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Chickens, dogs and cats (oh my!): Animal officer's work to pick up during summer

By: Chhun Sun
May 23, 2017 Updated: May 24, 2017 at 7:13 am
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Animal law enforcement officer Sara Tucker pets Lucy, a 4-year-old pug, Tuesday, May 9, 2017, while following up on the dog's welfare at a home in Colorado Springs. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Sara Tucker has chased chickens down Tejon Street, treated bruised and malnourished pets, rescued frightened dogs and cats and been chased by aggressive dogs.

A dog owner once threatened to shoot the four-year animal enforcement officer and her co-workers.

"It can be hard on all of us," Tucker said. "We have moments that will stick with us."

She is on a 15-member crew with the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region, and she and her colleagues expect their work to increase as warm weather entices more animals and people outside. Their office provides animal control services to Colorado Springs, Fountain, Monument, Manitou Springs and unincorporated parts of El Paso County.

The top priorities are aggressive dogs, animal cruelty and any pet trapped inside a hot car.

Joe Stafford, director of animal law enforcement with the local Humane Society, said his officers try to respond to priority calls within 14 minutes. During daylight, about a half-dozen officers are on the street, and the one closest to a priority call responds. He said the area population of animals and people has continued to grow during his 16 years in the job.

"We certainly can use more people, and I think our workload can justify that," Stafford said. "Our work is related to the population. The more people there are, the more problems there are. It's similar to regular law enforcement, firefighters or any other government services units."

Last year, the Colorado Springs branch received 23,131 calls - the most since 2012, say Humane Society statistics. Of those, 2,458 were animal cruelty investigations.

Calls increase during summer, as many people complain about loose pets, he said. The surge begins in May, then slows in September or October. During cold months, more calls come about pets not being sheltered.

The work can take a toll on officers. Stafford said his office has about a 30 percent turnover rate because officers burn out or have trouble handling the challenges, such as treating abused or dead animals.

"You can't save all of the animals, and sometimes, unfortunately, things happen," he said. "You'll have to be at peace with that."

Animal law enforcement officer Sara Tucker is greeted with a dog's lick at a Fountain home Tuesday, May 9, 2017, while investigating a complaint about the pitbull's health. The owner wasn't home so Tucker left a notice to contact her about the dog. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

Most officers enter the field with an interest in law enforcement, Stafford said. Every year, his agency holds an academy to teach recruits about the job. Hundreds of people apply to fill one or two spots, he said.

"We lose some great, great people," Stafford said. But with the resignations, "we get a lot of fresh perspective, and they try to continue to change . . . and improve our processes so that we can do the best job we can."

Among their unusual calls, he recalled officers responding last month to a hotel room where a woman kept 40 animals - dogs, cats, rats and reptiles, including a Colombian boa constrictor.

She was asked to give up some of her pets for adoption.

"That's something you'd not expect when you get that call," Stafford said. "If you didn't know any better, you'd think someone was pranking you."

Officers spend a lot of time explaining to people what they can and can't do with their pets. If an owner can't provide proper care, the officers will suggest how to get vaccinations, shelters and spaying or neutering.

"The majority of our work is about increasing the level of care for the animals in the community, and that results in a lot of education," Stafford said. "We're looking to try to bring the person into compliance with the basic requirements of what the law is."

That's why hearing someone say the officers are dog-catchers is like fingernails on a chalkboard to Tucker.

"It's so little of what we do," she said. "We do so much more than that. It'd be a nice break to sit around and catch dogs, but none of us do that. We don't have enough time."

She remembers being threatened by a man accused of breaking a puppy's leg after it "messed with his marijuana," but some tasks are mundane.

During two recent service calls, Tucker checked on a pug with bad skin to see if the owner had set up a veterinary appointment; the owner said the pug would go in for a checkup in a few days. The other complaint involved a report of a possibly unhealthy pitbull in front of a Fountain home.

At one point, she contemplated the purpose of her work.

"If we don't do it, who will?" she asked.

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