Animal Control Officer Garth Russell is far from the dogcatcher stereotype frequently portrayed in cartoons and movies. Garth is fast moving, focused, and fearless. In addition to hands-on contact with animals that may be frightened or injured, the job also requires frequent contact with a broad spectrum of people, many who are less than happy to see him. To be effective as an Animal Control Officer (ACO), Garth must balance his obvious concern for animals with methodical record keeping and deliberate professional detachment. According to Garth, “It takes a special breed of crazy to do this job.” (November 2009 – July 2010)
On any given day, Biddeford Animal Control Officer Garth Russell may be responding to a shark sighting in a tide pool, driving a litter of kittens to the animal shelter, or rescuing a dog that broke through the ice on a frozen pond. One of his favorite things about the job is not knowing what will happen each day. “No two days are the same,” he says with a smile.
Each municipality in the State of Maine is required to employ an Animal Control Officer (ACO). The ACO is responsible for a variety of animal control duties which include controlling dogs running at large, ensuring that strays are returned to owners or taken to the local animal shelter, and enforcing local regulations such as leash laws.
While Animal Control Officers are responsible for enforcement of dozens of laws concerning animal welfare, Garth says that the three most common violations he deals with are keeping an unlicensed dog, allowing a dog to run at large, or keeping a dangerous dog.
Garth believes his primary function is to educate pet owners about the laws and explains that the education “sometimes comes with a stick.” Usually, he begins with a warning, and the second time a person is contacted for an offense Garth will issue a summons. During the first 7 months of 2010, Garth issued a total of 56 summonses. Fines can range from $25 to $2,500.
Garth became the Animal Control Officer in Biddeford in August 2009. Previously, he was as an ACO in Portland for 3 years. Before becoming an ACO, Garth worked at a local animal shelter. He likes the enforcement aspect of the ACO job. “At the shelter, I couldn’t do anything to make people do what they’re supposed to do. Now I can do something about it,” he says.
According to State law, it is unlawful for any dog to run at large – not under the control of any person – except when used for hunting. In Biddeford, dogs on public property (streets, parks, and beaches) must always be on a leash. During the summer months, dogs are completely prohibited from being on Biddeford public beaches between 9:00 am and 5:00 pm.
According to Garth, he can usually catch loose dogs simply by calling them, offering treats, and calmly slipping a leash over their head. He also has a catchpole with a lasso-like loop on the end that he uses with more aggressive dogs to keep the animal at a safe distance and avoid getting bitten.
Originally from California, 28-year-old Garth, moved to Maine in 2002. When he’s not working, he enjoys spending time at home in Standish with his girlfriend of 6 years Lauren, dog Nori, five cats, and nine chickens. Comfortable with his “geekiness,” Garth loves his iPhone and spends hours playing his favorite computer game “World of Warcraft.”
Garth frequently receives calls to pick up stray cats and dogs, which he takes to the animal shelter in Kennebunk. Far more often, he is handling stray cats and kittens. He estimates that for every stray dog he picks up about 100 stray cats. Because cats can be tricky to catch and get stressed very easily, Garth will often set a live trap and return later to pick up and transport the animal inside the trap.
Pet owners who can no longer care for their animals may call Garth to voluntarily surrender the animals with no cost or penalty. The decision is often a very difficult and emotional one, and the reasons are typically an unexpected change in financial or living situation. As with stray animals, Garth takes surrendered pets to the animal shelter.
In response to calls, usually from concerned neighbors, Garth visits pet owners for wellness checks. He visually checks the animal for any signs of injury or illness and verifies with the owners (and frequently their veterinarian) that the animal is receiving treatment and up to date on all required shots and vaccinations.
When the Code Enforcement Office conducts a full building inspection, Garth is invited along to address any issues with domestic animals residing in the building. If the Code Enforcement Officers determine that a building will be closed (condemned), Garth may be called upon to assist owners in re-housing the animals. Here Garth and Code Enforcement/Police Officer Philip Patch check the basement of a multi-unit rental property.
Garth drives his Toyota Celica in autocross races organized by the Cumberland Motor Club. The club holds races throughout Maine and New Hampshire every Sunday from April through September.
While Garth took first place in his class in this race held in South Portland, he insists that he is not seriously competing for points. “I like to drive fast,” he says, “and racing is a way to do it legally.”
Keeping a dangerous dog – a dog that bites or threatens to assault an individual – is a civil violation with fines ranging from $250 to $1,000. When dealing with dangerous dog cases, Garth will recommend conditions that the owners must meet in order to keep the dog. Typical conditions in such cases include requirements to neuter/spay the dog, keep the dog confined/leashed at all times, and successful completion of an obedience class. Failure to meet the court-ordered conditions can result in the owner facing criminal charges.
Whenever a dog bites and breaks skin, whether on a person or another animal, a Bite Report must be filed, and the dog must be put under quarantine for 10 days because the rabies vaccine is not 100 percent effective. Garth performs quarantine checks as part of routine follow up on every dog bite case and says that he finds nearly all of the dogs are doing fine and rabies free.
Veterinarians are required by law to send information on all dogs vaccinated for rabies to the State, which in turn shares the information with towns for collection of licensing fees. Dog license fees provide the majority of funding for the State’s Animal Welfare Program. The cost to license a spayed/neutered dog is $7 and $12 for an unaltered dog. The fine for having an unlicensed dog can range from $25 to $100.
During winter months when other calls tend to slow down, Garth makes a focused effort to follow up on all unlicensed dogs. First, he attempts to make contact by phone to notify the owners they must have the dog licensed within two weeks or be issued a summons. If the dog remains unlicensed after two weeks, Garth goes to the owner’s home to follow up in person; thus some cold winter days involve lots of knocking on doors.
Calls received about dogs left in cars on hot sunny days can be a challenge unless Garth happens to be very close to the reported location. Frequently, the car is gone when he arrives. If the car is still there, he will visually check the dog for any signs of distress or heat stroke, which are grounds for him to remove the dog from the car. If the dog is not in immediate danger, he waits at the vehicle and issues a warning to the owner.
Garth has been brewing his own beer for about three years and keeps a beer journal of recipes and notes about each batch. On a hot July day, he is brewing one of his favorites, a vanilla porter, which should be at full flavor and ready to drink during the winter months.
Garth is a member of the Portland Mashing Maniacs brewing club, which meets monthly to share tips on home brewing techniques, equipment, and recipes, as well as taste sample beers. Prior to hosting the June club meeting, Garth and fellow club members Gregg Carine (center) and Brian Farrell (right) hold a brewing session.
In May 2010, Garth was issued a 22 caliber Remington rifle for field euthanasia of sick or injured animals. During the first three months, he has used the rifle to shoot a squirrel, woodpecker, fox, duck, and seagull.
Garth is responsible for pick up and disposal of “Code K” (dead) animals – road kill – such as skunks, possums, seagulls, and woodchucks. City public works employees with bigger trucks are called to remove large animals, such as deer or moose.
Garth buries dead animals in “the pit,” located on city property on Andrews Road. In the summer months, Garth admits the foul odor can become extremely pungent. He keeps a tin of Altoids mints in the glove compartment to counteract the worst of the stench of decaying animal flesh. “I know a lot about dead things,” he says.
For an aspiring ACO, Garth recommends working first at a local animal shelter to learn how to read animal behavior and body language, as well as gain valuable hands-on experience with unfamiliar animals that do not want to be handled. He adds that having a thick skin and calm demeanor are very helpful in dealing with animals as well as people.