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Smile, You’ve Been Rescued
Is Sheriff Joe really an animal-rights hero?

From what I can tell, you either love him or hate him. I’m talking about Sheriff Joseph M. Arpaio, the controversial enforcer of Maricopa County in Arizona. You can see him in action tonight (Monday, January 12) in the new Fox Reality Channel program called “Smile…You’re Under Arrest,” usually described as a hybrid of “Punk’d” and “Cops.”

Beloved in Phoenix, the no-nonsense, get-the-job-done Sheriff Joe has a complicated history that includes many civil rights run-ins over tent city jails, an inordinately high percentage of prison-condition lawsuits, questionable immigration sweeps of Hispanic neighborhoods, and more.

So why mention him here? Weirdly this same guy is being hailed—mostly on blogs and through emails—as a model for the animal shelter community. As with so many things, there’s good news mixed in with the bad.

According to Snopes, the sheriff’s office hasn’t taken over the county’s shelter system nor trimmed $15 million from the animal control budget, as is often claimed. He has helped to create and oversees a M.A.S.H. Unit to “care for animals that have been abused or neglected by their caretakers and rescued by the Animal Cruelty Investigative Unit,” as well as the companion animals of those who have checked into domestic violence shelters. The MASH shelter is housed in a refurbished, air-conditioned jail no longer suitable for inmates, and is staffed by inmates and Arpaio's officers.

In a piece for the Phoenix New Times, Niki D’Andrea portrays the shelter is part of the Sheriff’s “effort to paint himself as an animal-rights hero,” while dogged by cruelty claims.

It’s disappointing to me that an initiative like MASH that has inmates working with animals is weighed down by the sheriff’s baggage. Last year, I visited the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor. Here in the Prison Pet Partnership Program (for Bark, May/June 2008), a handful of inmates learn grooming and kennel management, and, in some cases, help transform shelter dogs in future service dogs. The women gained self-esteem and confidence. The dogs earned a second change. Bringing together these two populations in need—under the right controls and supervision—benefits everyone.
 

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Lisa Wogan lives in Seattle and is the author of, most recently, Dog Park Wisdom. lisawogan.com
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