On a recent Tuesday morning, Animal Enforcement Officer Miles Hughes darted through a narrow brick rowhome facing M&T Bank Stadium in South Baltimore in search of an orange tabby cat left behind after an eviction.

The speedy feline, now named Libra, briefly avoided capture. But Hughes and two of his fellow animal enforcement officers eventually scooped up the cat and loaded it into an air-conditioned van.

Mike Bradley, the owner of the rental property, asked animal enforcement officers where they were taking the cat: “It’s not a kill shelter, is it?”

“No, it’s going to go down to BARCS,” Hughes replied, using the acronym for the Baltimore Animal and Rescue and Care Service, a nonprofit organization that the city contracts with to provide care and shelter for animals.

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The rest of the calls went smoothly that morning, but that hasn’t always been the case since Baltimore Police stopped accompanying the Office of Animal Control into homes in certain instances.

Not everyone is willing to let animal enforcement officers inside their properties, making it tougher for them to do their jobs, advocates say, and possibly placing pets in danger.

Sharon Colburn, who directs animal services in Baltimore, said that so far, the change has had minimal effect. But she’s among those concerned about the ramifications.

“Even if it’s just one or two that are suffering in a basement, that’s pretty significant to me,” Colburn said. “I don’t want to leave anybody behind.”

Animal Enforcement Officer Miles Hughes searches the bedroom of a home in Sharp-Leadenhall in South Baltimore for a cat after an eviction on Tuesday, March 21, 2023. Hughes, 31, has a background as a zookeeper and started working for the city in 2019. (Paul Newson/The Baltimore Banner)

‘Tail between our legs’

Before the change, animal enforcement officers used administrative warrants to gain entry into homes to investigate potential health code violations.

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Police would come along for safety reasons, sometimes detaining combative people and conducting sweeps of the property while animal control wrangled aggressive pets.

But since 2022, police have been sidelined from entering houses unless it’s necessary to protect animal enforcement officers or others from violence. Law enforcement can apply for a search-and-seizure warrant, but that process tends to take longer, animal enforcement officers say.

“So we have a skinny dog on a leash with a heavy chain — it’s sitting there for two weeks,” Hughes said, “whereas if it was an administrative warrant, we can act the next day, that day or maybe even a couple of days later.”

Aaron Howard, an animal enforcement supervisor, recalled a case in which officers went to a property with administrative warrants but the pet owners wouldn’t open the door. The team assessed the risk and determined that it wasn’t worth entering the home without police.

“We all just walked off with our tail between our legs,” Howard said. “I’m not going to put my guys in harm’s way.”

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In a joint statement with the city health department, Lindsey Eldridge, a police spokesperson, wrote that law enforcement supports animal control with the execution of administrative warrants.

Police, she said, do not go into homes unless there is a “real and perceived threat” against an animal enforcement officer. That’s in alignment with the Fourth Amendment, she added, which protects people against unreasonable searches and seizures.

When asked if there was anyone at the Baltimore City Law Department who could provide documentation to explain the change or take part in an interview, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office responded instead with a statement that said police support animal enforcement officers “in a way that is consistent with both public safety and the Constitution.”

Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter associate veterinarian Kelly Cyr checks the heartbeat of a rescued puppy born without a leg and other health issues on Tuesday, March 21, 2023. (Paul Newson/The Baltimore Banner)

Animal abuse in the backseat

Animal welfare advocates say that this latest change is another blow to efforts to combat animal cruelty and neglect.

The Mayor’s Anti-Animal Abuse Advisory Commission, which is tasked with supplying guidance and policy recommendations, has not met since before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the acting chair, Katie Flory, told The Baltimore Banner.

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Baltimore City Councilwoman Phylicia Porter sponsored a resolution to schedule an informational hearing about how the city is addressing animal abuse. The meeting had been scheduled for Feb. 22 but was canceled without explanation.

Meanwhile, the demand for shelter space and medical attention at BARCS has skyrocketed in recent years.

Baltimore Sheriff Sam Cogen said he recently met with animal control to see how his office can help.

Sheriff’s deputies might be able to apply for a search-and-seizure or a criminal-charging warrant. Or they could see if people will voluntarily let them inside their homes.

If they don’t give consent, Cogen said, his office could leave behind a notice on official letterhead about its intention to obtain a warrant.

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Cogen, who was a member of the Mayor’s Anti-Animal Abuse Advisory Commission, said he’s going to seek a legal opinion about what his office can do.

“I’m highly interested in helping animal control find a solution to this problem,” Cogen said.

Man hand off dog to another man.
A man in West Baltimore surrenders one of his dogs to Animal Enforcement Officer Gilbert Cooper on March 21, 2023. The pet owner turned over four of his seven dogs that morning. Officers later took them to the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter. (Paul Newson/The Baltimore Banner)

Day in the life

As he prepares for his first call of the day, Hughes wears a protective vest. His manager later reveals that he was previously threatened with a knife on the job.

Though sometimes confused for law enforcement, animal enforcement officers work under the Baltimore City Health Department, removing animals from unsafe situations and curbing the spread of zoonotic diseases. They aren’t armed and can’t make arrests or apply for criminal warrants. And the office has far fewer staff, a much smaller budget and limited protective equipment. The agency runs at most two to three vehicles per day.

The budget of the Office of Animal Control declined slightly from the previous fiscal year to about $3.4 million.

Hughes, 31, has a background as a zookeeper, a nomadic lifestyle that has taken him around the country.

He started at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, which focuses on tigers, lions, leopards and cougars. He later worked at the El Paso Zoo, where he once spent time feeding Cheerios to prairie dogs to build rapport with them.

Following a stint in Baltimore County, Hughes took a job with the city in 2019.

He likes to be at the center of the action. One week last month, his manager said, he seized more than a dozen animals and brought them to BARCS.

On the way to his first call in Southwest Baltimore, Hughes gently swerved the car to avoid striking a flock of tiny birds pecking over a metal grate.

He can easily rattle off facts and figures about his best days on the job. Last October, for example, he took part in a seizure of 120 cats from a woman he described as a hoarder. He opened the door to discover “a stadium seating of cats” in unsanitary conditions.

Another time, Hughes came face to face with an alligator, whose owner had adopted it as a “status symbol.” Then there was the time someone picked up a tortoise at the National Aquarium.

Hughes and his colleagues sift through the thousands of calls that come in each year to Baltimore 311 and determine which ones to pursue.

At the first call, Hughes meets a 3-day-old, three-legged puppy that weighs only one-third of a pound. The owner couldn’t take care of the dog and notified animal control.

Two fellow animal enforcement officers, Bruno Genis and Gilbert Cooper, cradle the dog in a towel until they make it back to BARCS. A veterinarian plucks off what remains of the dog’s tail and sends it to rest in an incubator. She gives it a 50/50 chance of survival.

Later in the day, after helping wrangle the cat, Hughes drives 20 minutes to a home near Gwynns Falls Park where a man voluntarily surrenders four dogs. One bites his hand and draws blood.

A few other dogs remain in the home, Hughes observes, and will probably fare better with fewer companions.

Before the van is at capacity, Hughes watches Genis and Cooper on the next call pick up a stray dog they affectionately name Elton. It rides shotgun on Genis’ lap on the way back to the shelter.

“That is a cute dog,” Howard said. “BARCS is gonna love us.”

Before noon, Hughes and the rest of the team picked up seven animals to deliver to BARCS, where some will reunite with their owners or go on to new homes.

By the end of the day, the three-legged puppy, now called Hubble, had found a foster home.

Animal Enforcement Officer holds a stray dog as the officer enters the dogs information in their system.
Animal Enforcement Officers Bruno Genis, left, and Gilbert Cooper, right, pick up a stray dog that was left tethered in front of a home in Southwest Baltimore on Tuesday, March 21, 2023. They affectionally named the dog Elton. (Paul Newson/The Baltimore Banner)



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