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Volusia County’s animal control officers – A voice for the voiceless

Posted On: October 1, 2019

Photo of Amber Dease with a catAnimals are capable of many wondrous things.

They’re lovable, loyal and affectionate. They’re companions and guardians. They can do everything from fetch the paper and guide the blind to alert to danger, comfort the sick and sniff out drugs and bombs. Animals are full of furry fun and playfulness. However, one thing they don’t have is a voice – a voice to tell others when they’re being abused, mistreated or neglected. Fortunately, animals have Alicia Dease.

As one of Volusia County’s six animal control officers, Dease fills many roles during her work day. She enforces state statutes and county ordinances. She helps ensure that animals and people coexist safely and peacefully. She investigates reports of aggressive pets and abusive owners, teaches animal safety and bite prevention to schoolchildren, rescues wounded creatures, and promotes responsible pet ownership and spay and neuter programs. And that’s just for starters.

But ask Dease, and she’ll tell you that her number one task is to be a voice for animals. While she doesn’t claim to talk to them, she certainly talks for them. Sometimes, that means having criminal charges filed against an abuser. But more times than not, it means helping provide the guidance, support and resources people need to be a responsible animal owner.

“I think the most important thing for any animal control officer is being that voice for the voiceless,” said Dease of her job with Volusia County Animal Services. “We have many people who want to be good animal owners, but they just don’t know how to do it. Some people just need to be coached and taught, and it takes us to be the voice for that dog or cat or bird. The animals certainly can’t ask for that help.”

To Volusia County Animal Control Director Adam Leath, the county’s animal control officers are protectors, enforcers, advocates, mediators and peacekeepers – a delicate balancing act when dealing with people and pets. Sometimes, it’s the pet that needs protection. Other times, it’s the people. On occasion, it’s both. Finding the best resolution for every situation, each one of them different, requires equal doses of skill, experience and compassion. It’s what Leath refers to as the “harm reduction” approach.

“We have zero tolerance for animal abuse and animal neglect in our community,” said Leath. “I’m not going to sugar coat it. There are lots of egregious animal crimes that we investigate where charges are appropriate. But at the same time, there are many situations we come across that can be resolved in other ways that might bring about a more positive result. It’s the public’s needs and the needs of the animals that drive everything we do.”

As Leath explains, not every incident calls for enforcement action. There are all sorts of reasons why animals’ needs aren’t being met, and many of them are unintentional. For instance, someone may have rescued some cats that are continuing to reproduce and the well-intentioned Good Samaritan becomes overwhelmed with the responsibility and cost of caring for so many animals. In cases like that, the county can help get the cats spayed or neutered and try to find good homes for some of the animals – leaving the rescuer with a more manageable number to care for.

A recent ride in the field with Dease shows the wide variety of situations she encounters in just a single, eight-hour shift. The day included dogs, cats, a bite victim, baby raccoons in a tree, the setting of an animal trap, a couple of enforcement actions, educating pet owners about the requirements of the county’s pet license ordinance, the ordered quarantine of one canine and the successful capture of another that had eluded residents at a campground for the better part of a week. And then there was the initiation of a possible criminal investigation. Despite all that activity, it wasn’t nearly busy enough for Dease’s liking.

“I like to be slammed,” said Dease. “I like the challenge of keeping up and being able to pump out all that work.”

This particular day begins with a dog bite call involving a pit bull and a contractor who was working on a septic system at a residence on Valencia Avenue near Holly Hill. When the worker came to the door, the dog darted out and chomped on the man’s boot hard enough to break the skin on his left foot. Dease makes contact with the dog’s owner. He insists that Molly is up-to-date on his shots, but is unable to produce the records to confirm it. So Dease orders Molly to be temporarily quarantined at home. She also informs the owner that because he’s in the county’s jurisdiction, he’s required to obtain a $5 pet license. Dease could have fined him for not having the license, but chose to give him a written warning instead. Fines are usually reserved for egregious violators or those who knowingly thumb their nose at the rules. The others usually get the benefit of the doubt along with a break from Dease.

“I don’t want to cost you any more money,” she tells the young man. “I just want to make sure you’re in compliance.”

The man was polite and cooperative and seemed sincere, like he wanted to do the right thing. And he’ll have the chance to prove it. Dease or one of the county’s other animal control officers will be back in 10 days to check on Molly to make sure she’s not exhibiting any signs of rabies – and to make sure her owner got a license. If not, he’ll likely get more than a warning.

Dease drives off, calls the victim to give him an update and then pulls her truck to the side of the road to type her report. Inside her mobile, rolling office on wheels, one of the first things you notice is the black, yellow and red-colored coral snake on the dashboard. The rubber reptile is a conversation starter and a way to get kids’ attention. In addition to schools, Dease regularly speaks to various community organizations such as neighborhood watch groups, homeowners associations and 4-H clubs. The play snake, she says, is a calling card of sorts. Once she has a captive audience, whether one-on-one or an entire class, she talks to them about all sorts of things – how to safely handle domestic animals, what to do if confronted by an aggressive dog, how to tell the difference between a dangerous snake and a harmless one and how to pursue a career as an animal control officer. As if on cue, a woman wanders by the truck to check on us.

“Just making sure you guys were OK,” the friendly resident tells us. Then she turns to Dease and adds “love the snake” before walking off.

The next stop is a neighborhood on the outskirts of Ormond Beach known as The Pines, where frequent complaints are heard about dogs running free. It’s one of about a half-dozen neighborhoods in the county’s jurisdiction – all of unincorporated Volusia and the city of Oak Hill – that gets daily, proactive patrols from animal control officers because of the high volume of citizen complaints. While driving through the neighborhood, Dease is on the lookout for things like unrestrained dogs, dogs tied up without shelter or animals locked inside vehicles. On this day, she sees none of those things. But having her white truck, clearly marked “Animal Services” on the side, rolling through the area is equally important.

“Our presence helps deter problems,” Dease said. “This neighborhood has gotten a lot better.”

With so much territory to cover, some inquiries can be handled by phone. So Dease rings up a woman in Osteen and then another in Orange City. Both want advice about trapping nuisance cats in their neighborhood. Then, while driving around some remote, rural areas of the county, Dease spots a large number of roosters in a fenced-in backyard, housed in individual cages. Based on her experience, Dease suspects she has just stumbled across an illegal cockfighting venue. Cockfighting, where trained roosters fight – often to the death – and spectators wager on the outcome, isn’t just brutal and inhumane. It’s illegal. So Dease drives past, just slow enough to gather information on the location and vehicles, but not so slow as to attract attention. In this case, an animal control officer rolling by unseen is the preferred way. But make no mistake about it: A criminal investigation has just begun.

“That’s cockfighting right there. I’m sure of it,” said Dease.

Dease is all suited up for her next citizen encounter, and that includes a standard-issue bulletproof vest that all of Volusia’s animal control officers wear. For the job isn’t without its dangers. On this day, the crew is working short-handed because an officer recently fell through a porch floor while on a call and broke her foot. Not long ago, Dease and two of her fellow animal control officers faced danger of a different kind. Back in October 2018, while responding to a call at a homeless camp in DeLand, a man approached the officers’ trucks and pulled a firearm from his waistband, pointed it in the air and then started waving it around menacingly. The officers, who are unarmed civilians, drove off and summoned law enforcement to the scene. While the firearm turned out to be a revolver-style pellet gun, it was fully loaded and functional and the peril was real.

As most animal control officers will tell you, the dangers of the job mostly come from people, not animals.

“The danger of us getting attacked by a human or having a gun pulled on us, the potential is there every day,” Dease said.

In fact, in 2012, an animal control officer in California was killed while trying to retrieve some dogs from a home where the resident had been evicted. When the officer showed up, the man fired a shotgun blast through the front door from inside the house that struck and killed the animal control officer.

“It’s something that we take very seriously,” said Director Leath. “They have safety equipment when it comes to dealing with animals. But it’s the interactions with people that can be quite challenging. The animals, through their nonverbal body language cues, tell you what they’re going to do. They’re pretty predictable. People aren’t that way at all.”

The man who pulled the firearm on Dease and her fellow officers was arrested and is now serving a three-year prison sentence for that and other crimes.

The day with Dease continues with a call to Deltona to follow up on a complaint from a man who said his neighbor’s dog had gotten out of its yard and charged and growled at him. The man says it’s an ongoing issue with the dog running around unrestrained. The owner, however, tells Dease that he’s never seen his dog act aggressively and isn’t even sure it was the same dog the man was complaining about. Dease tells the owner about the county’s required pet license and just like the man in Holly Hill, he gets a written warning. Next, Dease is off to a campground on Lake George in Seville to help fellow animal control officer Shawn Riggins try to locate a dog that’s been roaming the camp site. Both Dease and Riggins drive up and down the campgrounds, but there’s no sighting. So they set out a dog trap and bait it with some pieces of sliced turkey to attract the wandering dog. But just as the trap is set up and ready to go, the dog – a blonde-colored, adult pit bull and Labrador mix, makes an appearance in the distance. Because the skittish canine runs from people, it’s a slow, trust-building process as the officers crawl and inch their way toward the dog and try to coax it with a friendly, reassuring tone and an offer of lunchmeat. The dog runs in the other direction a couple of times, but after about 10 minutes, Dease gains its trust and is able get close enough to safely detain it. Asked if she has a name for the dog, Dease thinks about it for a moment – and then comes up with Bruiser.

A crucial skill set integral to her safety, Dease has learned to read animals. She says you usually can tell from its eyes and body language what it’s feeling and what it’s going to do. In this case, she says she recognized fear in the dog, but didn’t see any indications that it was going to go into attack mode.

“When I approached him and I saw the look in his eyes and his body posture, I knew I was OK and he wasn’t going to lunge at me,” explains Dease. “If you don’t know how to read what they’re telling you, you can get yourself bit really fast.”

Within minutes, the dog is whisked away to the Halifax Humane Society and its picture is posted on Animal Services’ Facebook page in the hopes that someone will recognize him. The picture elicits almost immediate reaction.

“His face says it all, he’s so sad,” one Facebook poster commented. “Hope he finds his family.”

Dease, though, isn’t hopeful. She has a hunch the dog was dumped there by someone who was looking to get rid of it. But she has high hopes the behavioral specialists at the humane society will be able to work with the dog and transform it into a suitable pet.

“You can tell he wants so badly to trust humans,” says Dease. “With time, he’ll be able to be adopted.”

It’s a sad reality of the job, though, that not every animal – especially the abused and injured ones – can be saved. Sometimes, despite best efforts, an animal has to be put down.

“As an animal control officer, you have to be willing to accept that,” Dease says rather wistfully. “You can sure try your darndest, but you just can’t save them all.”

Next, Dease is on her way to visit a mother cat and her litter in DeLeon Springs that a concerned citizen has asked the county to check on. But before she can get there, she’s flagged down by an employee outside a child education center on East Retta Street who tells Dease about some baby raccoons up a tree in the playground. Dease gathers up her animal catch pole and a small crate and is led to the tree, where a group of tiny raccoons is huddled on a tree branch approximately 15-20 feet off the ground and well out of Dease’s grasp. The mother raccoon is nowhere in sight, but it’s a good bet that she’s close by and not happy about all the attention. Since the babies aren’t injured or in distress, Dease says the best thing is to leave them alone until they’re ready to come down and go elsewhere. In the meantime, she suggests that they keep the children out of the area for their safety.

“No matter how cute they are, they have teeth and they will bit,” she warns.

After checking on the litter of kittens, Dease’s shift is over and she’s reflecting on the events of the day – and on the challenges of being an animal control officer. One of the biggest challenges, both Leath and Dease will tell you, is to get citizens to understand their duties and the full range of services that they provide. The modern complexities of the job go well beyond the cartoon and comic strip stereotype of a dog catcher with a net.

“The vision of a current animal control officer is someone who is an advocate – an advocate for animals, for people and for the community,” said Leath. “It’s a very delicate balance, but we always try to find a middle ground and the best resolution for all concerned.”

With six animal control officers and a supervisor, the officers work overlapping eight-hour shifts to provide coverage every day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. And there’s always an officer on call for those emergencies that occur outside regular work hours, like an animal that’s been struck by a car or a crime scene where animals are involved or need to be removed. Dease has been at the job in Volusia County since 2003. She transferred into code enforcement in 2007 because the schedule was a better fit for her family at the time. But she always wanted to go back to animal services and got her chance in 2013. And despite the fact that, as with all enforcement officers, the people she encounters aren’t always happy to see her, Dease loves helping the public and loves the challenges and rewards of the job and can’t imagine doing anything else. Most of all, she loves being that voice for the voiceless.

“Dealing with the animals, that’s the part we all live for,” said Dease. “But at the same time, so many people really appreciate us and that’s great to see. Being in animal control and helping people and pets is a passion I have, and it will never go away. I love it.”

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