Hard Lessons

It isn’t necessary to learn lessons the hard way, you can prevent yourself from harm by watching some other damn fool do it the wrong way. Here is a list of things that can make your animal welfare life easier:


Feral cats can chew or claw their way through almost any material. If the animal handling gloves, that you have purchased, claim they are safe for cats, don’t believe them.

When a cat gets loose, they always believe that elevation is it way to escape. This is when you discover that ceiling tiles are generally insufficient for containing a cat. If you use a specific room for moving a cat from a cat carrier or trap to a feral box or cage, secure your ceiling tile with weight or screens to keep them from breaching the room. In Florida, we seem to always have a cat roaming above our ceiling tiles most of the time. It is a bad place for staff who have to deal with the urine (from above) or have a cat falling through the tile on top of them.

Fishing nets are a good method to catch a loose cat. Make sure the netting material is deep enough that you can flip closed the netting to keep the cat from escaping a second time. When releasing a cat from a net, keep in mind that it is going to be VERY angry; protect all of your body parts.

If you are able, you should keep a cat in the same cage for the duration of its care at your shelter. If the cat comes in with a disease, each time you move the animal, the larger the contamination area becomes. I know that this is an impossible task, but try to stop the people who like to touch the nose of each cat that they pass. Visitors to the shelter have no concept of disease control. Staff who fail to follow cleaning protocols are equally to blame for the spread of disease in a shelter.

One of the issues that concern animal shelter employees is pregnant women coming into contact with cat feces and contracting toxoplasmosis.   An embarrassing moment for me was warning a woman with a significant belly bump of contracting toxoplasmosis  while pregnant.  She asked me what I was talking about, she wasn’t pregnant.  It is one of the risk of being a public servant: embarrassing yourself.


You cannot read a pitbull dog. Just because it is wagging its tail does not mean that it won’t try to bite you. I know that it is politically incorrect to say that a pitbull is different from other breeds, but after you retire, you can reflect back on the number of times that you misjudged the breed.  But to be sincerely honest, the problem with pitbulls, is that there is an insufficient number of people who are able to be responsible pet owners.  Most people get away from being irresponsible pet owners because their pets cannot rise to the point of being a danger to society.  Chihuahuas  are probably the most danger breed, but their size doesn’t allow them to rise to being able to break the skin on a person.  You can get away with being an irresponsible pet owner if you own a Chihuahua.  All of the mastiff breeds demand a responsible owner, but few of their owners act in a manner of being responsible.  For those of us in this profession, we call that job security.

If you have a dog birthing, make sure that your drain system has small enough holes as to prevent a neonatal puppy from falling into the draining system. I think the T-Kennel system is the best for shelters, except when being used for birthing. The system is intended to have a catch basin, but many contractors think they are unnecessary. In addition to puppies, the system also passes chew toys. You can’t imagine how expensive it is to tear up your flooring to remove a crew bone lodged at a “L” joint in your plumbing system.

Not every dog should be given a blanket to lay on. I have had to order surgery on many animals that ate their bedding when they got bored. Those same dogs will chew up the plastic piping that make up doggie beds. Let’s face it, some dogs are just going to have to sleep on the floor.

Many shelters perform laboratory tests animals during their stay. If you choose the test that tests for Lyme Disease, be prepared to be treating a third of your dog intake population, if you are located in the East. I suspect that anywhere you have a deer population, the abundance of deer ticks will be your source. After all, how many dog’s have never gotten ticks?

Speaking of ticks, if you ever get a dog that is brought in lethargic and covered in ticks. Although the dog will mostly look near death, many dogs recover well once the ticks have been removed. I have witnessed dogs recover that your first thought would have been to euthanize the dog.

Set up an isolation room next to the area where animal control officers are unloading dogs. If they suspect a dog having Parvo, that dog should be isolated and the path to that isolation room should not be one that is travelled by healthy dogs. The isolation room is where the cleaning protocols are most strictly followed; don’t leave these rooms to be cleaned by lazy staff who take shortcuts.

The best tools for approaching an unknown dog in the field is your metal clipboard. The clipboard makes an excellent shield. You can use it to block the dog or, if necessary, feed it to the dog. The second-best tool is your catchpole. Keep the loop open because you cannot catch a dog with a closed loop. If you are dealing with a vicious dog, go ahead and allow the dog to chomp down on the loop. If you can chinch down on the mouth, you can call in backup to bring a second catchpole to get around the dog’s neck. I know it always looks horrible when you have an animal on a catchpole, but officer safety must always come first. If you don’t think that you can handle the situation, then back away and consider chemical capture instead of physical capture. A word of caution, if you have police backup, if they think you are losing the fight, they may end up shooting the dog. Sometimes the best advice to give arriving police officers is to stay in their vehicles. Fortunately, many police departments train their officers in catching dogs and they carry a catchpole in their vehicles.

The trick to our business is having the right tools, at the time that you need them. I learned the hard way that stepping out of the vehicle without my catchpole is very, very stupid. I had a Rottweiler attack me and all that I had was a leash in my hand. At least, I was smart enough to carry a can of Halt. The owner filed a complaint against me for spraying their dog. A Police Sargent came out to investigate and nearly shot their dog when the dog attacked him. Needless to say, the complaint was ruled unfounded. I’ve always claimed that the owners of large aggressive dogs are too stupid to accept the fact that their dogs present a danger to the public and ill prepared animal control officers. But, to this day, I realize I could have avoided all of this by grabbing the catchpole as I got out of my vehicle.

We live in a funny world. We argue as to whether we are pet owners or pet care takers. We try to determine whether a dog is better off being the property of its owner or that the animal has individual rights of its own. Basically, it is a combination of both of these; otherwise, acts of animal cruelty would be legal. One area of argument is whether an owner has the proprietary right to kill their pet. It is not uncommon for a pet owner to come into the shelter to ask that their dog be euthanized; the reason is usually based on something legitimate as health or age, but often the reason may be illegitimate as to their inability to care for the pet or not wanting anyone else to own their pet. So, shelters argue the legalities of complying with an owner’s wishes. I’ve always said, “to hell with the owner’s wishes, do what it right.” I explain to the owner that they are surrendering their pet to the animal shelter. The pet becomes the property of the animal shelter. They are no longer a part of the decision-making process, other than providing the health and behavior of the animal’s past issues. In most cases, the owner will make a good decision; but in others, their decision won’t hold water. I don’t think animal shelters should be in the business of killing animals just because the owner wants their pet dead. Some will say, “But hey? The pet is the owner’s property and you have an obligation to follow the owner’s wishes to kill their pet!” And my response is that when an owner surrenders their pet for euthanasia, the shelter becomes the new owner of the pet. Our job is to do the right thing for the pet and not act upon the request of an idiot owner. If you have an doubts on this issue, tell the owner that they are free to take the shelter to court and have a judge issue a mandatory order in the matter. Judges are in the business, as we are, in dealing with idiots.

Guns in the work place:

This seems like an odd topic, but stay with me. Open carry guns are intended for only one purpose: to intimidate others. If you are really serious about your Second Amendment Rights, you would conceal carry your firearm. I was a law enforcement officer in the military and for the US Treasury Department. I carried a gun for the purpose to intimidate anyone thinking of attempting harm to me. In my last employment, a young lady walking in to the animal shelter with a weapon. She came to argue about the fees for her impounded dog. She explained to me that she had just been discriminated against when she walked into a McDonald’s restaurant wearing the gun. She told me she had to open carry because she was too young to be able to purchase a conceal carry permit in Virginia. If you have ever watched a police officer, you might see that the officer might rest his hand on his gun, it isn’t because he or she plans to use it, it is just a comfortable resting spot. While I was talking with this gal, she moved her hand to her gun, keep in mind she was wearing the gun to intimidate me into lowering her impoundment fees. A soon as her hand reached the gun’s handle, I jumped up towards her and yelled, “Get you hand away from your gun.” It scared the hell out of her and it should. In rethinking the incident, I probably should have refused to meet with her without a police officer being present. As much as I support our gun rights, there are some people who wear them for the wrong reason. In our profession, we deal with these folks. To this day, that gal is probably retelling the story about being kicked out of McDonalds and nearly attacked by an animal shelter director, all because of she wanted to exercise her second amendment right. And for the record, she paid all of the fees. You do not have to work in an unsafe environment, if you are dealing with a character that makes you feel unsafe, call the police. Keep in mind the response time for your locality, in many places you can have an officer at your door in 3 to 5 minutes; in other areas you might not see one for days… plan accordingly.

Control the situation. I had a guy that picked up one of our telephone handsets and used it to take a swing at one of the ladies working our front counter. I ordered him off of the premises. He asked me how could he reclaim his dog if he could come on to the property. I told him that he either needed to find a friend who could act civil or deal with off our property. He asked to meet me in the parking lot, I told him that the parking lot was on the premises and he wasn’t allowed there. I met him across the street. We live in a society of people who think they should always get their way. I live in a world in which I want to treat everyone the same. I spent a career dealing with that conflict. The nice think about blogging is that you are free to tell war stories and people will either read them or not.


Customers are not always right, but don’t let them know that. Help out the ones that you can and try to find alternate solutions for those that you cannot. Fee deferments are a bad idea, unless you can convince your local clerk’s office or treasury office to oversee the deferment. I have never seen a case in which the pet owner made good their deferment. It is frustrating to take on this task yourself and the paperwork will wear you out. The only time a deferment works is if the pet is ever impounded again and then the owner is faced with the new impound fees along with paying the old. When the amount gets up that high, the owner will most likely abandon the animal. There is no justice in that solution for the animal. Your local Clerk’s Office oversees property taxes; sometimes both vehicle and housing. They are able to put leans on a person property if they fail to pay.

If you ever have to relay bad news to a customer, take them aside. It seems that a person is more likely to act out if there is an audience. Then the cell phones come out. YouTube seems to be a one-sided vehicle of the truth. Although, it does make you wonder about the large number of videos of customers attacking their restaurant server. Seeing how volatile that people become is a good reason to take a second look at their Second Amendment rights. I did not intend for this to appear that I am climbing up on a soapbox, but the people that you see acting out are the same people that come through our doors. If people become violent over a lunch order, how are they going to act out that their dog has been euthanized or adopted because they waited two weeks to bail their dog out? I’ve never worked in a place that allowed employees to carry firearms. You’ll have to come up with a plan. I’ve always removed heavy objects that can be thrown at an employee off of the front counter.


Most animal shelters use a computerized system to track the management of the animals that flow through their shelters. To be effective, the more data that you put in the system the better. But we live in a profession in which our staff thinks data entry is a waste of time and they are good at finding shortcuts. Most computer systems are either animal or incident centric. Each system has a weak point as to beating the system. Since real incidents involve relationship between animals, people, and incidents our systems break down. A relational database system would be too complicated for our employees. Our employees don’t like complicated data entry. The system breaks because we don’t track households. Households have addresses, people, incidents, and animals. So, with our current systems, we may not recognize the household relationship. Why does that matter? Well, a different household member could bail out their pet and staff not realize that the animal is a habitual offender (keep in mind, most people do not keep identification on their pet). Or the owner of record reclaiming the dog claiming is not the dog is not the same dog that was declared dangerous. If you have a dangerous dog ordinance, this is one of the few good reasons to use microchips.

In Jacksonville, the City purchased a system to track government vehicles. I believe it was intended for the sanitation fleet. We managed to get our vehicles on the system and it was very helpful when people could call in and want to know the arrive time of an officer. We could check the computer and see that the vehicle was a block away. Knowing where your officers are makes for a safe environment, but, if some of your officers are goof-offs, they may not appreciate it. We once got a complaint of erratic driving by one of our officers; sure enough, the records showed the officer going 55 mph in a 35 mph zone.

On the same notion as officer safety, in Salt Lake County we had a policy that our officers undergo a drug test following a vehicle accident. In one incident, we were convinced that the other driver was at fault, but our driver tested positive for meth. We’ll never know if the meth was a cause of the accident, but you can assume that our driver could have been driving more aggressively that needed. Given the new era of better living through chemistry, I think drug testing employees is becoming more and more necessary. However, if you choose to test all of your staff at once, you might end up with a staffing shortage. Test the director first, so that no one can complain that it isn’t being fairly administered.

In Atlanta, we had a telephone system that recorded every call. If you want to spend half of your life listening to audio files in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, record your telephone calls. Trying to find video files on your camera system is hard enough, but audio files are worse. The disadvantages to recording telephone conversations is that it is not worth the one or two times that you found they were of value. Some phone systems allow the staff to record a conversation that appears to be turning bad. Make sure you are aware of the laws concerning recording phone calls in your State.

In a few places, we used radios for the shelter staff. In this way, if you need one employee to come to the front counter, you didn’t get three who responded to the intercom call. The first person to head to the request could radio that they were in route to the front counter. As with any tool, it is only as good as the people using it.


Cities and counties have difficulty in trying to figure out where their animal control organization should fit within the structure of their government. In my career, my organizations have been under the police department, twice under environmental services, three times it was its own department, once under public works, and once under neighborhood services. As much as I hate to be under the police department, it is usually the best place for funding and for backup when you need help. The problem with being under another department, your overseers won’t have any concept of our staff dealing with the public as a law enforcement organization.

Many governments separate field services from shelter services. Usually the animal control officers are under the police department and the shelter is placed in a miscellaneous department. The main advantage for the animal control officers being under the police department is that in many cases they are permitted to carry a gun. Let’s face it, in the crazy world, it is becoming more and more necessary to arm our employees. But there is nothing in our profession that requires that we engage in a shootout. Animal control officers can back away from a scene that they see going bad.

The biggest problem of animal control officers being separate from the shelter is that they cannot associate with the problems resulting in their field policies. In Virginia, the local animal control officers didn’t care that the shelter was overcrowded, they would laugh at us every time the brought in an animal, this was especially true when we were combating a disease outbreak. We couldn’t convince the animal control officers that their first duty was to return a dog home, they seemed to think that making the dog owner go to “the pound” was the proper treatment in punishing the dog owner. An effective animal control officer should attempt to determine where the dog lives and return the dog with a citation.

If the owner is not home, the animal control officer should never, never leave the dog at the house unsupervised. Too many times an animal control officer would put a dog back inside its fence, only to have the dog jump out again and get hit by a car. That act of compassion is one that will eventually backfire on you. Even though the owner kept the dog in that fenced yard, they will not be beyond suing you when you do it.

Relationships with other Organizations

There are three types of relationships that your shelter will have with other organizations: ones out to help you, ones out to undermine your organization, and the ones who gives the appearance that they hare helping you while undermining your organization. You will discover an even mix when dealing with other animal welfare organizations. I dealt with one organization that I could always count on to try to undermine my organization, but their bad intensions were often mixed with good deeds. It is easy to just block an organization from dealing with your shelter, but you will miss the occasional good deed that comes their way.