Animal control officers reflect on change

In celebration of the Seattle Animal Shelter’s 50th anniversary, we take a look back at its history.

From landlines and paper forms to cell phones and laptop computers, the profession of animal control officer (ACO) has changed considerably over the past 30 years. Three of the Seattle Animal Shelter’s long-time ACOs have witnessed those changes and more.

Animal Control Officers help pets and pet owners.

Don Baxter now serves as the Deputy Director of Operations and Manager of Field Services at SAS, but he began his career in 1998 as an ACO.

“I remember going out and conducting investigations with a Polaroid camera. Then someone donated a 35-millimeter camera to the Shelter and I would go to a little photoshop on Queen Anne to have the photos developed.”

Back then everything was done with pen and paper. Now some ACOs are young enough to have never handwritten a report. And it’s not just technology that’s changed, according to Baxter.

The nature of the calls is also different today.

“We used to have packs of dogs running loose in the city and we would have to trap feral cats. It was winding down when my career started, but the old timers I worked with then told stories of having to collect many truckloads of dogs each day.”

“We handled a significant number of animals then, investigating dog fighting and cock fighting,” he said. “We still have problems with animal abuse, but it affects fewer animals now.”

Baxter credits pet owners with becoming more responsible about spaying and neutering and keeping their animals from roaming.

When Sandy Williams started her career as an ACO 32 years ago – the only female officer on the 14-person team – it was a similar situation.

“When I started, all we did was pick up animals all day and sometimes have to go back to the shelter and unload and then go back to get more,” she said. “There were virtually no cruelty calls and even if we got one there was not much we could do back then.”

More strays and lost animals roamed the streets in 1990. Now, said Williams, people call more about suspected animal cruelty because they are so much more aware.

“Peoples’ minds have changed, and they are much more sensitive to animal cruelty,” she said.

Over the years, Williams has seen her share of unusual animal control situations. She recalls a bus rider who left his tarantula on a Metro bus.

She also once rescued a seal pup stranded at the end of a rock jetty in the water. Marine mammal experts said to bring the seal pup in, but it was difficult to walk on the rocks and Williams could not carry the pup. So she jumped in the water and floated the seal back to the beach.

She also remembers a large, injured beaver that she rescued from Foster Island near the Arboretum. She picked him up and carried him back to her truck, resting halfway by sitting on a bench and getting curious looks from trail users.

Brett Rogers has also seen a lot of change as the longest-serving ACO at the Shelter.

Rogers said 20 years ago, officers would ride their bikes around the city to patrol the parks, making sure dogs were on leash and licensed.

Today ACOs continue to enforce those rules, but they also provide a lot more outreach and education. They work with pet owners to enable them to keep their pets if they need food or other supplies.

See how ACOs help unsheltered pet owners

“The fact is that the Seattle Animal Shelter Foundation gives us so much, they fund so many things, like supplies, dog houses, and food,” said Rogers.

“I recently ordered a doghouse from Amazon for someone using Foundation money and delivered it to them. They were very grateful. Even the person who reported the dog’s unsheltered condition to us was pleased.”

“It’s so neat that people care to donate for the care of animals. Seeing how far we’ve come is like night and day. You are proud to work for the Shelter now. In the past you would have nightmares about it,” he said.

“I feel so honored to have worked for this organization because of what it’s become.”

“People should know about our 93% save rate. I am so proud of that. And our foster parents and volunteers make this possible. The fact that the Foundation provides money for medical care is awesome because that helps pets get adopted faster.”

All three ACOS say that if conditions for the animals at the Shelter had not changed they would not have stayed in their careers.

“We are saving animals that, when we started, would have been euthanized, because we didn’t have the skill set or the resources to manage them,” said Baxter. “Moving in that direction is something that keeps me in the profession.”

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