The smell hits you as soon as you walk through the front door — A mixture of ammonia and unwashed animal fur causes the breath to catch in your throat and the eyes to water.
In a cramped hallway, five cat cages sit pushed together and stacked on top of one another. Save for a few bowls and litter pans, the cages are empty.
David Turner, an officer with Halifax County Animal Control, scans the area briefly and turns to the home’s occupant, Joni Butts. “Well, it looks a lot better in here,” he tells the young woman, as a pair of dogs scramble and bark behind closed doors at either end of the hall.
Earlier, Turner related that 11 cats had been taken from the home the night before, due to the animal’s less-than-desirable living conditions. “Things just got out of hand around here,” said Butts, by way of explanation, as she steered the discussion toward her plans to pursue a veterinary career.
“That was a big improvement from last night,” sighed Turner, as he pulled away from the home on his way to another animal check. “The ammonia from the cat urine can be a health risk by itself.”
Turner, who has been with Animal Control nearly four years, said the case is symptomatic of what he sees on a day-to-day basis. “A lot of people have good hearts, but maybe they just don’t have the resources or time to take care of their pets properly. A lot of people don’t realize what a responsibility it is.”
Responsibility is something Animal Control Lead Officer Robert Richardson understands all too well. As head of the three-person animal control team, Richardson spent the last 15 years roaming the back roads of Halifax County, checking on abuse complaints, setting traps for animals suspected of carrying rabies and investigating dog fighting rings.
“I’ve always been an animal person,” said Richardson, explaining what’s kept him on the job for so many years. “Not just anyone can do this. It takes a certain kind of person.”
According to Richardson, many people have misconceptions about the profession. While the old stereotypes about the local dogcatcher may have once held true, the days of poorly educated officers chasing down animals with a net and piece of meat are long gone.
Richardson’s team covers all of Halifax County, from Warren to the Edgecombe County lines, covering as much territory as many sheriffs’ deputies. Their main duties consist of taking complaints, setting traps and bringing animals back to the Halifax County Animal Shelter.
While local towns and municipalities have their own animal control officers, Richardson said his men lend them a hand whenever necessary, particularly in cases involving possible rabies infection. “That’s one of our main functions — controlling the spread of rabies,” he stated.
According to Richardson, once an animal is suspected of having contracted the disease, it is quarantined for 10 days while blood samples are sent off to Raleigh for examination. Fifty percent of the tests come back positive.
Working mainly in the more rural areas of the county, the officers carry radios to keep in touch with central dispatch in Halifax, which also calls out the local police. Each officer is equipped with a shotgun, a rifle and safety equipment such as gloves and facemasks. Those who are certified carry a tranquilizer gun. Because of the risk of infection, each officer is given a pre-rabies exposure prophylaxis, which guards against the disease prior to contact.
Throughout their careers, officers receive training in euthanasia, chemical mobilization, animal cruelty and weapons use. Richardson said he recently attended a class in animal blood sports.
According to Richardson, his animal control team recently lost an officer due to county budget constraints. “I fought to get these positions. It’s put a big strain on my guys, but they’ve done really well handling the extra work load,” he stated.
Richardson said the added work has only increased the stress of a job that rarely gives officers time to relax. “I’ve never seen a slack day yet,” he grinned, as he headed out to check an animal abuse complaint in Littleton. “Even in the fall and winter it doesn’t slow down.”
As part of his role as liaison between county, state and federal agencies, Richardson handles all Animal Control criminal investigations and said cooperation with local law enforcement is essential. “The sheriff’s department is excellent. Jeff Frazier does a good job with dog fighting. You’ve got to work together,” he stated.
Though the challenges continue to grow, Richardson said the team’s increased profile has started to turn the tide. “It’s actually gotten a little better in the last seven to eight years. I think people are more educated now. Once people know there’s enforcement it begins to get better, but it doesn’t happen overnight.”
On The Road
As his team, which also includes Officer Elton Garner, hit the road Wednesday morning, Richardson headed toward Littleton to check on a complaint concerning an under-fed horse.
Pulling to the side of the road at the intersections of Wright and Justice Branch Roads, he climbs out of his truck and scans the pasture in front of him with a pair of binoculars. Richardson doesn’t see the animal and believes it may have been moved. “She knew we were coming,” he states, getting back behind the wheel and pointing his truck toward Deer Run Road off Highway 158, beside the old Halifax County Airport.
Richardson said the area is known for its reputation as a dog-fighting haven. As he drives slowly past a trailer, he points out the line of dogs chained on either side of the home. “You tell me, what does a person need with that many dogs?” he asks, shaking his head. “They’re breeding them to fight.”
Richardson said the plague of dog fighting has only gotten worse since he came on the job. “When I started in 1993 it was just building steam; now it’s everywhere. They keep logs of every fight with the stats in code. Unless you get someone on the inside it’s hard to decipher.”
The criminals have made detection even more difficult by using computers. Said Richardson: “This thing is Internet-wide; they use it to set up fights. It goes so deep underground, unless you’ve got cooperation from the community, it’s almost impossible to catch them.”
Later in the day, Officer Turner loads up the bed of his truck with cat and dog traps, checks his work orders and, minutes later, turns into the driveway of Halifax resident Mack Taylor, who is fed up with all the stray cats in his yard. Pointing to a collapsed tool shed, he grimaces and says, “I call that the cat house. That’s where they all come from. They just multiply so fast and start digging up the plants.”
Taking three traps from the back of his truck, Turner places them several yards apart around the building, then baits them with canned food. “Once they smell this it won’t be long before they walk right in,” he states from experience..
Driving to his next stop on Old Chantilly Road in Halifax, the pavement runs out and turns to dirt beneath the truck, causing Turner to quip, “You better have some off-road driving skills with this job, especially when it’s been raining for a few days.”
Handling as many as 20 work orders at a time. Turner said the long hours spent on the road —he puts between 200 and 250 miles on his truck each day—is one of the things that drew him to the job. “I find it soothing. I work the Hobgood, Scotland Neck, Littleton and Roanoke Rapids areas, so it gives you plenty of time to reflect and plan ahead.”
Having previously worked as a corrections officer at Greensville Correctional Center in Virginia, Turner said the skills he gained during that time have proven useful in his current role. “It relates a lot to what I do here; working with people and the legal side.”
Turner said the law enforcement training has come in handy when confronting some of the areas more ill-tempered pet owners. “Dealing with people’s animals is a lot like dealing with their children,” he stated, “they tend to get irate.”
As he squints into the sun and attempts to read a house number on the side of a rusted mailbox, Turner turns into a gravel driveway on East End Drive off Highway 125. Cats cover the front porch railing and the yelping of dogs comes from a shed nearby. “This is a welfare check,” says Turner, “just to make sure these animals are OK.”
Turner walks up the porch steps and begins examining the cats, running his hand over their backs. “They’re a little underweight,” he says to the homeowner, who emerges from the trailer with a line of dogs following behind. After deciding the cats have no major health problems, he turns his attention to the dogs.
Navigating his way past a mountain of old furniture, household appliances and plastic containers, Turner stares into a pen at a tangle of puppies— Beagles and Hounds—fighting over the food the owner’s boyfriend pours through the fencing. Before he leaves, Turner washes out a mold encrusted water container with bleach, handing it back to the boyfriend and instructing him to do the same every few weeks.
“I look for animals where you can count every backbone and rib,” he’ll say later. “If they’re just a little bit underweight, we’ll work with that. That couple is obviously on a shoe string budget as far as food is concerned.”
Throughout the day, Turner lays trap after trap, placing each one carefully according to the residents’ instructions. One of his last stops is at the home of Bobby Smith on Galberry Road in Scotland Neck. Smith emerges from his small, clapboard house in a white T-shirt, jeans and slippers, greeting Turner like a long lost friend. “There’s about eight or nine of them,” he tells Turner, pointing to a row of shrubbery beside the house. As Turner prepares the traps, Smith shakes his head and says, “Them !@#* is hard to catch man, hard to catch.”
A few minutes later, sitting in his truck, Turner watches as a medium sized, orange-coated stray walks carefully around the trap closest to the house. Clearly nervous, the animal finally abandons caution and walks quickly into the small, wired cage. As it nears the food, its weight shifts a pressure plate in the rear of the trap, causing a spring-loaded door to shut behind it. Realizing it’s trapped, the cat goes into a frenzy, spinning and clawing at the cage frantically.
“They’re curious animals by nature,” says Turner, lifting the trap by its handle and setting it in the back of his truck. “That makes things a little easier.”
Turner closes the tailgate of his truck, secures the trap, and begins the journey back to Halifax.
The Last Stop
At the Halifax County Animal Shelter, Kristy Jones shuts the door to a small side room, cutting off a series of high-pitched cries. “That’s the cat room,” she states evenly, “it stinks. It always stinks.”
Aside from fielding calls from the control officers and members of the public, Jones’ duties consist of feeding and watering the shelters animals as well as cleaning their cages twice a day.
Walking through the dog pens, she points out several pit bulls that have been seized from dog fighting rings as well as one who was picked up after taking a bite out of its owner. “The worst is when people bring in the torn up pit bulls and hunting dogs,” she confides.
According to Jones, the shelter can house up to 28 cats and 55 dogs. Last year it took in nearly 3,000 animals — 848 of those animals were euthanized.
As he took a break in the shelter’s front office, Turner spoke about the inevitable fate of many of the animals brought to the shelter and the psychological toll it takes on the officers. “There’s a lot of mental drain with this job, it’s an emotional thing. Everyone loves animals. It doesn’t ever get easy, but you recognize why you have to do it.”
Earlier in the day, Richardson said the most controversial part of an officer’s job often becomes easier with experience. “You don’t want to ever become numb. I’ve been euthanizing for 12 or 13 years. Sometimes I have to take a break from it. You don’t want to get too used to it, but you try to detach yourself.” Richardson said having a shed attendant has eased the burden somewhat, freeing the officers from the tasks of feeding the animals, which can often lead to emotional attachment.
One bright spot for the officers has been their continuing involvement with Rainbow Animal Rescue, a Roanoke Rapids based organization run by Bob and Nancy Seever. The husband and wife team work with the shelters to adopt animals out to local residents in search of a pet. With the group’s help, the shelter was able to find homes for 481 dogs and 60 cats last year.
Despite the stress and physical strain of the job, Turner said he plans to work another 25 years before retiring. “This is by far the best job I’ve ever worked,” he said. “It’s not about the money, it’s about what you like to do in life.”
There’s some inherent danger and a lot of mental roadblocks, but in the end it’s all about serving the public. We’re here for their protection and safety. That’s what we do.”