Shirley Zindler is an animal control officer in Northern California, and has personally fostered and rehomed more than 300 dogs. She has competed in obedience, agility, conformation and lure coursing, and has done pet therapy. Zindler just wrote a book The Secret Lives of Dog Catchers, about her experiences and contributes to Bark’s blog on a regular basis.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Animal control officers are often among the first on the scene when a death at home leaves a pet behind
April 3 2012
The old man’s eyes were closed, his head rested on a pillow and covers were tucked up to his chest. Even the wispy white hair on his head looked unruffled. His arms were wrapped around his little blond Chihuahua, who gazed at me quietly. For a Chihuahua to fail to bark when a stranger enters the room is a miracle in itself. It couldn’t have been a more peaceful scene although the man was dead.
This man’s son was waiting downstairs to claim his dad’s dog. My only duty in this case was to transport the dog to the lobby. I gently scooped the unresisting dog from the man’s arms and cuddled her to my chest. When I arrived downstairs I looked around, unsure who was to receive the dog.
At that moment, a man walked in and made his way toward me. He looked younger than I expected, probably in his forties, with fair hair and a pleasant face that was streaked with tears, but the family resemblance was there. He reached for the dog and burst into sobs. I put an arm around him and he leaned in for a moment and hugged me before taking a deep breath and composing himself. “Thank you,” he said. “I’m so glad I at least have her.” He glanced at the small bundle in his arms and turned and walked away.
Animal Control is usually among the first on the scene in a case like this because pets need to be removed before police and coroners can do their investigation and remove the body. Most of my coroners’ cases have been very peaceful. Usually they are elderly people, who passed away quietly at home with their pets. I’m grateful to be able to care for their beloved companions in the way I would want my pets handled after my death.
Of course, some cases have been ugly, traumatic crime scenes or suicides. Sometimes bodies have decomposed or been fed upon by desperate and starving pets. Those situations can have a lasting effect on everyone involved but the animals still need to be removed and cared for, so we do it.
In one case, I received a call of a skinny dog. When I arrived, I could see a ribby Belgian Malinois through a locked gate. I honked the horn several times with no response from the run-down house. I fed the skittish dog treats through the fence as I waited but the place appeared abandoned. On checking with neighbors, I learned that the owner was elderly and reclusive. No one could remember the last time they had seen her.
Worried, I called the sheriff’s department and requested a deputy. We cut the lock and entered the property. The front door was wide open and we knocked and called. There was no answer. In a cluttered back bedroom, we found the remains of the dog owner. It was obvious that she had been dead for a very long time.
My attention was drawn back to the dog who slunk around miserably in the background. I finally coaxed him in with cookies and when I got my hands on him I was shocked at his emaciated condition. Under the fur, he was skin and bones. When I managed to slip a lead on him he fought wildly and as light as he was, I struggled to lift him into the truck.
I learned that the dog’s name was Buster and he was only about a year old but completely unsocialized. It took a while to track down next of kin and while most supportive and helpful; they were unable to take him. I fostered Buster for several months before finding a wonderful home able to deal with his numerous issues.
This is a good reminder to have a plan in place for our animal companions in the event of our incapacitation or death. Even those with a significant other should make a plan in case something happens to both guardians. I would be interested in hearing from readers about what plans you make for their pets. Who will care for your furry friends if you aren’t able to?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Mistaken identity, surprising requests and strange dilemmas
March 16 2012
Animal control officers see a lot of difficult, upsetting things. Thankfully, there are the strange requests, amusing calls and fun rescues to balance the heavy stuff.
People are often confused about what we do. I can’t make your roommate clean his cat litter box more often and I can’t force your cousin to put a coat on his Golden Retriever when they walk in the rain. I can’t make your husband put your dog on a diet and I can’t make your neighbor stop feeding your cat on her back porch.
I’m often surprised by people’s behavior; I find them far more unpredictable than animals. A call came in regarding a dog bite and to my surprise, a woman was complaining that her neighbor bit the dog. I went to the dog owner’s home and he admitted that yes, he bit his dog on the ear to discipline it. I asked to see the dog, which was in the house and appeared healthy with no sign of injury. I advised the man to look into some more positive methods of discipline and left him with a verbal warning, still shaking my head as I walked away.
Another call of a dog bite resulted in punctures to the hand of the human victim. On further questioning, it was determined that the gentlemen in question had left the bank, likely distracted by his lack of funds, and jumped in his blue Honda. Unfortunately, it wasn’t his blue Honda. A resident dog, taking offence to the intrusion, gave him a hearty chomp for his inattention. It was determined to be a provoked bite.
A complaint of a litter of newborn puppies under an abandoned vehicle had me rushing to the scene. The rusted car sat in a field of weeds and I knelt to look underneath as the female caller watched. A field mouse skittered away from a tiny nest in the grass but I saw no sign of puppies.
“Where exactly did you see them?” I asked the woman.
“They’re right there.” She said, pointing to the nest.
A closer inspection revealed a litter of squirming baby mice, but still no puppies. It dawned on me that she was looking at the mice.
When I pointed that fact out to the woman, she hesitated a moment before stating, “I thought they looked pretty small but maybe they’re Chihuahuas?” I gently informed her of her mistake and left the mice to their mother.
The mice weren’t the only case of mistaken identity I’ve seen. A call of a baby beaver on a golf course had a fellow officer responding to find an ordinary gopher in a bucket, gnashing his big yellow teeth at his confinement.
In another case, a man stated that he had found a baby eagle. We do have eagles in our county but I was doubtful and peered into the box to find a fledgling crow.
A call of a dog with her head stuck in a tree had me puzzling about it all the way there. The black Lab had apparently been nosing around a deep crevice in a split tree trunk and had become trapped. Two teenage kids were home alone and were pretty panicked. The daughter was in tears and the son was preparing to cut the giant eucalyptus down to save his pet. The fact that the tree would have obliterated his neighbor’s house was of no consequence.
While I admired the kids’ dedication to his dog, my motto is “what goes in must come out.” The Lab was scared and growling as I approached. At least she couldn’t bite me while her head was wedged. I spoke soothingly to her as I assessed the situation. The trunk was split in a way that prevented me from lifting her straight up. I couldn’t imagine how she managed to get in this predicament. I gently lifted her rear and maneuvered her around without much luck. Resigned to her fate, she finally grew limp in my arms. I had to tip her almost onto her head but that did the trick and I was able to lift her free.
She immediately went into transports of doggie delight, wiggling herself silly in her happiness. Her young owners were equally ecstatic as they showered her with affection.
This is the fun stuff, the win-win moments where everyone is happy. The warm glow of success from a simple call like this can get me through a lot of bad days.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Meet Tyra, rescued dog turned rescuer
March 6 2012
On what would be a fateful afternoon more than a year ago, a fellow animal control officer received a call for a stray dog in traffic. When he arrived, he found a scrawny, half-grown Great Dane puppy running in terror from everyone who approached. When he finally cornered her, she fought wildly and tried to bite but he was able to get her into his truck.
At the shelter, the dog shrank in fear from everyone. She was about six to eight months old and unable to cope with the slightest challenge. Her behavior probably came from lack of socialization. Dogs who don’t receive critical exposure to a variety of positive experiences during puppyhood have no idea how to deal with anything new. She didn’t know what a leash was and was terrified of everything. She sat through her stray-hold without being claimed and was too freaked out, with the potential to bite, to be adopted.
Something in the dog’s total helplessness and depression spoke to me and I took her home to foster.
Her coat had a moth-eaten appearance and the vet found that she had mange as well as a respiratory infection. In addition to her other issues, she required daily medications and horrible smelling dips. Getting a freaked-out dog with mile-long legs into the tub for a twice-weekly bath and dip was an experience.
Having fostered and re-homed hundreds of dogs, our family is used to visiting canines but the Dane, whom we named Tyra, was almost completely unresponsive other than fighting the baths. She showed no interest in me, my family or my other pets. I finally got her walking on a leash and she followed me dismally until I stopped and then she would lie down and refuse to move.
We spent a great deal of time coaxing her with treats and gentle handling but she remained traumatized and shutdown. It seemed that, for her, life was just something to be endured. She showed no joy in any of the usual things that dogs like to do. Most dogs want to bond with me within a day or so but the days passed with little progress. It was my husband’s meatballs that finally brought her around to the fact that people could be a good thing. We had offered her a variety of delicious treats with no success but Paul saw her sniffing the air while he was cooking and offered her one. To our surprise, she ate it and asked for more.
I brought Tyra to work with me every day, and the staff offered her endless treats and affection. Gradually, her true personality began to blossom and she came out of her shell. A truly delightful and intelligent Great Dane started prancing through life like she owned the world. Her coat began to shine and she started to gain weight.
Sadly, during the time that we were fostering Tyra, our beloved rescue Doberman, Luci, passed away due to kidney failure. Shelter workers are usually full-up with other peoples’ unwanted pets and our home was no exception. We certainly didn’t need another dog, especially one as big as a donkey, but Tyra worked her magic on us until we couldn’t part with her.
She continues to accompany me to work, curling her huge body up in her bed in the cab of my dog truck. Often her presence helps to coax in loose dogs who are afraid to come to me. She is now one of the happiest, silliest dogs I’ve ever known. She has doubled in size and her joy knows no bounds. She crashes through the house, bashing walls and clearing coffee tables with her ecstatically lashing tail. Tyra makes Golden Retrievers look depressed!
She is still learning and we spend time each day with training and confidence-building exercises. Some very fearful dogs don’t improve to the extent that she has, but every dog can make improvements with patience and work. Fostering is a wonderfully rewarding way to make a difference in the life of a needy animal and it sometimes results in a beloved new family member too.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Rescuing a dog caught in the crossfire
February 16 2012
The cheerful beat of my cell phone yanks me out of a sound sleep. I glance groggily at the clock: 12:32 a.m. I’m on call for animal control emergencies. The sheriff’s dispatcher advises me that deputies are requesting my presence at a rural address.
I dress in a hurry, yank my hair into a ponytail and drive through the dark to the scene. The road is blocked by deputies but they wave me through. About 20 patrol cars line the road and officers are pacing around with flashlights while a helicopter circles overhead. When I pull in the driveway, deputies advise me that I need to remove a large, aggressive dog that charged them and was shot. The wound hasn’t slowed the dog down and he’s still in the house. They’re unsure if the armed-and-dangerous suspect is inside with the dog or has made his escape. Guess who gets sent in first?
I enter the house with multiple deputies behind me with their rifles aimed ahead of them. I tell them I would rather be bit than shot, but one of them says sternly, “The suspect might be ahead of us” and they keep the rifles raised. I can’t say I blame them, I just hope I’m out of the line of fire if it all goes down.
The lights are out so I’m working by flashlight. We make our way down a darkened hallway and find the dog—a big, black Pit Bull—in one of the back bedrooms. He’s at my eye level, standing on the bed, bloody and growling. One deputy keeps his rifle sighted on the dog while the others point guns and lights around the rest of the pitch-black room in search of the suspect.
I forget everything else for the moment and concentrate on the dog. I have him somewhat cornered and I call to him, “You’re gonna be OK, buddy. Hang in there; you’ll be OK,” as I move in cautiously with the catchpole. Too fast and he’ll panic and either attack or try to bolt past me. Too slow and he’ll escape and possibly be shot again. His eyes shine in the flashlight beam as he lunges at me repeatedly, biting at the pole just before I get it over his head and secure him.
I load the dog in the truck, thankful that I haven't been shot or bitten and rush him to the 24-hour emergency clinic. Once there, I’m able to make friends with the dog and he calms down enough for the vet to examine him. I cradle the broad head in my arms and talk quietly to him as the vet treats his wounds and his blood seeps into my uniform.
The dog had responded fairly appropriately when confronted with a bunch of hostile-seeming strangers in his home at night. When he charged at the officers, he sustained a gunshot wound to the head. Amazingly, the bullet had only passed through the skin, then traveled across the skull and exited at the neck.
The next day, the owner (who was not the suspect) claimed the dog. I hated seeing the dog return to that situation, and it would be easy for me to torture myself with worry about his future. But I have learned, in this job, that it’s critical to focus on the positive. As bad as I feel for the dog, being shot for something that was not his fault and living with dangerous people, I try to look on the bright side. The dog was not seriously injured, he lived in the house not outside on a chain, and, by all appearances, he got to sleep on the bed.
I later learned that the suspect was found hiding under the bed where the dog had perched. That was a close one.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Turning a bad situation into something positive
January 26 2012
An early morning call came in from a passerby who reported seeing a dog attacking sheep near a quiet country road. It was a gorgeous day, and I enjoyed the drive in spite of my anxiety to get there as soon as possible. I pulled up in front of a neat little white farmhouse surrounded by green fields. It was quiet; no one seemed to be home.
The sound of a dog barking and the frantic bleating of sheep broke the stillness. In the distance, I saw a handsome German Shepherd running through the field after a group of terrified sheep. I quickly scaled the fence and snagged my pants on the barbed wire, grimacing as I heard a long rip. The dog appeared to have been at it for a while and was visibly tired but having way too much fun to stop. His tongue hung halfway to his knees as he loped after the exhausted animals.
I hollered at the dog and he stopped in surprise. I tried calling and sweet talk but he warily stood his ground. I walked toward him, tossing cookies, which he ignored. He sank submissively as I approached, and when I reached for him, he rolled over and wet himself. He was just a big pup of maybe a year old.
I slipped a lead on him and scratched his ears. He soon relaxed and followed me as I looked for victims. Sadly, I found a newly dead lamb in the pasture. There wasn’t a mark on it. The poor thing appeared to have been run to death. I looked back to the dog. “You’re so busted, young man,” I said. He wagged in delight and gazed happily into my face.
As we walked back to my truck, I worried about the dog. He was young, friendly and attractive, but it’s a liability for shelters to adopt out livestock killers. Unless he was claimed by an owner willing to take responsibility, or taken by a rescue, he probably would be euthanized. It’s a shame because it’s normal for dogs to chase livestock and play often escalates into predatory behavior. It’s the owner’s responsibility to train and manage his dogs to keep them safe and prevent problems.
Adjacent to the sheep pasture was a property with a ramshackle doghouse next to it. A chain, snapped to an empty collar, was lying on the hard-packed dirt nearby. Guessing that the dog lived there, I pulled in the driveway. A sweet-faced young Spanish-speaking woman answered the door. With my very limited Spanish, I was able to confirm that it was her dog, “Oso,” and he lived on the chain but had slipped his collar and escaped. The woman wasn’t able to adequately confine or care for the dog and signed him over to the shelter.
I was relieved to get the dog away from life on a chain, but fretted about his future all the way back to the shelter. We have wonderful German Shepherd rescue groups that help us but I didn’t know if they would take a sheep-killer. As I thought over the possibilities, it occurred to me that Oso might make a good police dog. He was young, athletic and obviously had a lot of drive.
Back at the shelter, I convinced a local police-dog trainer to evaluate Oso. The trainer put him through a variety of exercises to determine his willingness and trainability. Oso passed with flying colors. A vet check and X-rays verified that he didn’t have dysplasia or other structural problems that would affect his working ability. After a clean bill of health, he left for training in a career in law enforcement.
Today, Oso spends his days riding around in a patrol car, sniffing out drugs and busting bad guys. Days off are spent at home with the officer’s family. He’s come a long way from his crummy life on a chain and days of chasing sheep.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
You never get used to a hoarder’s house
December 22 2011
The stench of garbage, urine and feces hit me as I entered the home. Sunlight slanted through a broken window and illuminated the clutter and sparkles of dust in the air. Cats and small dogs bolted in every direction, frantic to hide from the stranger in their midst. The place was littered with empty pet food cans, old magazines, clothes, dishes and boxes. Ammonia stung my eyes and throat as I wandered from room to room. I found the bodies of several cats and a dog among the debris. I’ve been in hoarder houses before, but you just never get used to it.
The owner sat dejectedly on her front step. After weeks of negotiations, we finally convinced her to let us help with her pets, which had reproduced to the point that she couldn’t care for them. She was a pleasant woman in her sixties and no one would ever guess that she walked out of this mess every day.
There were multiple violations: too many animals, public nuisance, sanitation, health codes, etc. After making a rough count of about 15 dogs and maybe 25 cats, I came back out and sat next to her. “You understand that I’m here to help, don’t you?” I said. Tears slid down her face. She nodded sadly. I asked her a few things about herself and the animals in an attempt to develop a rapport with her.
She took a deep breath and explained that a pregnant dog had shown up a few years earlier. The mother and her pups had then continued to interbreed. She had also taken in some cats, which reproduced at will. She was in way over her head.
Animal hoarding is considered a form of mental illness marked by keeping more pets than a person can reasonably care for. In most cases, the hoarder believes they have rescued the animals and that no one else could possibly care for them. This woman was a fairly small-scale hoarder. Some cases involve hundreds of animals, in terrible conditions.
I explained that she needed to get down to a reasonable number of animals or she would be taken to court. I again reminded her that I was there to help. Some hoarders will never agree to surrender their pets but in this case I convinced her to sign over all but one dog and arranged to have that one neutered.
It was a huge undertaking to remove the animals. I contacted a variety of rescues to help with the case and I took a pregnant dog home to foster. I hoped to have her spayed immediately but she delivered three puppies before the clinic opened. Two of them died soon after birth due to congenital issues, likely resulting from inbreeding. I worked with Mama for months, hand-feeding her and sitting with her but she was feral and could not tolerate any type of contact. She let me handle her baby, however, and fat little “Spud” received daily attention and cuddling from birth. He loved everyone and found a forever home at eight-weeks-old.
Sadly, Mama never came around to the point she could be adopted. I worked so hard to help her overcome her past, but it was not to be. I know that many of the other dogs and cats had to be euthanized for health and temperament issues as well. It can be so heartbreaking to be involved in things like this, to try and fix other people’s mistakes and fail. I have to comfort myself with the thought that Spud is in a loving home. The health department condemned the owner’s house; she moved to an apartment and I lost track of her. Most hoarders will reoffend in a short time. I hope she will be the exception.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
December 2 2011
I wake early to care for my latest litter of 6-week-old foster pups. I almost always have fosters at home: Moms with pups, orphaned or sick dogs, or dogs needing training or socializing. These are adorable scruffy Terrier mixes and they scramble over me in delight as I hurry to feed and clean up after them. Each one also gets picked up for a cuddle before I head out the door.
I arrive at the animal shelter by 7 a.m. and walk through the kennels to greet the dogs. As always, the number of wonderful, deserving canines in our care touches me.
I gather my list of calls for the day and head for my work truck. Tyra, my rescued Great Dane, follows as I load my shotgun and rifle. The men on the inmate work crew stare as I walk by. “Don’t mess with her,” one of them says as I pass, blonde pony tail swinging, giant dog at my heels and carrying a couple of firearms.
Tyra settles into the passenger seat as we head out through rolling hills and vineyards. My first call is quarantine for a small dog who nipped a visitor. I meet with the owner and view the healthy looking Chihuahua mix. I advise her to keep the dog confined at home and observe it for signs of illness. My next call is an adorable adolescent Pit Bull hanging around a business. I coax him to me with cookies and happy talk, check for a microchip, which he doesn’t have, and lift him onto a blanket in my truck as he tries to lick my face.
The day flies by as calls continue to come in. I write a few license citations and pick up a sick kitten and two more loose dogs. One dog has tags and her frantic owner hugs me and calls me an angel when I return her dog. I handle calls of a skinny horse, a dog without shelter and loose goats. Sadly, I also get a call of a critically injured deer. One look tells me there’s no saving her. With a heavy heart I reach for the rifle. Leaving her to suffer is unthinkable. Firearm euthanasia is more humane and less traumatic for wildlife than handling them for an injection. I then drove the body to Wildlife Rescue, where the meat will feed the carnivores there for rehabilitation.
I’m still upset about the deer when I arrive at my last call. It’s a complaint of loose, aggressive dogs. The owner won’t confine them and the dogs entertain themselves by terrorizing the neighbors. There’s already a court case pending and the dogs were confined by the time I arrive, so I remind her that she’s putting her dogs at risk by letting them run free. The owner argues with me, then turns to her young daughter and says, “This lady wants to kill your dogs.” The child looks horrified and the owner calls me a bitch and stomps back in the house with her wide-eyed daughter in tow. I try not to let it get to me but it does anyway. It’s not unusual to be called an angel and a bitch on the same day. As a rule the good guys love me and the bad guys hate me. I can live with that.
Back at the shelter, I vaccinate, photograph and kennel the animals I’ve picked up, and do paperwork. I leave work at 5:30 pm, and head home to help my husband and kids and dogs.
I’m on-call all night for emergencies, and 11 p.m. finds me headed into the dark to pick up a dog that has been hit by a car. I scoop up the injured black Lab mix and rush him to the emergency clinic. I help stabilize the dog and authorize hospitalization and treatment before heading home to bed at midnight.
Another day in the life of an animal control officer has ended.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The perfect antidote for a tough day
November 15 2011
Warm sunshine bathes my skin, soft fur tickles my cheek and the rich, intoxicating scent of puppy breath fills my nostrils. There must be no greater bliss than lying outside on a blanket full of sweet, wiggly puppies. I close my eyes as they lick my face and gnaw my fingers. It’s been a rough week and I feel the stress ebbing away as I cuddle the warm bodies.
As an animal control officer, I witness things no animal lover should ever see. On a daily basis, I see abuse, neglect, cruelty, hostility and apathy. I face armed gang members and unstable people who insist on the right to treat their animals any way they like. Sometimes I wonder how I keep doing this day after day. It can take such a toll on the spirit. As I ponder this, my attention is drawn back to the puppies.
They are a variety of mixed breeds and one purebred Boston Terrier and they tumble over each other in delight. All have come from difficult beginnings but are now thriving in foster care in our home. They will be well-socialized, vaccinated, wormed, microchipped and spayed before adoption, and I will choose their new homes myself.
The Boston’s mama belonged to a woman who was planning to make money breeding dogs. She bred her female and waited eagerly for puppies and big wads of cash. Knowing next to nothing about dogs, she was unaware that a large percentage of Bostons require cesareans to safely give birth. The unfortunate dog fussed around in distress for days, unable to push her fat-headed babies through her narrow pelvis. The woman, unable to afford a vet, finally surrendered the mother dog to a rescue agency, which rushed her to a nearby clinic for emergency surgery. Due to the long delay, all but one of the pups died and I was contacted to foster the mom and her surviving baby.
I like to think I make a difference in the lives of the animals and people I encounter. I can get a lot of mileage out of one good call. What keeps me going are the successful rescues, reuniting a lost dog with the owner, finding a great home for a dog or getting an animal out of a bad situation.
One of the pups scrambles over the top of my head and grabs a mouthful of my hair. I quickly untangle him and hug him to my chest. Sometimes it seems that I’m fighting a losing battle to improve the lives of animals but right at this moment, I know I make a difference to these guys.
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