Animal control officers evolve on the job
The people of animal control dedicate their lives to animals’ safety, but that sacrifice often costs them their wellbeing.
Officer Grady Hungerford entered the misunderstood field of animal control in 1997 at age 26. His outlook on life, optimistic, would be quickly altered. Like animal control officers before him, breaking free of the dark aftermath would be grueling.
Hungerford’s journey started when an owner surrendered two German shepherds to Calcasieu Parish animal control.
Hungerford arrived at work eager to start the day. New to the field, he hadn’t yet experienced what often causes secondary traumatic stress in animal control workers. He spotted the two dogs during a kennel check, and their bond with him was instant. His eyes gleam while he remembers this first encounter.
He fondly recalls the loyal duo being extremely friendly toward the employees. Both the shepherds stood resolute, each with shiny black and tan fur. Hungerford can still picture their dark chocolate eyes bursting with love and loyalty.
He walked and played with them any time there was a spare moment. Hungerford assured himself these shepherds would easily find a forever home.
But there was no happy ending to this story.
During this time, the shelter could only keep animals for three business days, but no one was willing to put them down. Delaying the inevitable for several weeks, Hungerford searched for a home. He only postponed the heartbreak.
He finished walking the dogs one day when his supervisor Laura Lanza delivered the gut-wrenching news. Sitting on the shelter doorsteps, Lanza wrapped her arm around Hungerford.
“It’s time,” she said, gently.
Time ran out, and his heart plummeted. After a long and tear-filled talk, they said their final goodbyes.
Lanza and Hungerford took the dogs back into the shelter. Walking the short stretch of hallway quickly weighed on their hearts. They quietly placed the shepherds inside the carbon monoxide chamber.
The dogs didn’t act out, calmly accepting their fate. The companions were placed in separate cages next to one another, separated by a metal sheet. Tears streaming, Hungerford apologized to the dogs.
He then started the gas cycle. Hungerford vividly remembers every moment of the 10 minutes that followed.
Oxygen in the chamber was vacuumed while carbon monoxide creeped in. The dogs frantically tried to escape to no avail. Solemnly, both Lanza and Hungerford witnessed the shepherds’ last moments.
One of them ripped out its claws scratching at the metal door, a fruitless attempt to escape death. The gas fills their lungs, causing them to evacuate their bowels. Grime and blood splattered the cages. Their desperate whines changed the officers’ souls.
Born strong and proud, the shepherds’ final exit was a mixture of blood and fluids. An indescribable death howl pierced the air, leaving a deafening silence behind.
The officers opened the chamber and saw both dogs curled against the metal wall. In death, the dogs still tried to stay together. Hungerford dropped to his knees and placed their heads on his lap.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered while gently stroking them.
He promised to be with them until the end.
“I owe it to them,” he told himself.
The officers gently placed the shepherds in a cart, wheeling them to the incinerator. 1,600-degree flames quickly engulfed their corpses.
“We placed them inside, watching their fur immediately burn off,” Hungerford numbly recalls. “The flesh quickly started to melt away, and I just couldn’t watch anymore. I shut the door but couldn’t walk away.”
Hungerford says a piece of himself died with the shepherds. Animal control is not for the fainthearted, he quickly realized. Like other animal control officers, he dedicated his life to helping defenseless animals and left scathed.
Though euthanasia techniques have evolved, the emotional pain persists.
Louisiana currently uses a combination of drugs during euthanasia procedures. Ketamine and xylazine sedate the animal. Then, an injection of sodium pentobarbital delivers the kill. Though humane for the animal, this method forces officers to personally witness the animal’s demise.
“Dog-catcher” doesn’t fully convey the duties of animal control; officers are often exposed to horrendous cases involving both people and animals and work to make their community safer.
Stray animals are the most common calls, but those are typically not the haunting scenes. Some cases follow officers well after retirement.
Hungerford recounts a cruelty case he worked in Louisiana.
A mother cooked gumbo in the kitchen while her family lounged in the den. The family pit bull urinated on the carpet. Armed with a Louisville Slugger, the father beat the dog in front of his family.
Officers also deal with animal attacks against people. Louisiana law requires all hospitals to report animal attacks, and animal control documents and photographs these injuries.
An unexpected case involved a little girl and her family’s golden retriever. The dog bit her trying to get the toy she had in her mouth, nearly tearing her lips off.
“With the vicious attacks, by both people and animals, I never blame the animal,” Hungerford says.
A loving dog still bites if provoked. In other cases, an owner trains the dog to be vicious.
Laura Lanza, a retired animal control supervisor, activist and lobbyist, recalls her start in Calcasieu Parish. Then, many people still used the term “dog pound,” coined when animals were beaten to death with a rubber hose.
“Animal control was backwards and housed in hell-hole pound facilities,” she recalls angrily.
She witnessed many other officers “burn out” from the job’s more harsh demands, beginning when smaller shelters are incapable of housing all animals. Unfortunately, the only choices are adoption or death.
Lanza says, like so many other officers, she did not cope very well. Food and alcohol temporarily kept the suffering at bay. The stress seeped into her personal life.
“My marriage was destroyed by the demands of work consuming so much of my time,” she says.
Both Lanza and Hungerford admit they struggled with public perception throughout their careers. The relationship with their community was often strained. People are quick to condemn when an open admission shelter’s euthanasia statistics are revealed.
Hungerford recalls being harassed throughout his career. Lanza remembers being spit on while walking to public meetings.
“The blame is focused on the employees rather than society,” Lanza says.
Each of these factors combine and often cause secondary traumatic stress, or compassion fatigue, in animal control officers. Some may build emotional fortresses while others cope with food or alcohol, for example.
A 2015 study by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine determined that, other than military personnel, protective service workers had the highest suicide rates – 5.3 for every 1 million workers. This includes police, firefighters, detectives and animal control workers.
Hungerford’s walls crashed quickly after retiring. Contemplating suicide, He found help at Professional Counseling Services. Sister Diane Depwe, a trauma counselor in Lake Charles, Louisiana, knew Hungerford’s case was like many others in animal control and other protective services.
“I don’t think this mental health issue is on most people’s radar,” she says.
Dedicating years of time and energy to helpless animals causes many officers to suffer from compassion fatigue and then burn out. Compassion fatigue can cause anxiety, depressive behavior, vivid nightmares and mental or emotional numbness.
Though they are at high risk for secondary traumatic stress, animal control officers often don’t have access to the same psychological treatment as police.
“They need the help just like any police officer in the line of duty,” Depwe says.