The phone chirps, and Brandon Anderson snags it after the first ring. Loose dog on West Boulevard. Medium-sized Aussie mix. Brown fur with tan spots.
“He doesn’t have a collar. He’s been running through the woods behind my house for a few days now,” says the voice on the other end of the line.
Within the minute, Anderson is in his truck, which is equipped with a trap, catch pole and a few dog treats. Anderson, 33, is 6 feet 1 inch tall and solidly built, with muscular arms sculpted during his days as a rodeo cowboy. After eight years as a Columbia Animal Control Officer, calls such as these tend to be fairly cut-and-dry. By this point, he has developed his own dog-catching cheat sheet.
For example, today he dons a pair of blue Dickies that haven’t been washed in a week. Dogs feel much more comfortable around him, he says, when his pants smell exactly like they do. The only downside is that when he gets home after a long day of work, he’s greeted by a dog that knows he’s been cheated on.
When he pulls up to West Boulevard, Anderson immediately lays a pressure-sensitive trap loaded with food. As expected, when he returns in a few hours, the pup is lounging safely inside.
For Anderson, adversarial relationships with animals only complicate things, so he opens up the cage and gives him a treat. On the ride to the animal shelter, he puts the cage away and lets him ride in the back, turning the hostage into a friend.
The dog takes to Anderson quickly, and when Anderson opens the trunk to bring him in for cataloging, the dog lets himself be carried all the way inside, paws wrapped around Anderson’s forearm like ivy on a fence. He has made a new friend.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I asked the Animal Control Department if I could follow them around for a few weeks.
My assumptions had been informed exclusively by the slow-witted pair of Animal Control guys in the TV show Parks and Recreation and by the antagonists of animated movies about runaway dogs. I figured the implication of the phrase “You couldn’t get elected dogcatcher” spoke for itself.
The Animal Control Department is located in the very back corner of the city Health Department on West Worley Street in a narrow corridor fashioned into an office. The team consists of three men and four women, with ages ranging from 26 to 58 and more than a century of animal control experience among them. Molly Aust is the department supervisor, and her team roster is Anderson, Barbara Ball, Deborah Christoff, Jean Easley, Kevin Meyers and Erik Bohle.
According to the city website, the team “supports responsible pet ownership while helping keep animals and the public safe.” This includes enforcing city ordinances, promoting education on rabies and animal welfare, investigating animal cruelty complaints and searching for sick or abused pets, among other things.
The department is available 24/7 and is never more than a phone call away. In emergency situations, they’re technically allowed to call in police support, but the vast majority of the time they are the sole responders to any crises related to animals.
“Snip, Snip, Hooray!” reads a sign on the door, reminding visitors that they can have their dogs neutered for $50. Adjacent sits a chart that reads: “How cold is too cold?” and displays a color-coordinated graph depicting livable temperatures for outdoor pets based on weight. A Folgers can affectionately named “The Batmobile” sits on the shelf and waits to transport bats from houses to get tested for rabies.
In the office, the team converses vibrantly, reflecting on old fieldwork like nostalgic friends at a high school reunion. It doesn’t take more than a few hours before I start connecting names with animals. Olivia is the pot-bellied pig that residents always mistake as pregnant. Laura is the horse on East Log Providence Road. Mr. Wrinkles is a large-but-lovable pit bull and the cause of several concerned phone calls from Columbia citizens.
The ongoing cases read like the plot of a soap opera. “I don’t think Jasper bit that girl,” Christoff says, inciting a character study into the ethics of Jasper the dog based on past run-ins. Keeping in mind my journalistic obligation to the public, I interrupt to pepper in questions that sound more like the inquiries of a fourth-grader.
“Are chupacabras real?”
“When there’s a dead deer on the side of the highway, who cleans that up?”
“Why do dogs run away?”
The answers, respectively:
“No, that’s just a coyote with mange.”
“Usually either us or the local Conservation Department.”
“Male dogs are always horny, and females go into heat twice a year. During those windows, every dog wants to find its lover, and they’ll cross roads and highways to get there.”
Ball and I are in a backyard on McBaine Avenue where there has been a barking complaint about a pit bull breeder.
It’s October, and the falling leaves indicate a transitional phase for the Animal Control Department. During the heat of the summer, it’ll respond to an average of 10 to 12 calls per day, but as winter’s cold forces owners and their pets to stay inside, the calls slow down to one to two per day. October sits somewhere in between.
The breeder, a man about 6 feet 4 inches tall sporting Jordans and sweatpants, gives us the tour. Ball immediately starts asking questions to suss out the situation. Her curly white hair and welcoming demeanor contrast the fact that when she’s on call, it’s strictly business.
Two cages about 8 feet high and the size of a small room line the back fence. Each holds two of the breeder’s five dogs: Retro, Fendi, Carrie and China. The fifth dog, Raja, can jump fences, so she is chained to a stake.
Before long, the cause of the complaint is obvious: Raja’s cageless lifestyle has made her the envy of the quartet, and the group vehemently barks as the dog cuddles up next to Ball. Surveying the scene, she concludes their situations are healthy, since each has scattered toys, some hay, heaping bowls of food and water and a doghouse for shade.
She asks if they all have their rabies shots. The answer is no, but instead of giving him a ticket, Ball firmly reminds the breeder he needs to get that done as soon as possible.
“I could write barking tickets for all of them, but that just creates ill-will,” Ball says. “The dogs are all in good condition. He’s obviously taking care of them, so I’d rather have them spend the money on shots than paying a bunch of fines. In this job, it never hurts to be nice.”
For the officers, compassion is everything. “When you lose your compassion, you can’t do this job anymore,” says Aust, 55, who’s been on the force for three decades. She carries herself calmly and professionally in the office, but she admits there are nights when she goes home and cries.
“I’d prefer to leave the stresses of this job at the door when I walk out, but you don’t get that luxury here,” Aust says.
Not only do the team members protect people from animals, they also protect animals from people, and the burden of both can take an emotional toll. In the biting cold of winter, when the wind chill is -20 degrees and it’s snowing, all she can think about is the dog who isn’t allowed inside the owner’s house, shivering outside, trying not to freeze to death.
Christoff has an especially compassionate side when it comes to animals. She still cries when she thinks of Fargo, a horse from a pasture on Creasy Springs Road whose owner thought he was a lone cowboy and didn’t need a vet to care for him. When she visited to check on Fargo one time, she found him 500 pounds underweight, with every bone in his body showing through his thin skin. She immediately impounded Fargo and rushed him to the vet. He was so weak that they put him into a sling hung from the ceiling because if he laid down, he’d die. From there, his condition deteriorated, and he was eventually euthanized.
Laura, the horse on East Log Providence Road, met a similarly tragic fate. When she contracted subcutaneous emphysema, a condition that traps gas under the skin, Christoff says Laura’s coat felt like bubble wrap, and she had open wounds covering her body. Her bones were grinding into her hooves, and she was in such great pain that the veterinarians were forced to put her down.
The job often finds animals in critical condition, and though the officers have dedicated their careers to keeping both people and animals out of harm’s way, they’re aware of the emotional burden required to do their job effectively.
The city allows only four adult pets (anything over six months old) per household, but many take advantage of the system by claiming the pets are younger.
“Technically, you can have 101 Dalmatians if they’re under six months old,” recounts Ball with a look in her eye that suggests that example isn’t so far-fetched.
They tell stories that sound more like the opening lines of jokes. A family living in a 28-foot trailer with 14 cats. A woman and 30 cats residing in a motel room. A dozen kittens inhabiting a washing machine.
Every single officer nods in agreement when Easley notes how important it is to check people’s freezers. Hoarders will often keep the bodies of dead pets.
“You never know what’s you’re going to find on any given day,” says Ball. “It’s never boring.”
“You couldn’t get elected dogcatcher.”
Ball is quick to retort when I bring up the famous saying. “If the only thing I did was catch dogs, my job would be easy,” she says.
One could probably start a zoo with the plethora of animals the team has caught over the years. The list includes, but is by no means limited to, raccoons, pythons, lemurs, ferrets, cows, sheep, elk, coati (a diurnal mammal native to Central and South America), llamas, kangaroos and alligators.
“Alligator wrestling’s not part of my job description,” Ball says. And yet, when a call came in regarding a pair of 7-foot-long illegal gators living in someone’s backyard, it fell on Animal Control to impound and handle them. The trick, Ball says, is to lower the gators’ temperature, which keeps them docile. Heat reminds them of their natural habitat, and that’s when things get hairy.
The city of Columbia doesn’t allow the team to use tranquilizers without a vet present, so in many situations, they have to think on their feet to find solutions. For instance, using duct tape to connect a broom handle to a butterfly net lets them catch bats from almost anywhere, and unfurling a sheet under a tree is the best way to catch a cat or iguana that accidentally crawls too high. Anderson always carries a lasso in his trunk and has used it to wrangle dogs, sheep, goats and horses.
Caution is a privilege and one not granted to Animal Control. When they get a call, they wield no weapon, and they bring no backup. A few of the officers carry a small index card in their wallets that reads “Occupational Exposure Advisory.” In an emergency, it would alert medical staff of the possible diseases they could have been exposed to as animal control officers. A few highlights of the card: Rabies. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Toxoplasmosis. Plague.
But the dangers don’t stop with just the animals. Ball once helped someone she described as a polite young man catch his loose dog during a pretty routine outing. The next week, she was reading the news and recognized his name — the same man had stabbed his ex-girlfriend to death.
Since the department stays open 24/7, someone is on-call at all times. Once, when it was Aust’s turn, she responded to a call in the middle of the night about a raccoon inside an abandoned house. She arrived to find a man was squatting in the shack, and with nothing but a flashlight and a catchpole, she called in the situation to police and went inside. Minutes later, the police called back, urging her to get out as soon as possible. The man apparently had a history of violence.
Their arsenal of tools — or lack thereof — work for and against the team. It can throw them into dangerous situations or help them connect with the community and gain access in ways police officers often can’t.
“We’re nonthreatening,” Aust says. “I don’t care what kind of drug dealer you are, if you’re scared of a raccoon, I can handle it. I’m not arresting you, I’m helping you.”
“Hi, there’s a snake in my living room. Can you send the guy over?”
More often than not, that’s what people ask when they call in — and the women of the office notice. All four of them have been there at least 25 years, and each has seen a life’s worth of surprised faces when they show up in the doorway.
“I’ll go to fraternities who are freaking out because a possum snuck in,” Ball says. “They’re all scared, and then I show up and handle it with no problem. Then, they’re all amazed and want to take pictures with me. Who knows how many strangers’ photo albums I’ve been in.”
For the women of Animal Control, there are no excuses. As the veterans, they have to be ready for any and every situation. Sometimes, that means crawling through thick grass on hands and knees in search of a pregnant pig’s missing babies. For Easley, it once meant saving a woman who was four months pregnant from an intruding raccoon while Easley was eight months pregnant.
The officers rattle off these anecdotes and dozens more, one after another, as if each one wasn’t endlessly fascinating in itself and didn’t deserve its own dedicated performance space. For them, these things happen every single shift, and the memories, though extraordinary to me, become commonplace to them, blurring into each other, superimposed,until the luster of their work fades.
But as I reflect on my time with the Animal Control Department, I find a team that makes a significant impact in the Columbia community, in the lives of humans and animals. So in the next Disney movie, when the protagonist puppy dashes through the twisted legs of the bumbling, dumbfounded Animal Control officer, remember the real-life ones who save animals of every kind, every day.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the capabilities of pet microchips. The microchips contain an ID that links to owner registration information.
The Long Arms of the Paw
Columbia's Animal Control team has one unifying trait: All members must be able to think on their feet. This means improvising by inventing tools or using unusual devices when animal situations begin to get, well, hairy.