Jen Nields wanted to be a humane officer since high school. After graduating, a position opened up at a new animal shelter and Jen jumped at the opportunity. She started working as a kennel attendant, became an assistant technician to veterinarians, and handled some office work.
As her work experience grew, so did her responsibilities. “At one point in time I was the operations manager, the educational coordinator, and the humane society police officer all in one little ball for this shelter,” says Jen.
Then in June of 2017, Jen’s family suffered a horrible tragedy when her father passed away abruptly. He did not have life insurance, and since they were already financially struggling, the Nields took a huge hit. Three weeks after his passing, his garage caught on fire and destroyed the items the family was planning on selling to make ends meet, leaving Jen to work three jobs in order to pitch in while her mother underwent heart surgery.
Realizing that her mom also had trouble financially supporting her pets, Jen thought to herself, “How many other people go through this same situation or fall into a situation that is out of their control?”
With her mother’s circumstance in mind, Jen pitched Santa Claws and Paws to the shelter and the team took to the idea. Santa Claws and Paws is a program that donates pet toys, treats, and beds to individuals and families who are experiencing hardships during the Christmas season. With help from the Lancaster City K-9 Unit, they were able to provide for 27 families throughout Lancaster County in their first year of operation. Jen plans to continue the program for the foreseeable future, and hopes to eventually include veterinary care.
“Some people look at me and say, ‘I don’t know how you do your job!’ And I say, ‘I don’t know how you don’t!’”
Beyond being just a job, fate ended up pairing Jen with a very special dog. One day while working at a vet hospital, she received a call from a friend regarding a 7-week-old puppy who was found on a Lancaster County farm. Barely breathing, emaciated, dehydrated, dangerously underweight, and infected with mange, his chances of survival were slim.
“He was in really rough shape. I didn’t know if his ride in my car was going to be his last ride,” Jen recalls. “I got some blankets and made him this little bed on my passenger seat just so he had some comfort. I had seen a lot of dogs like him; not one time did I think he’s going to change the dog laws in PA. Not one time did I think, ‘This dog’s going to become famous and change everything in Lancaster County.’”
The dog was later named Libre since he was rescued on Independence Day. Libre straddled life and death during his recovery and became a cause célèbre with charges of animal cruelty being forced against the previous owner. “Libre’s Law” was drafted less than a month later and was signed into law as the Animal Abuse Statute Overhaul bill in the summer of 2017.
“Although these laws are not perfect and still need improvement, they gave recognition to suffering that wasn’t there previously,” explains 24-year-old Jen, who now serves as a Humane Law Enforcement Officer with the Pennsylvania SPCA, “A lot of people were outraged and realized something needed to be done.”
There are generally two types of cases Jen comes across in her work. Sometimes a case is “black and white” and it is obvious an animal is in serious need of veterinary care or the owner is hoarding pets, like the recent case of over 100 cats—most blind due to lack of care—in one home.
“Some involve very lengthy investigations, where I really have to look into details,” she adds. “It’s not my job as a cruelty officer to just go out and take everybody’s animals. That’s not what I want to do. If I can improve the situation and keep that animal in their home, that is my goal, unless the animal is in grave danger.”
Her job is not only removing endangered dogs and cats from bad situations, but also handling mistreatment of farm animals. In Lancaster County, the ability to govern both urban and rural situations is a necessity. Growing up in Bird-in-Hand has provided Jen with a good understanding of her neighbors.
There are two routes of engagement if an animal needs to be removed from an owner. First, and most peacefully, an owner can voluntarily surrender the animal. Otherwise, a search warrant is obtained to remove an animal from an abusive situation, which can sometimes be traumatic and downright dangerous. There’s a reason she wears a sidearm.
“At the end of the day, you need the best outcome for the animals,” says Jen, who uses her empathy and understanding of human circumstances to navigate tough situations. “If you get angry or just react out of emotion, it isn’t going to help. I try really hard to not let the situation I walk into harden me to the world around me.”
For more information or to donate to the PSPCA, visit www.pspca.org.