Stereotypes die hard, but the image of the typical animal control officer has changed remarkably. Long lampooned by cartoons as net-carrying villains, animal control officers are now considered on the frontline of protecting a community's pets and wild animals.
The roles and duties of animal control officers vary widely. In some cities and counties, animal control officers (ACOs) are members of the police department. They are trained and equipped to handle animal-related calls, but possess all policing powers.
A larger or more affluent community may designate certain police officers to act as animal control officers in a sub-department. A smaller community may simply assign an officer to act as animal control officer. ACOs may belong to an entirely separate municipal department, such as the health division.
The general duties are the same, however, in regard to stray or lost pets: to protect the public's health, take care of lost animals and to reunite lost pets with their owners. The job may require investigating all bite cases, reports of cruelty and neglect and to handle all suspected rabid animals. They pick up dead or injured animals, as well as euthanize animals.
It's a far cry from simply being the city's "dog catcher." Police and city officials call on ACOs day and night to answer calls from the routine to the bizarre. A Web site dedicated to animal control officers provides a snapshot of some of the calls they typically receive.
One ACO says he was called out around 1 a.m. to capture a "dangerous" dog. When he arrived, a team of officers had surrounded the house, with the dog behind a shed. The police wanted to tranquilize the dog, but the ACO walked over to the shed and called sweetly to the frightened canine. The dog approached, tail wagging, and the ACO put a loop over his head and walked him out. The police sergeant shook his head and said, "Doesn't that make us look like a bunch of wimps."
On occasion, ACOs must mediate disputes between neighbors when barking dogs or roaming cats create a public nuisance. And, of course, they pick up strays. It's a job ACOs don't relish, which is why the National Animal Control Association strongly urges owners to have their pets well identified with tags, microchips and other methods.
The role of the animal control officer is an evolving one. Indeed, the stereotype of the dog-chasing municipal officer was not far off the mark, explains Jim Weverka, a spokesman for NACA. He says that ACOs became necessary as people moved from rural areas to the cities, and wanted to own a dog. This was especially true for certain breeds that became popular in movies and television shows. Many of these dogs, bought on impulse, wound up on the streets or surrendered to the local authorities.
As cats began to become more popular, they were added to the list of animals that ACOs tried to help. In some places, "fad" pets made it necessary for ACOs to specialize due to the explosive growth of potbellied pigs, reptiles and other exotic pets.
The training and education required to be an ACO depends on the municipality. They often include all the requirements a person must meet to become a police officer or health official, plus demonstrate ability and experience in handling animals and managing a kennel environment.