A friend, a serious writer and reader of this blog, is now working on some tales of her life as an Animal Control Officer (“dogcatcher”) in a big city. Here is a tale of life at the sharp end. Take it away….
The early complaints about this case were about noise from barking dogs, a kind of complaint so common and so related to the state of the complainant (sad, angry, lonesome people are hypersensitive) that they tend to result in not much more than a door-hanger for the dog owner. This one was about a big old house along Powell in a place where the street was going to be rebuilt and widened. The houses would be torn down soon, so no one was maintaining them. This one appeared to be empty. I heard and saw no dogs. No one answered the door.
The complaints kept coming until one old man called up to say that there was a pack of chihuahuas running the streets at night and if we didn’t do something about them, he was going to start shooting them. A pack of chihuahuas sounded pretty ridiculous, but when people say they will begin to shoot, it’s past time for intervention. Actually, later I talked to an old Mexican guy who said that packs of chihuahuas were like land piranhas and could bring down a cow by taking bites out of its ankles until they severed the tendons so it fell over. Then, untroubled by any need to kill it, they ate it.
But I was so convinced that the designated house was empty that I couldn’t believe it was the source of the dogs. Finally I just went door-to-door looking for information but people were reluctant. A block away was a kind of hippie co-op food store and they finally told me that an old woman they called “the goat woman,” because she smelled so totally horrible, would sometimes come in and ask to use their phone. She carried with her a shopping bag full of restaurant scraps which she claimed was dog food. They pointed out that same decrepit abandoned house. I went back, and then went back again, and finally noticed that there was mail being delivered and letters put out for pickup. One is never supposed to touch mailboxes (a federal offense) but I got her name off the letters anyway. Helen. Then I wrote her a letter myself and put it in the box. (Also illegal if it doesn’t have a stamp on it.)
Next time I went back and knocked, the piece of cardboard covering the place where there had been a glass window in the door was pulled aside and there she was: the Goat Woman, wearing a bright red wig with a sweater tied over it by the arms and about six layers of clothes, most obviously a big nightgown. Behind her, ranged around a gloomy room six inches deep in dog shit, were the glittering eyes of the chihuahuas, dozens and dozens of them. All of them were named for politicians, which tells you something about Helen.
She said her life had been perfectly normal in this house until she had to have an operation for cancer. In those days there were only three chihuahuas and a friend promised to take care of them while she was in the hospital, but didn’t quite keep up with the messes. When Helen came back, she thought she’d just let it go a little longer until she felt better, and as the months dragged on, she got used to it. But as there began to be more and more dogs, she had worried about feeding them until she resourcefully hit on the idea of restaurant scraps. She was resistant to the idea of any new plan. She had a welfare worker and gave me the name. She claimed she had permission to live there.
I also went to the records to find out who owned the house and called that person, who turned out to be a widow on vacation in the Caribbean. Her lawyer was not pleasant. Helen had been given several eviction notices. Her welfare worker was a young man who hadn’t seen her for a long time. She regularly called in and told him she was doing fine. I told him what I saw and asked for his supervisor, whom I told my next call would be to a television station. Then back to Helen to pressure her to give up the dogs.
At last she handed them out the hole in the door, telling me the name of each. She claimed that one was named for a popular sports caster and that the dog would sit on the couch and watch when he came on the TV, which miraculously worked even though coated with what appeared to be cow patties, the kind out in a field where bugs have been making little holes in them. I doubted this practice on the part of the dog since the couch had rotted through until it was only springs.
The dogs all had diarrhea and all were wild, unsocialized. Most of them bit me and all of them shat on me. By now the police had been attracted and were sitting in their squad car laughing their heads off as I juggled dogs and tried to wrap them in my big tough law enforcement jacket to keep them from biting me. I was tempted to chuck one through their patrol car window.
My truck was filling up, so I called for a second truck. It was Renee and one whiff of the waves of head-clearing ammonia coming from the house was enough for her. “Do you know what diseases might be in there?” She said she’d hold the door of her truck for me while I brought the piranhas out. In the end there were 67 of them. More or less. Back in the shelter kennels they piled on top of each other, glassy-eyed with terror, so it was hard to count them.
Helen was crying and begged for just one dog to keep so she wouldn’t have to stay in the house all alone. But I went back to welfare and insisted they get her out of there TODAY, not tomorrow. The young man whined, “Well, if she’s lived in that mess this long, one more day isn’t going to kill her.” I pointed out that now she would be all alone, but he didn’t get it. Finally he found a place for her in an emergency shelter for abused women.
Somehow she got my phone number. Maybe I was rash enough to give it to her. Anyway, at ten o’clock she called me at home, frantic over money in her house, now unguarded. She hated the shelter (“These women are nuts!”) and was so hysterical (what a manipulator!) that I agreed to go. It was raining. It’s ALWAYS raining in Portland at night. I called the precinct and asked for cover — “for WHAT?” they asked incredulously — and packed up a hammer, nails, and my biggest flashlight. This was completely out of line — I was in a very gray area indeed.
The young male officer refused to go into the house. “I’ll stand here and shine my light on you,” he generously offered from the doorway. I followed the instructions Helen had given me. There was a big pile of old purses in one corner downstairs. (in fact, there were boxes of old clothes everywhere.) In them, in no particular order were handfuls of envelopes, some with corners of checks sticking out: it was the mail she’d been receiving. I suspect it was some sort of maiI-order scam she was using to augment her welfare. Putting all the envelopes into one handbag, I went upstairs to get what she said were two mayonnaise jars of quarters.
The electricity, which had worked when she was there though there was dog excrement on the lightbulbs (how?), was now off so it was hard to tell what I walking on as I went up the stairs. I could hear water trickling someplace and scuttling — either I’d missed a dog or two or there were rats. One bedroom door was hooked. Inside, as she had explained, was an ordinary clean room. On the bureau were the two mayonnaise jars of quarters.
The officer nicely held my swag while I nailed the door shut. He was trying to compose his report when I left to take Helen’s money to her. She was waiting for me and not particularly grateful. I was a little worried that she would accuse me of taking some of the money. Months later I saw her at a bus stop wearing a blue suit and a nice lady hat, all cleaned up and looking normal. I didn’t stop to visit.
The dogs were a different story. The shelter vet shook his head over them, but by now the media was onto the story and the politicians wanted a good face on the event. He picked out two animals that seemed healthy and we adopted them out to a lady in the country. Next day she brought them back by the scruff of their necks: they had killed every chicken she had. By this time we had realized that the dogs were so inbred that they were mostly blind and their innards were so deranged by their irregular food that they didn’t digest dog food. Euthanasia was the answer.
The point of this story is that animal control, like every other emergency responder and social regulator, is connected to every aspect of the households that are visited in response to complaints. Usually there are several factors in operation, assigned to different governmental bodies who may or may not be in sympathy with animal control. To be an effective agent in society, it’s as important to be a networker as to be a specialist.
It takes resources to RESIST pets. Dogs and cats know how to insert themselves into human households — have known since the houses in question were caves. And once the family has major problems, animals are way down the list.
One complaint arrived in the form of a three-page single-spaced letter that itemized social offenses that ranged from letting kids run naked in the street to parking cars at the curb facing the wrong way. It was this last offense that the complainant really could not tolerate. When I went to the house, the teenager’s probation officer was just leaving, and when I left the public health nurse was just arriving. The fire department had been there the night before because of a mattress on fire — now in the backyard, having been pushed out the window, and proving to have enough bounce left for bare-butted kids to enjoy. The fire was from a nodding drug addict, not her husband, the lady of the house was glad to announce. (The husband was in prison for something.) Her damned brother. This exhausted woman, the only responsible person in the house, stood in the doorway with a baby on her hip, hugely pregnant. They were hippies, they believed in the free life (their broken VW van, complete with daisies, was in pieces in the driveway), but somehow it had escaped control. Dogs and cats lolled here and there — all mellow, none licensed or confined.
The woman was intelligent. I rather liked her. “Don’t you feel kinda like the soldiers in the fort being circled by Indians?” I asked her.
I never could solve the problems. The household eventually just left.
But it wasn’t always the complainants who were the problem. In a very nice neighborhood I got a complaint about barking dogs. The family was Asian. “We don’t want trouble. We get rid of dog.”
I explained that it wasn’t necessary and made suggestions about how to keep the dog from barking. It wasn’t barking at me and seemed like a normal happy dog. The kids were very attached to it and held onto it tightly, crying, but the mother said, “We no want trouble. Dog goes.”
A few weeks later I got another complaint about the other end of the block, also about barking dogs. This time the owner was a woman who was defiant. “These are purebred collies, show dogs, and I will not be intimidated by that Nazi! My dogs are not the problem — HE is the problem.” I talked to the people in the house on the other side of the collies and they agreed that the dogs were not a problem.
Complainants are always harder to deal with than offenders, maybe because they feel they are on the side of virtue. This man was Scandinaavian, not German as his neighbors thought, and he was a big tough guy who began a tirade as soon as he opened the door. In the middle of it his wife came halfway down the stairs in a blouse and slip, holding her skirt, desperate to stop him.
It was quite a story. She had divorced this man because of his unreasonable temper. She was a nursing supervisor. He was an artist — I was invited in and looked at his work. Wonderful paintings of sailing ships, almost other-worldly in their suggestion of freedom and peace. Then he developed terminal cancer and she let him come back to the house so he could paint until he died. He was refusing pain killers so he could be clear-headed. But his wretched temper had turned on all the neighborhood dogs and kids. “I’m glad the dogs are being killed — the kids should go next.”
“You don’t mean that,” I said.
“He does,” said his wife. And to him, “I should throw you out. I have to live here after you’re dead, you know.”
We talked quite a while. I doubt we reached any conclusion. She was late to work. But he must have turned his temper on something else because there were no more complaints about barking and I didn’t go back. From our point of view, the problem was solved.
I had no business trying to counsel these people. I could have gotten sucked into all kinds of accusations, to say nothing of being attacked on the scene. I should never even have gone into their house, but how can one keep from trying to offer human sympathy? Even if you are only the dog catcher.
One case comes back to my mind often. It was like a TV show. A woman had a big St. Bernard named Brandy that attacked people. She refused to tie it up. She said “they” would kill her if she had to tie it up. We insisted and threatened to impound the dog. So she tied it up and she was right: “they” killed her. Never did find out who “they” were.
In hospitals, I discovered years later when I did a chaplaincy as part of training for the ministry, there are “case conferences” where all the professionals involved in a specific patient’s care meet and try to get the big picture of what’s going on. The same is sometimes done with juvenile delinquents. The idea that one kind of agency can bring to bear a comprehensive approach that will resolve neighborhood problems is outmoded. In fact, I’d like to see some kind of neighborhood board that could address these problems of multiple anguish and aggravation. Some places have tried them with considerable success. But the simple machinery of getting people to meetings, compiling information, and enforcing recommendation is a huge burden on a community if there are more than a few dilemmas like these.
On the other hand, such a process can at least get people to realize what’s going on in their streets. Over and over I dealt with many wild events that no one even on the back of the block knew about. Probably one of the most memorable was a case of Wheeler’s. We picked up animals even in houses when the occupants were dead or arrested without anyone immediately available to care for them. When Wheeler got a 10-? on the radio, that’s what he expected. The police and coroner sometimes called us to help with bodies, even if no animal were involved, because our uniforms were wash-and-wear, but theirs were wool that had to be dry-cleaned.
In fact, the man of the household had freaked on drugs and gone berzerk with an axe. The woman and a couple of kids had escaped but the madman had chopped up a pekinese dog and a blonde toddler. Wheeler’s job was to help the coroner sort out and bag which little bits were child and which were dog. The child must have been holding the dog, maybe to protect it and maybe in hopes it could protect him.
Sometimes there are police cases that are too shocking to be put in the newspaper and that was the case this time. People who faced or adjoined the house knew something had happened, but not what. People on the back of the block never had a hint. All emergency responders see things that no one else realizes ever happen. Wheeler’s response was to be tough — he was a survivor himself and a lively cynic.
My own response began to push me towards a wish to intervene or at least understand. I had a wicked appetite for knowing just what it was going through that insane man’s head, the toddler’s mind — even what the dog was thinking. I couldn’t help wondering who “they,” the murderers of Brandy’s owner, really were. And I had a vivid fantasy of a pack of 69 Chihuahuas running in the moonlight through the night streets of Portland. I really wish I’d seen that just once.