On skills and gender, change your thinking about animal investigators

April 25, 2019

The instant a strong woman enters a room, you know it. It’s not just her aura of self-confidence that gives it away. It’s the fact she confronts every situation with a passionate and no-nonsense approach. She may not always succeed, but she learns something with every circumstance and carries it through to the next instance. She knows what she wants. She knows what she needs. And, she knows how to accomplish it. While she never craves attention, her achievements are impressive, and her drive is inherent in her being.

Meet Colorado Humane Society (CHS) Manager of Field Services Bobbi Priestly, log splitter, juice harp player, grandmother and animal advocate extraordinaire.

A native Coloradan, Priestly always had a passion for animals. One day, the realization hit that it was time to change career paths and make a difference, and after spending 12 years as a produce manager in a local market, Priestly applied for a job as an animal control officer in Park County. Priestly had no prior experience or education in the animal welfare field, but she had a strong desire to learn and a determination to succeed in her pursuit of helping animals.

After several years of on-the-job training, in 2004, Priestly received her Bureau of Animal Protection commission by the state and proceeded to work in Park County for 17 years. Over that time, she was promoted to corporal, sergeant and senior sergeant. “I still recall my first case,” said Priestly. “It was May 11, 2004, and it involved four horses, one of which was reported dead. When I arrived, the horse was on the ground, but it was alive. I called the state veterinarian who walked me through the process of drafting a search warrant and collecting evidence. The horse ultimately died, and I learned how to take the femur to send it to Colorado State University for analysis. I learned then that the more evidence you have, the better your case will be.”

In September 2018, Priestly moved to CHS, which is a program of the Dumb Friends League, because she was hopeful she could make a difference on a larger scale and help more people and animals. “The League is such an amazing organization, and I wanted to be part of something bigger,” said Priestly.

In her short time at CHS, Priestly has made a tremendous difference and pretty much proven herself to be a warrior. It’s not unusual to hear conversations around the League of Priestly’s snowshoe adventures to rescue neglected horses, including the February case of liberating 57 malnourished horses and bringing them to the Dumb Friends League Harmony Equine Center.

Most recently, Priestly received a call from the Park County Sheriff’s Office (PSCO) about an owner who was unable to get to his horse to provide food and water for a few weeks. The horse was in snow so deep that Priestly and one of her daughters (who happened to take her mom’s job in Park County Animal Control) were unable to drive into the pasture to help the horse they later named Pistol. Priestly made a few calls and suggested that the PCSO plow the road to the field, which would put them about a mile and half from Pistol’s pen. The next morning when the two went to get Pistol, the road was again buried in snow due to high winds. Priestly and her daughter strapped on their snowshoes and made the four-mile trek to get to Pistol, and once they got to her, they found her pen locked. With determination and resourcefulness, Priestly located an ax and sledgehammer and rescued the very-underweight horse. It took an hour to halter Pistol, who, it turns out, lived in the pen alone for six years, and then Priestly and her daughter realized they would not be able to get her to the trailer courtesy of the deep snow. They called the fire department to bring in a vehicle that made tracks large enough to lead Pistol out, which was still challenging given that Pistol was frightened. Four miles and large amounts of patience later, Pistol was on her way to Harmony. “I believe animals know you’re coming to help them,” said Priestly. “Pistol was never haltered or ever in a horse trailer, but eventually, she let us help her. Pistol could have made it so much more difficult for us, but she didn’t.”

When asked if being a woman in a field that’s been historically male-oriented is difficult, Priestly thought that it helped in most cases. “Men can be more black and white about situations,” Priestly said, “but I believe there’s grey. It comes easy for me to see different sides and come together. I think it’s the way you approach people and come across to them when you initiate a discussion that frames the conversation.”

While Priestly admits to sometimes getting frustrated with cases, she does not allow herself to get burned out. To combat the stress of her career, she spends time hiking with her dog and with her three children and two grandchildren, soaking up the outdoors, cutting wood and playing the juice harp, which she learned from her father. Priestly has an innate desire to become better to help people and animals across Colorado. “My team and the topics of cruelty and neglect drive me,” she said. “I took a lot of classes, and I’ve worked very hard to be good at what I do. Everything I learn on one case is applied to the next.”

Speaking of cases, Priestly is especially proud (and rightly so) of two winning cases in particular, which were against Denver’s top-rated criminal defense attorney, Pamela Mackey. One case involved approximately 100 starving sled dogs, which necessitated felony neglect and cruelty charges, and the second involved the slaughter of 32 bison, and the hunt’s orchestrator was charged with 32 counts of aggravated cruelty and theft and ultimately pled guilty to one count of criminal mischief, one count of cruelty to animals and had to pay fines and restitution. It was the bison case where Priestly was immersed in the world of ballistics and matching bullets to the 12 seized weapons, and she found it fascinating.

Despite being challenged along the way by people and cases, Priestly remains authentic and admired throughout the League and the animal welfare community. In case you (like me) wondered if this warrior had a favorite song, you know, something that motivates her or runs through her head when she needs that little extra something, she does! Cue up U2’s “Beautiful Day.” “I play this song whenever I save an animal or need that push to keep going,” said Priestly. “The lyrics were written for what we do. This is a hard job, but it’s also very rewarding.”

For the animals Priestley helps and the people she influences, it truly is a beautiful day.