Baltimore City Animal Control: ‘A thankless job’
Capital News Service
— Baltimore Animal Control Officer Jess Novak stands on the front stoop of a town house, knocking on the door without truly expecting anyone to answer.
Novak is on an animal-indanger call.
She has already been behind the house to assess the living conditions of the homeowner’s pet dog. From what she could tell through the chain-link fence, the backyard is dirty with animal droppings and the plastic shelter is flipped upside down, but the dog is otherwise healthy-looking and not in immediate danger.
After waiting about 15 seconds at the front door, Novak notices the front window shades rustle. Guessing that the homeowner has probably seen her animal control sweatshirt and badge, she takes out her clipboard and begins writing a notice to leave on the door.
Because the dog looks safe, Novak does not need to take immediate action and the homeowner can stay in the house all they like. But the notice warns that an animal control officer will return the following day, and if the dog’s conditions are not corrected, the owner runs the risk of having their pet impounded.
Though the public sometimes imagines animal control officers as dogcatchers with nets chasing strays, in reality, they spend more of their time protecting animals rather than people. It is a labor-intensive line of work, requiring officers to drive all around the city handling injured or aggressive animals—but Novak said she wouldn’t give it up for any other job.
“It’s a thankless job, really. But that time that that animal looks at you, and their eyes just say thank you. … You can’t top that,” she said.
Of the 23,000 calls the office averages per year, more than 5,000 are for animals in danger while fewer than 3,000 are for aggressive animals, Baltimore Animal Services Director Sharon Miller said.
“We’re happy that people do call in when there’s an animal’s life in danger,” she said. “We get complaints that are pretty egregious.”
Novak has seen her fair share of neglected, mistreated and dead animals. Some
people do not know how to look after their pets, she said.
Novak had to explain to a woman whose cat was urinating blood that the animal was probably sick and not menstruating as the owner had thought.
The vast majority of calls received by the city’s animal control office are for dogs and cats, but on occasion, officers will respond to more atypical pets, such as turtles, pigs and snakes, as well as injured wildlife, like deer and raccoons. One such call on a recent Monday night yielded a house harboring two alligators, a tarantula, and a monitor lizard, Miller said.
“I’ve been in three different jurisdictions and Baltimore City is my favorite. I just love it,” Novak said. “It’s the excitement. There’s never a dull moment.”
Animals are usually easy to read, Novak said, but their owners tend to be more unpredictable. On one call, officers responded to reports of a woman who was feeding stray cats, only to find a hoarding house, she said.
“There was trash above our shoulders. There were cats everywhere,” she said. “We walked into a nightmare.”
Animal control frequently work with city police when law enforcement officers respond to calls and there is an animal on the scene.
Unlike police officers, animal control officers are not equipped with weapons. They wear protective vests and carry radios and badges, but their only means of defense are catch poles and batons used not for beating, but to give aggressive animals something to bite onto, Miller said.
“We try to be very friendly with the leash, and do whatever we can to get them on the leash rather than the pole,” she said.
Officers can choose to impound an animal if they believe it is a stray, or if it is in danger or aggressive, Novak said. Impounded animals are brought to the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter, a nonprofit organization contracted by the city to treat and hold rescued animals.
Whenever an animal
is impounded, the owner has 72 hours to claim their pet before it becomes the property of the state. It is then up to animal control and the rescue shelter to decide whether to return the animal or find it a foster home, Novak said.
The Baltimore City Animal Services’ waterfront building in south Baltimore is split between its two halves: the animal control office and the shelter.
While most animal control shelters are run by local governments, the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter is an independent nonprofit, which allows it the economic freedom to fundraise. This means the shelter can put more money into rehabilitation, which can cost thousands of dollars, instead of going the cheaper route of putting the animal down, Miller said.
“With this partnership, we have less euthanasia and more adoptions,” Miller said.
Animal control’s most hectic season comes with the heat. During the summer, the department sees twice as many calls than in the winter from animals being left outside or not cared for properly, Miller said.
“As soon as the warm weather breaks, the calls are constant. All day, all night,” Novak said.
Animal control officers also respond to barking complaints, though it is often difficult to tell whether the complaint is legitimate or the result of neighbor disputes, Novak said.
“There’s only been a few times that we were actually able to say, yes, this dog is a nuisance,” Novak said. “It all depends.”
Though it is not an officer’s responsibility to ensure pets are loved, it is their responsibility to ensure animals are properly cared for with sufficient food and shelter. A dog owner herself, Novak said she does not understand people who will not allow their pets to come into the house.
“The law still says a dog is a piece of property, so what are you going to do? It has the equivalence of a television,” she said. “Though I guess you can beat your television if you want, you just can’t beat your dog.”
Baltimore Animal Control Officer Jess Novak holds a stray dog that was rescued from a vacant house by police officers.