The law enforcement role of animal control officers is growing, and officials say a new program to certify officers through the Peace Officers Standards and Training academy is a welcome step forward.

Violations of many animal abuse laws are now felonies and that means animal control officers need to be better trained in law enforcement procedures, said Frank W. Crowe, public relations director for the Salt Lake City Animal Control Division."With many violations becoming felonies, our officers need more training," Crowe said. "When you seize an animal, you are seizing private property. When you get to this point, you need training because you are dealing with individual rights.

"You need to understand what you are doing and not make mistakes."

In a recent Los Angeles case, owners of a kennel offered to help find new homes for unwanted pets. Instead of finding new homes, the kennel owners sold the pets to local research labs. Los Angeles animal control officers were involved in the investigation and the eventual extradition of a suspect from North Carolina.

It is in this kind of high-profile case that the additional training will help, Crowe said.

"These are the kind of enforcement problems that animal control agencies will face in the future," Crowe said. Investigation and enforcement are being left to animal control officers because police simply do not have time to address them.

Deann Hess, Davis County Animal Control director, agrees. Two weeks after a Davis officer was certified through the program last year, the officer was involved in executing a search warrant that resulted in the arrest of a man on two drug-related felony counts. Hess credits the program with teaching the officer proper procedures to follow so the investigation and arrest were not jeopardized.

Ike Orr, a POST compliance officer, said his department supports the program and would like to see it continue. He said continuation will largely be up to animal control agencies generating sufficient support for the program.

"I think it has provided more law enforcement training than these officers have had in the past," Orr said. "It is important to have this kind of training when you consider the liability situation that cities and counties can find themselves facing. You're dealing with property and individual rights and that can be a difficult situation."

Orr said the four-week program certifies participants as special function officers under Utah law. Those wishing to move on to regular police work in the future receive training credit toward their peace officer certification.

Another plus is the development of public relations skills.

Hess said Davis is developing a program in which officers take animals directly to their owners rather than to the county shelter. This requires officers to be better prepared to deal with the public. "We are putting a great emphasis on officer public relations, and we believe this training will help."

Participants also receive training in arrest techniques and property seizures, better equipping them to handle these delicate matters.

Certification should also help smooth relationships with regular police agencies. Hess said her office has a good relationship with the county sheriff's department - so good, in fact, that the agency has used the sheriff's crime lab to process evidence and has used sheriff's deputies to testify as expert witnesses.

Crowe believes the program will become a model for other states. Several requests for information have been received and a group of California animal control officers participated in a recent training session.

Officials said they expect to make certification an employment requirement once the program is offered on a permanent basis. Already Salt Lake and Salt Lake County are using certification in their advancement criteria.