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If Jess Thedinga is not out rescuing cats or taking snakes out of people’s houses, she’s probably on your For You page.
Thedinga, who has more than 420k followers on TikTok as @ACOJess, uses the platform to teach people about her job as a Philadelphia animal control officer. For the past year, she’s posted videos rescuing animals and informing people about the importance of wildlife in Philly.
She’s also written two children’s books based on real rescue tales. Her second book, “Helping Pets Home,” is available now for preorder on Kickstarter.
The book details four stories of animals she helped and posted about on TikTok – most famously the “skinless” (hairless) cat named Bowie, which ended up getting 13 million views. Her goal with all of this is to portray people in her position in a more positive light.
“The point of writing the books was to write a message about how animal control officers are friendly,” Thedinga told Billy Penn. “We are there to help, and we love animals.”
Her first book, “ACO Jess and Friends Racoon Rescue,” was released in December. It highlights the dangers of littering, and the misconceptions about raccoons. (For example, just because they’re out and about during daylight does not mean they’re sick.)
Writing that first book was not easy, but Thedinga turned to friend Paris Graman, who owns project management consultancy Empower Creative Agency. Gramann helped Thedinga with all the details: finding illustrators, initial drafting, coming up with a logo, forming an LLC.
Together, they were able to finalize the book in a year, which is a quick turnaround, Gramann said.
Gramann, who also helped Ya Fav Trashman with his book “I’m Cool Too,” said Philadelphia seems to be full of people who showcase the realities of their jobs as a way to destigmatize essential work.
“Philly is an interesting place where there are cool people doing cool things,” Gramann said. “It’s interesting that some people are choosing children’s books as an outlet.”
Using mean comments as an excuse to educate
A North Jersey native, Thedinga was a police dispatcher for 13 years before becoming an animal control officer, The career change came after one of her friends, who was an ACO himself, urged the animal-lover to get certified.
In 2019, after moving to Philly, Thedinga got a job at Camden-based Independent Animal Care Services. This past December, she started working as an ACO for ACCT Philly.
Thedinga hesitantly started posting to TikTok during the beginning of the pandemic, after pleas from her friend Tammy Kelsh to join the app. Kelsh, who had been on TikTok for a couple of months, said she knew people would love the videos of Thedinga saving cute animals. She was not wrong.
“She got really nervous at first, because there’s a lot of pressure that comes with it – and there are a lot of mean people on there,” Kelsh said.
Together, Thedinga and Kelsh pushed past the mean comments, and tried to spin them in a positive way.
Some comments accuse Thedinga of harming the animals she rescued by taking them out of the natural environment. Then other people will reply with common misconceptions they have about wildlife. Thendinga replies to these comments using videos to educate people on what actually happens to animals once they’re in the care of ACOs.
“I see now it’s my duty to continue to show the positive side of my job. The more people that can see my career in that light, the better, “Thedinga said.” I’d just love for someone one day to stop asking me if I hurt an animal. “
Eventually, Thedinga hopes to turn her books into an animated film to really spread the word.