Interview with an Animal Control Officer, Part 1

In 1997, while attending University of Nebraska-Lincoln and looking for a well-paying job, Scott Lowry came across an opening for an animal control officer with the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department. He applied because the job involved law enforcement, and he was interested in becoming a police officer. He’s also always loved animals. Twenty years later, he’s now Field Supervisor for Animal Control.

Steve Lowry on a call with a small dog that was running loose from a home.
Scott Lowry on a call with a small dog that was running loose from a home.

In recognition of Animal Control Appreciation Week, I recently sat down with Scott to talk with him about his job. Animal Control Appreciation Week falls in the second full week of April every year and is intended to recognize the individuals in Animal Care and Control who like other law enforcement agencies devote personal time and resources and even risk their lives in serving the public. This is part one of my interview; content has been edited for clarity.

It was never something I set out to do. I never told myself in high school that I wanted to be an animal control officer. It was something that I just fell into …. I thought I’ll throw my hat in and see what happens. I didn’t expect to get the job.

ALLISON: How did you get started in animal control?

SCOTT: Initially my first couple of weeks on the job I was overwhelmed by the extent of the job because I was kind of naive about what animal officers do. As time went on, and I got through my training, and I got moved to night shift, and I had an officer who was a veteran who took me under his wing, I began to love the job. It was exciting. The variety of things I did from day to day was interesting. The fact that you never did the same thing really made it fun for me. I’ve never been a person who likes to sit in the office. For me to get out and roam across the city responding to calls was ideal.

An animal control officer needs to have two strong points: one is the ability to deal with animals and the other is the ability to deal with people. Not everyone can be compassionate with animals. Not everyone can tactfully handle people. It’s hard to find someone who is good at both those things. I discovered that I was good at both of those things, and so I stayed.

You can go from one minute where you’re dealing with a dead animal on a highway and the next minute you’re dealing with a call from the police that’s a dangerous call. You’re constantly going from what you would consider a normal average call to a very stressful situation. And that fluctuates throughout the day. You’re always in two different worlds.

ALLISON: What does a typical day look like?

SCOTT: There are various investigations that you always have floating in the air around you that you need deal with. You’ll have a list of cases you’re working on. There’s always something new that happened each day, and so you’ll talk to the other officers to see what cases they’re working on and if they need help. Then you have calls for services coming in too. For example, the other night we had a call from Lincoln Fire and Rescue Department about an apartment that caught on fire. There were animals that died in the fire and so we assisted there.

You could be assisting local police or the sheriff’s department on calls. The police might have a situation where they’re trying to deal with somebody but they have a dog that’s involved, and so our job is to get the animal under control and keep it safe while the police officers are dealing with the people. We get called on SWAT calls where police officers are going to raid a house where there’s drug activity going on, and we’ll get called to assist with that if they know there are animals. The police officers don’t want to get bit, but they also don’t want to be put in a situation where they must shoot a dog because they’re being attacked. Our job is to get the animal under control and to safely remove it from the scene while they’re dealing with the situation.

You’re going to get some animal bite investigations that you need to handle. Those are a top priority because we’re responsible for the quarantine and rabies control to make sure we don’t have people exposed to rabies or other animals exposed to the rabies virus. You’ll get what we call at-large calls for dogs; these are where someone has reported to us that the dog is running loose from their house.

You’ll get sick wildlife calls. For those, we need to locate and capture the animal because it needs treated or euthanized. One of the important jobs we do as animal control officers is we’re the referee between people and wildlife. Our job is to make sure that everybody gets along with the wildlife. We also protect the people. If we get an injured wildlife like a possum or a squirrel or a bird or a raccoon and we think that there’s a chance they can be rehabilitated, we take those animals to Wildlife Rescue Team. We don’t have the resources to rehabilitate wildlife, and so they do a lot of work for us

We get a lot of animal neglect calls. Those are not necessarily a violation. Well-meaning people think that something may be going on, and so they call us. We investigate all neglect and cruelty calls that come in. With neglect calls, when we do find a violation, we often can deal with it through education. There are a lot of people who own animals who don’t know the basics of animal care Our job is to tell them what city ordinances say, but also teach the correct way to care for an animal.

Occasionally, we’ll deal with a cruelty case. Those are severe cases where someone has mistreated an animal intentionally. Those can be difficult to deal with because as an animal lover what we see really hurts us. But we need to maintain professionalism and separate ourselves from the emotion so that we can investigate the case. It’s so important for us to bring bad guys before the court for prosecution and to have a rock-solid case.

Part of the problem as animal control officers is that there aren’t a lot of us and we’re constantly getting service calls, but these cruelty cases take a lot of time. It’s important that we do a good investigation but still respond to service calls that come in. What we typically do is if we get a real serious case, we’ll refer it to certain officers so that they have time to just work on that case and don’t have to worry about all these other calls that are flooding in.

Then at the end of the day you’ve tons of reports to do. There’s always paperwork involved, and so you’re trying to get reports done throughout the day and at the end of the day.

ALLISON: Tell me more about the dangers you face.

SCOTT: Typically, there are three dangers: animal attack, assault by human, and the added danger of being around fast-moving traffic. The animals are the easiest to deal with. I’ll take dogs for example. Dogs pretty much, under a given set of circumstances, will react the same way. When you’ve been here long enough, you can always predict what a dog is going to do. People are more unpredictable and harder to deal with. Animal situations are very emotional for people. They often love their animals just as much or more than their children. Sometimes our job requires that we take an animal and this causes stress.

A misconception of our job is that we want to take your animal. We’re trained that that last thing we want to do is take an animal. We’ll only take an animal under certain circumstances, and, even then, it’s only temporarily unless we have an injury to a person such as in a dog bite. Our priority is getting the animal back to the owner. But there are times we’re required to put an animal under quarantine per state statute. We don’t like having to do that it. We know that the animal is stressed when the animal is separated from the owner. And that people are stressed when separated from their pet. Sometimes for the safety of the animal we take it to the shelter. But we don’t want to take an animal if we can avoid it, and we go to great lengths to make sure we get animals back to people.

We’re good about team work. Officers will monitor the calls their fellow officers are going on, and if there’s a call that seems like it might be dangerous or it might require more than one officer, the officers are good at backing up each other. There’s many times I’ll be out on a call dealing with something and I’ll look over my shoulder and one of my officers, without even being asked or told, is pulling up to help me. That’s the best feeling in the world. In some situations, it’s safer for two officers to deal with a call versus one. The higher the danger level, the more officers we want in there.

ALLISON: Let’s go to a happy question. What are some memorable moments?

SCOTT: For me, and this is one of the main reasons I’ve stayed at the job, is I get a real sense of satisfaction when I’m able to help an animal that’s in a situation where it can’t help itself. That could be an animal running down the interstate. Someone may have dumped that dog and taken off. You have an animal that’s scared and frightened. For me, the moments that keep me going are those where I can take an animal from a place where they’re very vulnerable and bring them to safety and maybe get a little kiss from them. That makes my day.

I also enjoy helping people. When people tell me, “thanks a lot for doing what you do” or “thanks for helping me,” that makes my day. One of those encounters can keep you going for months, and takes away the bad. Something as simple as reuniting a person with an animal that they’ve lost, that we’ve found, is great. Just to see the joy of the animal and the owner makes your day. It’s the little moments that make your day.

ALLISON: What have been some of the discouraging moments, the ones that could make you quit?

SCOTT: Probably the hardest thing to deal with have been the cruelty cases. You see things that are horrible, and sometimes the things you see you can’t believe you’re seeing them. As much as you’d like to forget them, they’re always in your head and mind. They stay with you.

The hoarding cases make for difficult days too. You’re never ready for hoarding cases. Our main priority is to make sure we get all the animals out of these houses, and that requires us to keep ourselves safe by wearing protective gear. There’s usually high ammonia levels associated with those that horde cats. During the summer, because it’s very hot and we’re wearing all this protective gear, it can take a physical toll. The hoarders that we’ve come across in the past couple of years tend to have a lot of animals. They are emotionally hard to deal with as animal lovers.

But it’s important to put those moments into perspective. It’s important as an officer to be resilient and make sure you take care of yourself physically and mentally, that you focus on the good moments in this job, and don’t let those bad moments overwhelm you. It’s easy to become cynical because of the things you’ve seen. It’s important that you look at the funny side of life, and that you focus on the lighthearted stuff and not on the serious stuff.

Another thing is you come to this job every day with the mindset that you want to help people and you want to help animals, but inevitably you’re going to deal with someone who doesn’t like you because you’re wearing a badge. You might not have even done anything to deserve anger or hatred. Just by showing up with a badge, you get that reaction.

There’s a difference between people who are in a bad mood and those who want to make your life as an officer difficult. A couple of months ago I had a woman who tried to spit on me. It set the tone for the rest of my day. For someone to want to do that, you start second-guessing yourself and thinking about how could have handled that differently, and then you realize you really couldn’t have handled that differently. There was nothing you could do to make that person happy no matter what you do.

It’s important to remember that most people are good people. They’re just trying to live their lives, obey the laws, and do the right thing. Most people support animal control. I’ve run across people in my career too who were angels. You can’t focus on the rest, even if they’re the most vocal. And I try to think back to the angels.

If I’ve just dealt with someone who’s been nasty, I go grab a Pepsi and sit in a park for a few minutes and take a break. Then I get back into the job and respond to the rest of my calls.

ALLISON: How do you deal with the stress of your job?

SCOTT: We talk about the funny moments. They happen every week and sometimes the things that happen with animals makes you wonder, “My gosh, is someone filming this? This is just unreal.”

One day I got a call for near the 25th and A street area. There were two dogs running loose. The person who called said that they couldn’t see the dogs with the owner and so they thought the dogs were strays. I pulled into the alley. There were these two medium-sized dogs. They see me. I see them. You know right away when you get out of the truck if you’re dealing with a dog that’s going to be friendly or a dog that will cause some trouble. I got out of the truck and the response I got from the dogs wasn’t positive. I left my driver’s side open, and I grabbed a snare which is used to catch dogs who are running. We began to play this little game where I followed them around the truck and they were going in circles around the truck and wouldn’t let me get close to catch them. I couldn’t even get them to come up to me by saying “Come here, let’s go guys.” Then they jumped in my truck on the front seat. My first thought was, “Why did I leave my door open?”, but my second thought was they’re in the truck and so I’ve kind of captured them. I tried to get back in the truck and they started growling at me. They were being aggressive enough that I knew if I tried to reach in there and put a leash on them they would probably bite me. I was so embarrassed. I thought, “How am I going to get these dogs out of my truck?” It took me half an hour of just standing in the door and talking to the dogs sweetly and trying to let them know that I wasn’t there to hurt them before they eventually let me put leashes on them.

It’s moments like that are so funny to share. Five minutes of laughing with your friends can take away the eight-hours of stress that you had on a job.

You just never know what will happen on this job. I think that’s sometimes part of the anxiety when you come to work, because you never quite know what you’re going to be dealing with that day and so you need to be prepared for everything and anything. That can create a certain level of anxiety and excitement. It makes work as an animal control officer interesting.

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