Bal­ti­more City An­i­mal Con­trol: ‘A thank­less job’

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - By LEO TRAUB

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.

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