Of chaos and critters

Daily life of Kenai animal control officers complex

A day in the life of Brett Reid starts with a cacophony of meows and woofs from those wriggling bundles of life in their respective cages, announcing for all to hear they are happy to be warm and alive.


Reid, unaffected by the clatter, makes sure he has his bright yellow earmuffs secured and a fresh pot of coffee brewed before tackling the four or more hours of work needed to meet the day at the Kenai Animal Shelter.

“Not as loud as I had feared,” said Reid, Kenai’s chief animal control officer, after letting the 16 dogs and puppies back in into the shelter’s 12 main kennels after the morning’s cleaning. “Sometimes it’s like feeding time at the zoo.”

The shelter is full, but that’s fine and usual with Reid — an empty shelter isn’t doing any good. But this time of year, as the temperatures drop and snowflakes fall, is chaotic on the shelter’s staff as they respond to calls for service and work to care for and adopt out the seemingly endless supply of cats and dogs needing homes.

Reid, who started working at the shelter in 1982 as a temporary assistant, works in concert with fellow animal control officers Cora Chambers and Stacie Mallette. Volunteers who help clean cages, take photos of pets and take dogs for walks are indispensable, he said.

Planning a day at the shelter is futile. Beyond the opening four hours of cleaning, the job has three main roles — technician, clerk and enforcer. But, the job usually is much more than that in any given day.

“It is hard to describe because it is very broad based,” Reid said taking a sip of coffee. “It is not just one task, it is a multi-tasked thing. It is part vet tech, part clerk, part social worker, part enforcement, part maintenance manager.”

On top of that, the job doesn’t get any easier with the increasing load the shelter sees, he said. Last year, the shelter handled a total of 1,673 animals, up from 1,476 the year before and 1,417 in 2009.

More and more animals are finding homes — 631 adopted in 2011, up from 557 in 2009. But more are euthanized as well — 730 in 2011, up from 490 in 2009.

Filling the role of clerk means completing the necessary paperwork when a dog or cat comes in or out.

As a couple came into the shelter Friday morning to surrender their pit bull, Mallette helped the two fill out paperwork while Reid offered words of comfort.

“Oh, you’re going to be fine,” he said optimistically tossing the dogs ears back and forth.

Said the sturdy-built man fighting tears and holding the pup’s collar and old leash, “He’s just hyper, a real good dog, but he needs to have a place to roam.”

Both Mallette and Reid offered no lecture, just a pen; sign here.

“People notice the animals, but it is a people job,” Reid said.

If residents need to surrender animals, officers said they prefer owners be responsible and bring them in during business hours — that way they are put up for adoption immediately and more is known about the animal to help place it in the right home.

On Thursday one dog and three cats came into the shelter; four cats left. On Friday a few more dogs arrived, and a few left to new homes. Still full.

“Still treading water,” Reid said. “When we get overloaded is when I get annoyed. When I’m grumpy that usually means I have too many and I have to make some really tough calls. Right now just plain full.”

Filling the role of technician means basic animal care — everything from washing down kennels to advanced first aid.

“Dr. (Dick) McCartan at the Kenai Veterinary Hospital is not actually on our staff, but he kind of quasi is,” Reid said. “He gives us a lot of help ... and his office is always real open. If we have a weird question we can just give him a call and ask some direction on what to do with it.”

On Friday, Chambers wrestled the newly surrendered pit bull into the shelter’s van and onto McCartan’s examination table to have a few stitches removed.

“Good boy,” Chambers said as she distracted the pup with a handful of treats. “See, that was pretty easy.”

In her three years working for the shelter, Chambers has learned to find the path of least resistance with animals, relying on tricks of the trade, treats — mostly those made for cats — and reading animal behavior. The pit bull, she noted to Mallette and Reid — loves to play rough with men, but remains calm in the presence of women.

Said Mallette, “Some things you don’t learn by the books. Some things you learn in the field.”

Filling the role of enforcer means taking calls for service — anything from stray animals, dog bites, barking, nuisances or otherwise.

Both Mallette and Chambers agreed that one of the biggest misconceptions about the job is that they are “dogcatchers,” that they want to snatch up misbehaving animals.

“Sometimes people think we are going to take their dogs, and by no way, shape or form do we want to take someone’s dog just because we’ve had a contact with them,” Chambers said. “That’s one that still surprises me. ‘Oh, you are not going to take my dog are you?’”

Chambers noted that’s not something the shelter can do unless it is a serious case such as abuse or neglect. And with a full shelter, they’d rather see animals stay at home.

On Friday, Mallette made a stop at Kenai City Hall in response to a report of a squirrel in the ceiling and demonstrated how to set up and bait with peanut butter a live trap in hopes of relocating the animal. On her way back to the shelter, she stopped to drop a few crates of meowing kittens at the ERA freight office to be shipped up to Alaska Animal Rescue Friends.

Mallette said the shelter workers are always happy to see animals leave the shelter bound for new homes.

“Typically when our animal load gets bigger, the bad news gets bigger, too,” Reid said.

The solution to much of the heartache at the shelter is simple — spay and neuter — but that’s not “exciting” anymore and it doesn’t stick with owners, Reid said. But, more and more animals arrive at the shelter fixed already, which he said is a good sign. Reid also promotes the newly created spay-neuter fund to help those wanting to adopt pay for the procedure.

“There are days when it is really hard — like today we are really full on dogs,” Chambers said. “That’s when we’re like, ‘OK, we have a lot of dogs, let’s see how many we can get adopted today.’

“There’s days where there are nice dogs and for some reason or another nobody is looking to adopt pets. Knowing that people are so willing to give up their animals — they don’t give up their children, they don’t give up themselves, but sometimes they think of animals as disposable — that’s probably the hardest part.”

Reid agreed — you don’t get used to it.

“If you get used to it, it is time to move on,” he said. “It is still disturbing. I keep that fire in the background that this is a problem and how can you deal with it? Well, all the easy stuff has been done and we have to be more creative.”

But, Chambers said there is always an upside — a family of four spent time with a mild-mannered boxer Friday morning to see how it would interact with their children.

“We have great things happen every day,” she said.


Brian Smith can be reached at brian.smith@peninsulaclarion.com.


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