Interview with an Animal Control Officer, Part 2

In recognition of Animal Control Appreciation Week, I recently sat down with Scott Lowry to talk with him about his as an animal control officer with the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department. 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 two of my interview; content has been edited for clarity.

Steve and his German Shepherd "Doc" out for a walk.
Scott Lowry and his German Shepherd “Doc” out for a walk.

Animals feel many things. That’s what makes it difficult for us as animal controls officers. Not everyone recognizes that. There’s some people who think it’s just a dog. But that dog can feel fear and sadness, and that dog can feel relief and joy. Our job is harder because we know a lot about how animals feel. Not everyone appreciates that in animals and sometimes they don’t treat their animals well. And this hurts us as animal lovers.

ALLISON: What have you learned about pet care as part of being an animal control officer?

SCOTT: I’ve learned a lot about general pet care. I had a good base knowledge of care of dogs when I came to work here. My parents were dog people and so I was fortunate that when I was younger I had parents who taught me how to care for dogs the right way. But I’ve become a better owner since I’ve become an animal control officer.

Probably the biggest thing I’ve learned is that animals have emotions like people do. They communicate through body language. Ninety percent of their communication is through body posture and positioning and, if there’s one thing I’ve learned here, it’s that animals pick up on subtle signals from people. It doesn’t work with all animals, but if you approach with kindness and are open to communicating with that animal via body language, you can make a strong connection with that animal. I can’t tell you how many times on calls that I’ve used my body language and positioning of my body to deal with a dog that at first glance seems difficult to deal with, but eventually I can communicate with that dog and to get it to see that I’m not a threat. I have a lot deeper connection with my own dogs than I had before I was an animal control office because now I’m more in tune with how they communicate, and I pick up on those subtle cues now, and I do things to communicate with my dogs. I didn’t know I was learning these things on my job, but they’ve clicked over the years, and now I’m at a point where I understand more about animal communication.

It’s funny that if I go on call with a dog that is agitated or stressed, and if I bring any stress with me to that call, the animal can pick up on that. If I’m able to put that stress behind me, if I can approach that animal with a relaxed presence, it’ll totally pick up on this. You won’t see an instant change, but over time its behavior will change. Suddenly you go from a dog that you couldn’t approach to a dog that’s sitting in your lap, and you can pet it, and it’s giving you kisses.

Another thing I’ve learned about animal care is it’s important to pay attention to like the subtle signs that your pets give you. They can tell you when they’re hurting or when something’s wrong with them. It’s important to have a good relationship with your vet and pick a vet that’s good for you, that you’re comfortable with, and that you feel is good with your animal. Pay attention to those little signals that your pets give you, because they can’t tell you that they’re hurting or sick, but you as an animal lover will know if something is wrong.

A misconception is that people think that we’re responsible for euthanizing domesticated animals but we aren’t. We only euthanize wildlife, and just in extreme circumstances when we know the animal is suffering.

ALLISON: What are some things that the public doesn’t know about animal control that they should?

SCOTT: Everyone here is human. An officer doesn’t start his day wanting to make life difficult for anyone he encounters during his shift. We want to do everything we can do to help people and animals. Another thing is we’re all animal owners here. We all understand what it’s like to be an owner of an animal.

People think we like to kill the animals we pick up. Part of our job is euthanizing injured wildlife. We try to avoid doing it unless it’s necessary. The number one reason animal control officers will leave the control field is because of having to euthanize wildlife. It’s hard for everyone one of us. It takes the biggest toll on officers. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small injured bird or a deer that’s been injured by a car and has several injured legs, it is the absolute worst part of the job.

ALLISON: What are reasons that people should/should not contact animal control?

The biggest thing that I’d like to get out there is if you even suspect an animal is being neglected or hurt or mistreated, please call us because we often won’t just stumble across those situations. It’s important for us to have the help of the public.

SCOTT: If in doubt, call animal control and talk to us. Whatever the situation is, if you just have a question, call us so that we can try to figure out. Most of the calls that come in we’re able to handle over the phone. I hear from a lot of people who will say, “Well, you know, I didn’t want to call you guys because I didn’t want to start a problem with the neighbors,” but if you think an animal is being hurt or suffering, please call us so that we can help. If you want to remain anonymous, that’s fine.

I have coyotes close to my house. I hear them every night and will stand on my back deck and listen to them howl every night. I just think that’s so neat that I get to experience that. My shepherd will go on the deck with me, and he’ll cock his head like, “What are these animals?” They almost sound like dogs.

Situations where you wouldn’t want to call us? That’s a tougher question. One of the things we’re seeing more and more of is wildlife coming into the city. They seem to adapt very well to living close to people, and so I’d say it’s important for people to remember we’re surrounded by wildlife and it’s not always the best option for animal control to come and try to remove that wildlife. For every opossum that we take out of someone’s yard, another opossum is just going to move in and occupy that niche. If it’s sick or injured or acting strange, that’s a different situation. But if it’s otherwise normal, and it’s just passing through in the same manner every night, then view that as something wonderful you get to see.

The biggest way to help is to report things. We need to know when an animal is at risk, and those aren’t things that we’re always going to be able to stumble across.

ALLISON: How can the public help Animal Control?

SCOTT: The number one way is if you have a question, if you have any problems, call us. Report to us anything that you think is suspicious or strange. During the summer months, if you see dogs in cars that you think have been left in parking lots at your local supermarket or whatever, call us so that we can check it out. We’re seeing more incidents of dogs being put in danger by being left in cars in the summer heat. Same deal for the winter, if you see a dog outside in a yard and you think the dog doesn’t have appropriate shelter or is out in inappropriate temperatures.

And if you have got to deal with an Animal Control officer, please realize that they’re doing their job, and be patient. Try to remember that we’re not at your house to ruin your day. We’re just doing our job. We probably got a call that we’re required to investigate.

It’s unreal the unusual species I’ve encountered here. I’ve encountered everything from alligators to emus to monkeys to lizards. I was not reptile-educated before I started working here, but I had to learn very quickly how to deal with them. There’s a steep learning curve here. And you learn the hard way sometimes.

ALLISON: What are some of weirdest animals you’ve encountered?

SCOTT: The crazy thing about the internet these days is that you can order just about anything online. Inevitably we encounter some strange stuff. The alligator that I encountered was just a baby and it was crawling on the side of the road. No idea where it came from. No idea how it got to where it got.

Several years ago, we had a gentleman outside of Lincoln who had an emu farm. He lost control of some of his emus and so they were running all over the county. Nebraska State Patrol was called because they were running close to the interstate and we got called to assist. The officer and I who responded had never dealt with emus before, but we had to learn quickly how to catch these birds. They’re fast and essentially like an ostrich. There’s no way that we can train our officers to deal with every different type of species that they might encounter. Much of what we do is just learning on the fly and coming up with a game plan.

The monkey was in Woods Park. We got called because primates are illegal to own inside the city limits. I went to check it out, and she had a macaque, and so I had to politely explain that she couldn’t have it in the city limits. The thing with a primate is that they can get aggressive the older they get, and so you’ve got be careful because they can hurt you. He didn’t look friendly, and so that was a nail-biting moment because I’d never dealt with a primate before. I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do if things went badly on that call. Never a dull moment here!

One summer we had a rash of snake calls, where it appeared as if people had decided that their snakes had gotten too big to handle and so they were letting them loose. One time I got called about a six-foot long albino python that was curled up under a pine tree and the gentleman was walking his poodle through the park and the snake came out and tried to strike at the dog. A lot of times we get calls that we later find out have been exaggerated but, in this case, I had a big snake on my hands. He was not a happy snake either. We often end up having to clean up messes caused by someone suddenly introducing an exotic species into the city.

ALLISON: How do you learn to deal with different animals?

SCOTT: Since I was a little kid my family always owned dogs. We never owned cats because I’m allergic to cats. The way I learned about cats is just on the job. Really my level of knowledge about cats when I first started working there was nothing. And I’ve come to love cats. I can never own one because of my allergies, unfortunately. But there are so many cats I encounter on this job that are cool!

ALLISON: I never thought about this! How do you deal with an animal when you have allergies?

SCOTT: That can be challenging, but I’ve managed to do it. I’m allergic to cats and horses. From working here, I also found out I’m allergic to rabbits. I’ve learned that I can pet cats and handle them, but I must be careful that I don’t touch my face after I do that, and then must wash my hands. If I do that I’m okay. Hoarding situations are different because I have a respirator on and that protects me. As for rabbits, it never fails: I get within two feet of a rabbit and I start sneezing. I have not figured out a way to stop from having an allergy attack around rabbits. I don’t really encounter horses that much. But it’s kind of the same deal; I just need to be careful not to get the dander on my face.

This job is a calling. You’ve got to love what you to do to stay any length of time. It’s your life. You live it 24/7.

ALLISON: If someone wants to become an animal control officer, what are the requirements?

SCOTT: There’s not a lot of stringent requirements like some jobs. You don’t need a college degree, but we are looking for someone who has a basic understanding of how to care for animals. Preferably the person has had some experience with animals in general, but also maybe has an interest in a specific type of animal. All of us tend to be generalists when it comes to dogs and cats, but we’ve had officers who have specialized in birds or reptiles.

We’re looking for somebody who can deal tactfully with the public, and deal with high-stress situations involving people and animals. You need to be able to deal with people who may not be the friendliest and who may be difficult. If you have any law enforcement background, that’s a huge plus.

We’re looking for somebody who is mature. The person can operate under little supervision, can be trusted and has good ethics. We need to trust the person to be out there on their own, because you’re not going to have a supervisor hanging over your shoulder. I can’t be with every one of my officers. I need to know that I can send officers into any situation and they can deal with it on their own or with minimal supervision and help. That requires someone who is a self-starter.

We do a lot of report writing. It’s so important for a good case. If you can bring any kind of writing skills to the table, that’s great.

There are other qualities too, stuff we can’t easily screen for. You must be tough mentally but also compassionate. You must be realistic and understand that life is not a box of cotton candy; the things that you’re going to see are going to be hard things to see. Most officers don’t understand—until they get into the career field and they’re working—how tough this job can be. It will make or break you. You’ll know quick once you start working here if you’ve got what it takes or whether this isn’t for you. And it’s okay if this isn’t for you. It’s not for everybody. Not everybody can do this job. An animal control officer has a lot of responsibility on their shoulders.

When I was asked about this interview, I was absolutely thrilled because we don’t very often get a chance to tell our story. One of the biggest frustrations that animal control officers deal with are the negative misconceptions that people have of them. People know very little about the good things that we do and the minor miracles that we pull off every week and how much we love animals here. We don’t get this opportunity to toot our own horn, to say this is what we do. Our animal control officers do some amazing work that never gets talked about, and so we’re excited to tell people what we do, and what we go through, and how difficult this job can be, but also the wonderful things that we see.

Ultimately, we’re here to help animals and people, and we try our best to do that every day.

 

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