Fun. Dangerous. Frustrating. Horrifying. Unpredictable. Sad. Challenging. Surprising. There’s no simple way to describe the job that animal control workers do in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Of course, Mike LeRoux, of St. Paul Local 2508, does try. “Basically, it’s dealing with dog problems,” he says. “It’s one of those inescapable realities. Any problems that dogs cause, we get called.”
But in reality, dog problems are usually people problems. That’s why the job is not simple.
“There are people that get it and take it seriously, and are committed to having a nice family pet,” says Minneapolis Local 9’s Terry Shaw. “Unfortunately, we have more than our share of people where the dog gets into trouble, they don’t follow the requirements that the city puts on them, and then the dog gets in trouble again. The next thing you know is, we’re doing a destruct order on an animal.”
Compliance is key
Animal control crews – they’re called wardens in Minneapolis and officers in St. Paul – have one fundamental task: Make sure pet owners comply with city ordinances and state statutes, says Local 9’s Jay Young.
Compliance should be simple, says Local 2508’s Todd Carey. Dogs have to be licensed. They have to be vaccinated against rabies. They have to be adequately cared for. And they have to be under physical restraint when they’re outside. That’s pretty much it.
(Physical restraint, by the way, means being on a leash, behind a fence, or on a tie-out. “Verbal commands don’t count,” Carey says.)
Households with more than three dogs or three cats have to have a permit. Owners also need permits if they keep chickens (hens only), snakes, many kinds of birds, or other animals that are classified, by law, as “exotic.”
Some animals are not allowed at all. That’s why Minneapolis cracked down on the pot-bellied pig craze several years ago, Shaw says. But animal control has dealt with monkeys, sheep, goats, roosters, and more. “You name it, it’s probably passed through here at some point,” Shaw says. “It doesn’t happen that often, but it makes for entertaining photos in our shelter.”
Working toward solutions
The laws outlining compliance are cut-and-dried. Getting compliance – not so much. That’s where officer discretion and creativity come in.
The animal control crews can use a series of warnings, citations, and even warrants to deal with problem owners. But, more than anything, they prefer conversation.
“I’m not always looking to take somebody’s animal, but I am looking for compliance,” says Local 2508’s Mike Koranda.
“I like to be able to handle calls to resolve them,” Young says.
“There’s nothing like going out and making contact with somebody who does not like animal control, and wants nothing to do with us, and through just working with that person, being respectful of them, being very candid with them, being able to walk away from that having them apologize for calling me all kinds of names that don’t appear on my driver’s license,” Shaw says.
Going in where police won’t
Of course, not all encounters get resolved gracefully.
“We see some pretty horrific things that most people will never see in their lifetime,” Shaw says. “We see animals in conditions that no animal should be kept in. We get to see the very best with people and the very worst with people.”
“There’s so many unknowns,” Carey says. “When you go to somebody’s front door, you don’t really know who you’re going to encounter, whether the person’s civilized, whether their animals are civilized. Or, if they open the door, is the dog going to run out and attack you? Which does happen. A lot of us get bit.”
Then there are the times – often in the middle of the night – when animal control crews have to respond to police calls. Police may be conducting a raid, or responding to a shooting scene, and find dogs in the house. Animal control has to go in and secure the dogs.
“Sometimes, they’ve got two Rottweilers in the bedroom and the cops want to search that room,” Carey says. “Or pit bulls. Or German shepherds. I mean, they usually don’t guard their drugs and stuff with chihuahuas. So we have to go in there and get ’em. We don’t get paid to go the other way.”
There’s rarely a routine day. Duties can range from paperwork and cleaning the pound, to retrieving injured wildlife, to even working with child protection in cases of attacks by dangerous dogs. Crews are in their vans on the road a lot.
“You have to be very flexible,” Young says. The workload can tell you the season (summer is by far the busiest) and even how the economy is doing, he says. “When the economy’s in a downturn, our calls and the volume of animals coming through our doors go up, because these are times when people have to choose between a bag of dog food and a tank of gas.
“When the economy’s better, historically you’ll see less strain on the animal control program.”
The crews don’t deal with stray cats – which, unlike dogs, are allowed to roam free. They generally deal with wild animals only if the animal is diseased or injured. The main exception: bats in houses. Then, crews respond primarily because of the rabies threat that bats pose.
St. Paul also oversees rat control, which includes baiting sewers and abandoned buildings, and conducting “fog tests” for homeowners. A fog test helps determine if pipes connecting the home to the main sewer line are damaged, which often lets rats inside.
Still, as LeRoux points out, animal control deals mostly with stray dogs and dog bites.
Assessing the danger
Dog bites spark two paths of action – determining the threat of rabies, and determining whether the dog is a danger to the community.
If there’s a rabies threat, they order the dog quarantined for 10 days. That means no contact with other people or animals. “A lot of people don’t like to be inconvenienced by the fact that their dog bit someone, but they’re going to be,” Carey says.
Investigating bites is like police work. “You go into these scenes with a very open mind,” Young says, “because what you’ve been called for and what you end up with can be very different.” Officers interview victims, dog owners, and any witnesses. A key question is determining whether the aggressor dog was provoked, Young says. That helps determine whether animal control moves to have the dog declared dangerous or potentially dangerous.
“Even if a dog is declared, it’s not like it’s marked as a bad dog for the rest of its life,” Shaw says. “The hope is there’s a learning opportunity for the owner, that they realize there’s something with this dog that needs to be addressed.”
“If there’s a dangerous dog declaration,” Carey says, “then there are requirements put upon the owner in order for them to keep the dog. And if you don’t meet those requirements, the law says we must take your dog away. So people are given ample opportunity to comply with the requirements. And sometimes people just can’t manage to do that.”
“It’s a tough lesson to learn, but part of the process,” Shaw says.
Pet – or member of the family?
Taking a pet away can be necessary, the officers say. But it is not something they do lightly. For one, they are animal lovers themselves – most have pets of their own, often adopted from their own city pound.
Complicating the process is that, by law, pets are property. “But we have a culture where it has shifted,” Shaw says. “A pet is not just considered a piece of property to a lot of people. That’s a family member now, and that puts us in this interesting position in the middle. It’s like dealing with their children, even though the law doesn’t view it that way. So that kind of elevates kind of how things can go.”
“There’s that emotional element, and you can’t really let that get in the way of doing your job,” Carey says.
The reality, Koranda says, “is we’re trying to enforce some type of rule that the person’s not happy about. But generally, when it comes down to something forceful, you’ve probably earned it, because you didn’t follow the other three or four warnings. Now we’re here doing this, and I didn’t choose this. You did.”
On the flip side, reuniting dogs with their owners is one of the job’s joys.
The widespread implantation of microchips helps a lot – sometimes with amazing results. In one case, a microchip helped find the owner of a dog that was gone for six months, Carey says. In another case, a microchip helped track down an owner in Oregon, who lost the dog while visiting St. Paul.
When animal control corrals a stray, the dog is impounded for at least five days, and often longer. If the owner can’t be found or doesn’t come forward, the dog usually is put up for adoption – either directly, or through rescue organizations the departments work with.