Shirley is an animal control officer in Northern California, and in addition to her demanding job, her family has fostered and rehomed more than 400 dogs. Wow-wee. She blogs for Bark Magazine, has competed in obedience, agility, conformation and lure coursing, and has done pet therapy. Shirley is one busy woman.
Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of knowing and working with a few fantastic Animal Control Officers (ACOs). In addition to their incredible skills (with animals and people), bravery, and professionalism, these good eggs have all had two things in common: endless compassion and a wicked sense of humor. Shirley has both in spades. In her book, she shares stories from the field and her home life that will make you tear up, bust out laughing, get angry and frustrated, and then get inspired. I suspect that Shirley feels all those things in the course of just a single day, judging by her heavy and varied case load.
Through it all – from comical calls in the middle of the night to heart breaking neglect cases and frightening stand-offs with criminals – Shirley’s stories reveal she’s one of those rare people that can stay positive despite the never-ending challenges that she faces. When the rest of us would be throwing in the towel, Shirley keeps going, and then writes about her experiences so that we get to walk in her capable shoes for a while. You’ll happily go along for the ride as she investigates hoarders, raids a cock fight, rescues wildlife, and works with the coroner’s office.
If you’ve worked as an ACO or in a shelter, this book will be the perfect combination of the surprising and familiar. You’ll see some of your experiences reflected in her validating vignettes. But whether or not you’ve worked in animal welfare, readers will be rooting for Shirley every time she steps up to the plate, trying to make her corner of the world a better place for animals.
After I finished the book, I was left wishing I could take Shirley out for a margarita. I have no doubt she has so many more great stories to tell! Since we couldn’t meet for drinks, Shirley was kind enough to answer a few questions for me about The Secret Life of Dog Catchers and her work:
Photo credit: Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat
Jessica: There are a lot of misconceptions about what an ACO does and what they have the power to do. From some of the stories in the book, it’s safe to say much of the public thinks that if a pet is in less than ideal conditions, ACOs can swoop in and remove the animals immediately. What would you like the public to understand about your ability to intervene?
Shirley: I often have to tell the public that I can only enforce the law. I try to educate people, but I can’t make them care for the animal the way the concerned party, or I, want it cared for, only the minimum that the law requires. I do everything I can to make a difference, but I often lose sleep about the things I can’t change.
J: In your work you have to enforce the law and hold owners accountable, yet in many of the stories you write about working to provide resources, education, and support to families who want to do better, but need assistance. How do you determine when it’s the right time to provide education vs. punishment?
Shirley: I almost always try and help if the person is willing to work with me to improve the animals conditions. Many people want to care for their animals, but lack the knowledge or finances to do it right. I can sometimes provide the things they need to make things better. It might be management, training or nutrition advice, help finding a new home or occasionally, money out of my own pocket. I don’t want to seize their animal, I just want them to take better care of it. If the situation is severe, or if the person is unwilling to work with me, then I may seize or prosecute or usually both.
J: Have you found that when people know better or have access to affordable resources, they do better?
Shirley: Many people do just need educating or help and I’ve seen things greatly improved plenty of times. Some people have no interest in doing anything different, so we use the law where needed to provide compliance.
J: In the book, I was really struck by how the calls you receive often seem to be so subjective: reports of attacks, abuse, and grave injuries often turned out to be really minor, almost comically so – for example, a dog attack turns out to be a loose, but happy Mastiff. Or a dog dying from being hit by a car turns out to be a dog with a broken toe nail found by the road. In many cases the public’s perception of what they’re experiencing doesn’t match reality! How does that have an impact on your work?
Shirley: We get so many calls that are misinterpreted that sometimes we forget how serious a call can actually be! Its important to stay alert to the dangers and to the possibility of serious neglect or abuse.
Pelican rescue: All in a day’s work for Shirley!
J: Leash laws are a hot topic with Team DINOS. Many of us live in communities with leash laws, but they’re not enforced, making it difficult for us to safely walk our dogs in public spaces. Do you have any thoughts on the effectiveness of leash laws?
Shirley: Our leash law fine is around $250, so that gets peoples attention, but we don’t have the staff to patrol every problem area all the time. Our community has lots of great dog parks and one amazing dog beach so I always try and direct the off-leash people there. I will cite people who are repeat offenders, but often verbal warnings and making a show of presence in problem areas is helpful.
I spent many years taking my dogs to dog parks almost daily and had almost no problems. I presently hit an off leash beach several times a month with my four dogs ranging from 18 pounds to 120 pounds. My dogs absolutely love it and its a great way for me to blow of work stress, just watching a bunch of loved dogs running free and playing with each other. My dogs (mostly rescues from bad situations) have always been very well trained and well socialized, but of course some dogs don’t appreciate strange dogs regardless of their history.
I have seen problems with off leash dogs charging up to leashed dogs who are not comfortable with it, and some fights have resulted. I do what I can to get people to follow the law and be more respectful of others, but some just don’t care. And of course many of the dogs are completely out of control and the owners have no idea how to fix it.
J: I’d love to hear your thoughts on dealing with loose dogs. We all run into them while we’re out walking our dogs and it puts gray hairs on our heads! What are some of your tips for safely evading loose dogs? How can we work with our neighbors and ACOs to get folks to properly contain their dogs?
Shirley: As a teen I had two large aggressive dogs run out of their yard as I was passing by and attack my small dog and nearly kill him. Even the owner could barely get his dogs off and it took a long time. They just hung on and pulled from each end. Truly horrifying. There probably wasn’t much I could have done in that case except maybe pepper spray, if I had had it.
Most cases are not nearly so severe but a few times when confronted with a truly aggressive dog I have removed my dogs leashes to use as a weapon, also freeing my dog to do normal greeting behaviors, or possibly outrun the other dog if needed. I do think it’s important to stay calm and keep a loose lead if at all possible. I often see people getting hysterical and yanking their dog away from an approaching dog, causing an increase in agitation, disruption of normal greeting behaviors, and sometimes resulting in a fight that could have been prevented.
Teaching appropriate behavior to your own dog is helpful too. When a dog is lunging and snarling on leash, it may bring a fight from an off leash dog that might not have happened if the dog was taught to walk calmly. Thankfully my dogs all enjoy meeting new dogs and are very smooth with great social skills so they rarely have issues. I have had dogs in the past that didn’t like being approached by strange dogs, so I’m sensitive to those concerns.
Repeated polite calls to animal control can sometimes be helpful in bringing more enforcement. Sometimes it takes just the right person, timing, luck, or officer to make a difference. Many departments are understaffed and some ACOs have very little training. It’s important to try to work together rather than just berating the department for a lack of response. There are some uncaring ACOs out there, but most are doing the best they can with limited resources. In some cases, we cannot pursue an issue without written statements, but no one is willing to provide them.
J: Your work often brings you into contact with dogs that are terrified and/or injured, which manifests as aggression. How do you stay calm and safely work with dogs in those scenarios?
Shirley: Some of my most rewarding calls are dogs that are aggressing because of fear (or pain, or both), but respond well to cookies and sweet talk. Most aggression is fear based. The dog is afraid so he charges, or even attacks to make you go away. I have spent my life working with dogs and I have learned something from every single one. I love dogs, and respect them and do everything I can to make things less stressful for them. Dogs are far more predicable than people in most cases. Patience, knowledge and cookies go a long way in this business. For those few dogs who can’t be convinced, I usually have the skills and tools to confine them safely and humanely. Often once you have a hold of them and haven’t hurt them, they come around anyway.
J: Dog Bite Prevention Week is almost here, do you mind sharing any advice for how the public can avoid dog bites?
Shirley: Here’s a link to a blog I did last year for Bark Magazine regarding dog bites. I investigate so many preventable dog bites each year and it’s unfortunate that dogs and children most often suffer the consequences of our lack of knowledge or understanding of canine behavior.
J: I think many animal welfare workers (myself included) really struggle with compassion fatigue and/or feeling overwhelmed. How do you keep from burning out?
Shirley: I have my days where I can hardly bear the sadness and hurt that people wreak on their fellow people and animals. Dealing with the broken and neglected day after day takes a toll on the heart. Still, I feel like I’m making a difference. The smallest success is so encouraging.
I had some young teen girls call recently about a bird with thread tangled around its leg and then tangled in tree branches. I had one of them hold the bird while I spent about 5 minutes unraveling the thread and then let her release it. It was so great to see how helpful and kind they were, and so rewarding to watch the bird fly away unencumbered. It’s critical in this business to focus on the positive.
I can go a long way on the good stuff: One good rescue, finding someone’s lost pet, removing an animal from a neglectful situation and finding a great home for it, those are the things that keep me going. I could (and sometimes do) torture myself with the ones I can’t help, but it doesn’t do any good and its harmful to me, so I try and focus on the areas where I can make a difference and work really hard on them. It’s helpful to have supportive friends and family. My husband of 22 years does a great job of helping me keep things in perspective and my kids, although pretty much grown, are terrific as well.
I get a lot of joy in fostering needy dogs (along with cats, wildlife and other animals). I’ve taken in dogs with health or behavior issues, moms with underage pups and orphaned pups. I stopped counting at 400 dog and puppy fosters over the last 25 years or so. In all but a very few cases, they have gone on to wonderful homes and lives. A few came back and were re-homed successfully and a very tiny number couldn’t be saved, but I get so much satisfaction from seeing them living the life they deserve.
Thank you Shirley!
Order your copy of the Secret Lives of Of Dog Catchers here and help Shirley reach her goal of selling 1,000 books. When she hits that goal, she’ll donate $500 to the Love Me Fix Me spay/neuter program.
Shirley shared that several people have also pledged to donate to the program as soon as she reaches her goal, including an additional $1000 donation. A good read and a good cause! Follow Shirley on Facebook to cheer her on as she reaches her goal.