinger doesn't fall for the bait-and-switch. He's seen a red Chevy Cruze circling the parking lot. When it pulls into a spot. Ettinger drives up behind the sedan and parks.

“My guess is it’s them. And if I’m wrong, I’m wrong. Let’s see how my instincts work,” Ettinger says, then steps out of the truck.

Within seconds, a man opens the passenger door, gets out, grabs a rolled-up rug and begins walking away. Ettinger heads over to the other side of the car and begins knocking on the driver's window, saying, “Hello.” The woman behind the wheel doesn't acknowledge him.

“Hey, buddy,” Ettinger shouts at the man walking away. The man turns around and comes back to the car.

Ettinger asks him if he has a puppy in the car. He says he does.
click to enlarge Daniel Ettinger performs a sting on a man suspected of selling puppies with parvovirus. - CONOR MCCORMICK-CAVANAGH
Daniel Ettinger performs a sting on a man suspected of selling puppies with parvovirus.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
“Any parvo?” Ettinger asks.

"No," the man answers.

After some back-and-forth discussion, the man lets Ettinger inspect the puppy in the car, which looks healthy and exhibits no signs of parvovirus. Still, the man has had previous legal run-ins involving animals. "He is someone known that is potentially selling puppies," Ettinger notes.

Since there is no evidence of a crime this time, Ettinger lets the man go without a citation.

While Ettinger recognizes that some people think of Denver Animal Protection officers as simply dogcatchers, he explains that they're much more than that: a mix of detectives, law enforcement officers and, ideally, experts at dealing with both people and animals.

"I love animals. Granted, there's work that is done to save animals, but the reality is, this is a people job first," Ettinger says.

In the late 2000s, Daniel Ettinger was working a boring cubicle job in Denver, placing advertisements within radio stations' broadcasting schedules. He knew the job was not his calling, and he was starting to resent the work.

In 2009, Ettinger began volunteering at the Denver Animal Shelter.

“I just fell in love with the idea of helping animals and people,” recalls Ettinger, who keeps to a vegan diet and has two dogs and a cat.

“I just fell in love with the idea of helping animals and people."

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After he'd volunteered at the shelter a few days a week for over a year, a family friend asked Ettinger if he'd ever thought about becoming an animal protection officer. He hadn't, but he realized it would be a good fit.

In 2010, Ettinger became an animal protection officer in Fort Collins, working in that position for a few months. After that, he bounced around a couple of other animal-protection agencies before eventually becoming an officer with Denver Animal Protection.

Denver Animal Protection is based out of the Denver Animal Shelter, which is located at 1241 West Bayaud Avenue. A giant sculpture of a dog made out of dog tags stands watch out front. The shelter keeps animals of all types on site, whether they're found running lost around Denver, seized from a neglectful or abusive owner, or surrendered by one who simply can't care for the pet. Dogs, cats, rabbits, lizards, tarantulas, mice and many other species are housed here, waiting for eventual adoption.

Denver Animal Protection's team has fifteen officers, two sergeants and one lieutenant. Becoming an animal protection officer in Denver requires twelve weeks of training; those who join the force typically have law enforcement experience or have worked with animals in some capacity. "You have to have relevant experience," notes Ettinger.

Now, Ettinger spends his work days responding to complaints about animal abuse and neglect, ranging from a report of a dog chained in a backyard without shelter from the sun to one about a dog left in a car. He also deals with behavioral issues that involve animals — whether the behavior at issue is the animal's or a human's.

"Our main focus is protecting people from animals and animals from people," Ettinger says.

In the case of the man in the red Chevy Cruze, there was no evidence of a crime related to animal neglect or cruelty, nor was there anything that required protection.

"One of my favorite quotes of all time," Ettinger notes, "especially pertaining to law enforcement work, is 'It's not what you know, it's what you can prove.' Sure, he's involved with something. But he's taking care of his puppy. He had a contingency plan. His backup plan was to say he's there selling a fucking rug."

At least the puppy salesman knows that Denver Animal Protection is watching him.

Had Ettinger identified any signs of sickness in the puppy, he would have seized the animal and written a ticket for the man; the case would then have been kicked over to the Denver City Attorney's Office for prosecution.
click to enlarge Daniel Ettinger helps the found dog reunite with its owner. - CONOR MCCORMICK-CAVANAGH
Daniel Ettinger helps the found dog reunite with its owner.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
If there's evidence of more serious crimes involving animals, especially ones that would rise to the felony level, Ettinger typically will get the Denver Police Department and the Denver District Attorney's Office involved.

For example, he explains, "that's like a severe neglect situation, more like an animal-abuse situation, where somebody was involved in a domestic-violence situation and they beat the dog during that time."

The district attorney's office has dealt with a handful of severe animal-abuse cases this year; arrest affidavits describe in agonizing detail just how badly some people treat their pets.

"We primarily see animal victims such as dogs, cats and the occasional rabbit or other small mammals that have been beaten or killed, usually by their owners or someone known to their owners," says Ashley Beck, a deputy district attorney with the Denver DA's office who works on animal-cruelty cases. "Anecdotally, the crimes that come to our attention seem to be increasing in the level of violence."

And the work of animal protection officers is becoming increasingly complex, despite the dogcatcher stereotypes of "uncaring, unempathetic, uneducated, out-of-shape, driving around and picking up dogs," Ettinger says. "That stereotype wasn’t necessarily a stereotype; maybe it was a reflection of our profession in the past. Over the last twenty years, there's been a big shift with just trying to make sure that animal shelters and animal protection officers reflect our community. In Colorado, we're really focused on socially conscious sheltering. We don’t euthanize for time or space."

"That stereotype wasn’t necessarily a stereotype; maybe it was a reflection of our profession in the past."

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The job of animal protection officers in Denver "is complex, so important, and much more comprehensive than the general public may be aware," agrees Beck. "There is certainly an enforcement part of their job; however, there is also an educational component to their work. At the heart of both of those things is the care and protection of the pets and other animals of our city.

"They are often the first to respond to and initiate the investigation of animal-cruelty offenses," she adds. "And they spend a significant amount of time trying to educate the people they encounter to ensure that both the humans and animals walk away in a better position."

As a result, Ettinger's interactions with the public often involve giving advice rather than a citation. But he still winds up catching dogs. Sometimes he takes them to the Denver Animal Shelter, and sometimes he takes them home.

After the stakeout off Colorado Boulevard, Ettinger heads to the other side of town, responding to a call from a couple in Highland who had found an old, blind dog wandering around the neighborhood. Fortunately, its owner had stapled signs about the missing dog on trees and poles in the area, so Ettinger simply has to restore the pet to its owner. On the way, he marvels that the dog managed to cross Federal Boulevard on its own.

At the owner's home, Ettinger takes the dog from his truck's kennel. "You hear that voice, mama?" he asks.

"Hi, Sister," the owner says. "You're a good dog, Sis. You just can't see what you're doing. Come on, Sis, this way. Easy does it, easy does it."

Ettinger snaps a selfie with the dog in front of the lost-dog poster, then gives the animal back to the owner.

And then he was off on his next call. After all, every dog has his day. 
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.