By Lucia Viti
San Diego’s so-called “Dog Chief,” a Kearny Mesa man who is passionate about protecting animals from abuse, now has a national platform.
Stephen MacKinnon, Chief of Humane Law Enforcement for the San Diego Humane Society (SDHS), was recently appointed to the National Law Enforcement Council on Animal Protection for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).
The nationwide council consists of law enforcement officers and prosecutors who assist HSUS in protecting animals from neglect, poaching and abuse. HSUS spans local, state and federal levels to include the administration of animal protection, the training of law enforcement officers, the implementation of anonymous tip lines, and increased awareness of animal crime rewards.
“I’m honored to serve on the HSUS’ National Law Enforcement Council to enact animal protection laws,” Chief MacKinnon said. “We need to be the voice for these defenseless animals.”
In turn, HSUS is glad to have Chief MacKinnon on board.
“We are honored to join forces with Chief MacKinnon to combat animal cruelty, fighting and poaching through the National Law Enforcement Council,” said Ann Chynoweth, senior director of the animal cruelty and fighting campaign for HSUS. “By fostering relationships across local, state, and federal levels of law enforcement and prosecution, we can make meaningful improvements to policies and actions that protect animals across the country.”
Dr. Gary Weitzman, president and CEO of the SDHS, applauds the mission of the national council.
“Animals need and deserve more laws that protect them, which will take collaboration from the best law enforcement professionals in the country,” Weitzman said. “We look forward to the impact we’ll be able to make together.”
As Chief for the past two years, MacKinnon oversees 20 Humane Society field officers who deal with abuse, neglect and animal-related crimes. Trained and certified as police officers, the field officers have responsibilities that cover the gamut — from an unleashed dog roaming a neighborhood, to bites, emergency calls about dogs kept inside hot cars with the windows rolled up, lost animals including wildlife, pet store inspections, poaching, hoarding, and rescues for animals suffering injury, neglect and abuse — inclusive of dogs, cats, rabbits, livestock and horses.
MacKinnon credits his 34-year service as a law enforcement officer — and his love of animals — for his expertise in understanding this specialized niche of police work. Regardless of his former rank and job responsibility, the New England native said he was always involved in all things involving animal control.
“I’ve always had an interest, therefore I always got involved,” he said. “My police background equipped me with the tools necessary to conduct effective investigations and proper documentation for court convictions.”
Chief MacKinnon and his staff supervised about 2,000 serious abuse and neglect cases within San Diego County in 2015. In addition, the office responded to almost 10,000 service calls contracted from areas outside of San Diego that lacked the ability to provide animal service expertise. Cases included illegal cockfighting in El Centro and Imperial County.
“San Diegans would be surprised at the amount irresponsible pet owners within its community,” he said. “We educate more than we enforce. Owners can’t chain a dog to a backyard tree and say, ‘I have a pet.’ There are requirements — shade, water, shelter — at minimum a trolley system to run if they can’t run free.”
Twenty-five percent of San Diego’s abuse and neglect cases involve livestock and horses. MacKinnon noted that San Diego houses more horses per capita than anywhere in the U.S.
“Horses are neglected because they are expensive to maintain,” he said. “We see really skinny, skinny horses; so thin, we have to seize them. The SDHS provides veterinary care while we educate owners to become proper caretakers.”
Most field cases are reported by concerned citizens. MacKinnon described a case of ailing burros called in by a worker manning a telephone line. The worker overlooked a field with the small donkeys limping in pain from hooves that were up to 12 inches overgrown.
“Visitors, neighbors or people driving within a neighborhood will call — or apply online through the SDHS website anonymously — with their concerns,” MacKinnon said. “A dog may constantly cry and bark or there are hoarding or poor housing conditions that are obviously visible. Again, first and foremost, our officers work to educate rather than take law enforcement action. We want animals to thrive in a happy environment.”
MacKinnon spoke highly of SDHS’s special response team that partnered with the Humane Society International to rescue 31 dogs destined for slaughter from South Korea’s meat trade. Although healthy and docile, the dogs had never stepped foot out of a cage. They never walked — let alone ran — on grass before. They never experienced the sun, sniffed a bush or interacted with other dogs.
“These dogs were 130-pound full-grown puppies,” he said. “Scared, they didn’t understand human kindness. We supplied blankets, beds, toys, fresh water and affection for the first time. Although these stories break your heart, knowing the dogs will have great lives going forward makes the job worthwhile.”
MacKinnon explained that cats are abused more than dogs, and blamed the majority of hoarding incidents on mental illness. Severe cases include housing up to 70 cats and 55 rabbits that forced the removal of the animals and condemnation of the houses.
“Hoarding situations are incredibly sad,” he said. “It’s hard to understand how any human or animal can live with conditions that endanger both health and safety. We work with a hoarding coalition that includes mental health professionals, medical staff and city services.”
MacKinnon said animal neglect is often fueled by financial hardship. However, SDHS provides assistance through low-cost spay and neutering services, vouchers for veterinary care, behavioral training, and extra food through its PAWS program.
MacKinnon’s list of accomplishments within the world of paws includes stints in Haiti where dogs are abused and beaten with rocks and war-ravaged Kosovo where domesticated dogs, abandoned by their fleeing owners, are hunted and killed for sport.
“I’ve witnessed horrible animal cruelty that’s difficult to process,” MacKinnon said. “I’m always concerned how my officers process compassion fatigue, a common occurrence among police officers, firefighters and our military. To constantly see terrible things hardens you. But we have lots of good stories that make it all worthwhile. Our officers are thrilled to know that a dog they rescued was adopted into a great home.”
Compassion fatigue is depicted as a gradual lessening of compassion common among those who work directly with trauma victims such as first responders. Symptoms include stress, anxiety, sleeplessness or nightmares, and chronic negativity. Professional and personal detrimental effects include decreased productivity, an inability to focus, and the psychological effects of incompetency and self-doubt.
Chief MacKinnon — who provides a loving home for seven rescue dogs himself — said he will continue to work with the HSUS in 2016 — one on one — to improve the lives of animals. “The job’s a perfect fit,” he concluded. “It combines my passion for police work and my love for animals.”
—Contact Lucia Viti at email@example.com.