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August 1, 2014

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Animal control officers feel reverberations of down economy

Thousands of annual calls range from the mundane to outrageous

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Steve Marcus

Clark County Animal Control Officer Darryl Duncan loads a stray pit bull into his truck Thursday Sept. 20, 2012.

Animal Control Officer Darryl Duncan

Clark County Animal Control Officer Darryl Duncan holds a blind Chihuahua Thursday Sept. 20, 2012. Duncan was called to pick up the dog from an assisted living facility after the owner died. Launch slideshow »

Before Metro Police got around to their usual end-of-life protocols – securing the scene of the dead woman, calling the Clark County coroner – they called Clark County Animal Control about the dog.

Erica Draeger, an animal control officer, drove to the Budget Suites on Boulder Highway. Police hadn’t gone in yet because someone said the dead woman had a dog.

Draeger entered the room where the elderly woman, dead four or five days, lay decomposing.

The odor from decomposition was eye-watering. Draeger wanted to get the dog and leave but the dog was nowhere to be found. Draeger checked under the bed, in the closet, the bathroom; then she focused on the woman, who could easily have weighed 300 pounds.

Could the dog be underneath the body?

Draeger found a thin rope tied to the woman’s leg. Tied to the other end was a little dog. It was dead.

“I don’t know if it starved to death, if she killed it to die with her or what happened,” Draeger said of the call last spring. “You don’t really have time to think about it.”

But Draeger did her job. She picked up the animal, placed it into one of several compartments on her truck and went to her next call.

On a laptop affixed to the dash of his county-issue pickup truck, Darryl Duncan, an animal control officer here and in California for 31 years, gazes one recent night at line after line of addresses, each representing a domestic animal complaint or allegation from someone somewhere in unincorporated Clark County.

“It’s always been busy, but the last four or five years have been really, really busy,” Duncan says.

The poor economy has a lot to do with it. When people have to make choices between caring for an animal and having the money and time to care for themselves, he says, “they just leave their pets.”

Duncan and the county’s relatively small contingent of animal control officers get calls for stray animals, sick animals, abandoned animals, animal bites, barking, vicious dogs and cats, alleged animal abuse and, at times, animals found with a deceased owner.

It’s not so unusual, either, for animal control to field calls about a smell leaking from a neighboring apartment. Many times, officers respond to find a home stacked high with newspapers and other hoarded items, along with several cats.

Duncan remembers one home with cat feces on the floor so deep it came up to the top rim of a kitty litter box.

Needless to say, the job isn’t necessarily exciting. During a recent ride-along, it feels more like a necessary component of government, like filling potholes and collecting trash, expected by residents who pay taxes.

In fact, few calls deal with so-called “exotic animals,” whose escape or capture seems to capture the media’s attention. In July, for example, two chimpanzees escaped their cages from a local residence, forcing local police to shoot and kill one of them. The story quickly traveled around the world.

Just a few weeks later, county commissioners proposed new laws to restrict exotic animal ownership. At the same time, the state Humane Society is proposing a bipartisan bill to ban private ownership of exotic pets. That idea will have to pass muster with the state Legislature in 2013.

Most calls for local animal control, however, are more mundane. That doesn’t mean they don’t consume lots of time. They do. And their numbers appear to be somewhat overwhelming.

In six months through August, for instance, Clark County Animal Control has responded to some 17,000 calls throughout its roughly 7,000 square miles of territory. Las Vegas Animal Control, which has about one-third fewer people than unincorporated Clark County, responded to about 11,000 calls over about 135 square miles.

The greatest number of county calls came for confined dogs (1,435) and stray dogs (1,397). In the city, the most calls came in for “running at-large animal,” followed by “confined cat” and “confined dog,” which tallied 1,213 and 1,165 calls respectively.

The city’s animal control office employs one supervisor, seven full-time and three part-time officers. In 1977, when Clark County’s entire population was just 400,000, the county employed eight control officers and two supervisors. Today, administrators say, the county has 15 control officers and two supervisors.

County Commissioner Tom Collins doesn’t think that’s enough. He wants the county to hire more officers, then combine forces with surrounding jurisdictions so that all animal control offices are playing by the same rules.

“There are three jurisdictions within a quarter-mile of my house and that’s (troubling),” he said. “I’m not saying make it all one agency; they can be separate. But have one leader and all the same regulations. Why do some animal control agencies have tranquilizer guns but others don’t? Las Vegas is proactive and writes a ticket if they see violations; Clark County only responds if it gets a complaint.”

If animal control officers and other agencies cross-trained, Collins adds, they could spot issues for each other and become more proactive.

“It’s (an ill-equipped) system right now because it’s running on overload,” he also says. “Too many calls and not enough people.”

Change comes slow in government and slower during a recession. County administrators say they are in the process of looking for two additional animal control employees.

Duncan, meanwhile, keeps a remarkable cheery attitude despite the flood of calls.

“I love what I do,” he says on a recent Thursday night.

Between 4 and 6 p.m., he has already made several pickups: two pit bulls abandoned in a fenced pool area, lassoing them with a soft rope; and a baby kitten born in the wall of an apartment complex’s utility shed. He couldn’t find another pit bull reported roaming around a business in Collins’ district.

Then “a 419” is announced on Duncan’s dispatch radio. There’s a dead person somewhere with an animal. Duncan punches the address into a GPS navigation system and drives to an assisted-living apartment building in the eastern valley.

Meeting a young security guard at the door, Duncan is escorted to a room where a coroner investigator, Metro officer and an investigator for the Public Administrator’s Office are doing their respective jobs.

The body of a papery thin woman lies almost invisibly on the floor at the foot of a couch. A chihuahua sits trembling near her head. Duncan gently picks up the dog, which stops trembling and bites at the air for a few seconds, then gets back to trembling. A bluish cloud of cataracts blinds both of the animal’s eyes.

Duncan puts the dog into one of his truck’s compartments then drives to Lied Animal Shelter, where he drops off each animal.

The shelter holds animals for varying times, typically from three to 10 days, with the hope being that someone claims them or a new owner takes them home. Otherwise, the animals will be euthanized.

Duncan’s animals seem to sense something. The pit bulls hug the floor, tails tucked firmly under their bellies, as they creep inside; the chihuahua trembles uncontrollably; the newborn kitten repeatedly issues a high-pitched meow.

Inside the building, Duncan reaches into a glass terrarium and lifts up the 3-foot iguana he’d captured one night earlier. Metro found the light-green lizard in the car of a man they arrested. A scabbed, 3-inch gouge on Duncan’s arm attests to the iguana’s strength.

“Like an idiot, I forgot to open the cage first, so when I took one hand off of it to open the cage, it scratched me,” he says.

A few feet from away, a few dozen cages hold cats of all sizes and colors. Step close to the cats and they meow loudly, pressing against the wire cages, their paws reaching out seemingly begging to be touched.

Duncan has three dogs of his own and admits he’s an animal lover.

So what about his job and the fact that animals he picks up will be euthanized if not rescued or claimed? Duncan doesn’t shy away from the question.

In his mind, at the least the animals who end up and don’t make it out of the shelter are euthanized humanely. That’s better than the multitude of mishaps that can befall them on the street, where Duncan has found dogs and cats with broken limbs, wounds and other maladies.

“What keeps me going is that thought that, if they’re not picked up off the street, they’re more likely to suffer a violent death,” he says. “And getting an animal back to its owner is very rewarding. Even getting them off the street – if they’re not out there, they’re not going to get attacked by a bigger dog. I’m glad I do what I do. I really am.”

Four hours into his shift, he gazes at the list of calls on his laptop. It’s dark when he pulls up to an apartment for a call of a trapped cat near Pecos Road. It’s a gated complex, but his electronic gate opener won’t work and the apartment number wasn’t left on the call.

“Ah well,” he says. “There’s always more.”

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  1. Mr. Collins is right that all agencies aren't created equal. County are the most understaffed, overworked and coincidentally underpaid. They have the most turnover by far.

    They also have the lowest minimum qualifications. While they have some amazing hard working officers on their staff, the background check for Clark County is comparable to working at Target while NLV and Henderson's ACO's have to go through the same as the police officers with polygraph, psycho test etc.. So if Collins would like to merge jurisdictions there's a lot that would have to be worked out. It's not like Police where they all have to have at least the same minimum POST certification. You must remember that when an Animal Control Officer types up an affidavit for search or arrest warrant the judge reading it holds him/her to the same standard as a police detective and when the training or education is not there for everyone equally that does not bode well for the animals when the ball is dropped.

    In this town you've got a few "dogcatchers" who do it as a job, collect a check, and move on then you have a lot more Animal Control Officers who do this by choice, are good at it and have a passion for what they do.

    Unfortunately with the economy the way it is and the staffing levels the way they are across all agencies it has made it nearly impossible to go out proactively after the spay and neuter laws that have been passed among others.

    Henderson Officers are the only Officers in town that are also the euthanasia technicians at the shelter, so they've got the crap job of putting down that dog/cat they rescued a week earlier so when you're talking mergers I guarantee you very few ACO's would like to add euthanasia technician to their job duties.

    All in all it's a very sad scene when the economy hurts our kids and pets.