A Sacred Trust

Animal control officers are often among the first on the scene when a death at home leaves a pet behind
By Shirley Zindler, April 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?

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.

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