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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Walking skeletons and dead pets: Animal control officers can't unsee what people to do pets

TL;DR Dead pets without a home end up in a garbage bin. Animal control officers enforce ordinances to keep animals, people safe. Somehow, animal control officers haven't entirely written off humanity.

If you see a dead animal or roaming pet or want to report a concern about an animal, you can call animal control directly: 785-368-9203.

Storify compilation of tweets has a lot more information, including details from Helping Hands Humane Society, where Animal Control takes the dogs and cats it picks up.

At the Topeka dump, there is a green garbage bin that sits by itself, surrounded by but isolated from the dozens of bins that litter the yard.

When I learned what it held, its isolation made sense: It's alone, because it carries stories of untold sorrow. But after spending a day with an animal control officer, I know now those stories are reserved for the living.

The lone bin holds the dead animals Animal Control picks up. It's one of their jobs. Usually, it's a deer, possum, raccoon, the occasional squirrel.

But other times -- after a thorough search for an owner or microchip or something, anything, to claim them -- this bin holds the bodies of dead pets.

Yesterday, the bin held the body of a yellow lab. A bag covered his head. I don't know his story. But it was not an easy thing to see.

Looking at its body, lying in the bottom of a garbage bin, surrounded by flies, I thought of the dogs I see running loose on the streets. Topeka has a leash law, and this trash bin is a big reason.

ACO Hopkinson
"Some people don't understand the repercussions of letting your dog run loose," said Animal Control Officer Lori Hopkinson. "Too many things can go wrong."

Trying to keep it together, I asked her if she had become desensitized to seeing dead pets after nine years on the job.

To an extent, she said, but only because she has seen much, much worse.

Hopkinson talked about a pregnant cat who was tortured and left for dead in a feedsack.

She talked about seeing dogs die of starvation on a chain, for no other reason than they were left outside and forgotten.

Some owners try to argue the dog just suddenly died overnight, but Hopkinson can see the ribs, the signs of a slow death. She points out these signs to the others, refusing to let them off the hook. And then she cites them with cruelty.

Animal Control Supervisor Linda Halford talks about the starvation cases, too.

"Walking skeletons," she said. "There are a lot of those. Sometimes they cannot be recovered. Those are hard. Those are hard. Anytime that happens."

These cruelty cases, Hopkinson said, are the worst part of her job.

"Those are heart breakers, that somebody would actually do this to an animal."

"Have you lost your faith in humanity?" I asked her.

"You do sometimes," Hopkinson said. "You learn to hate people and love animals, knowing it's not the animal's fault if their aggressive. You do try to give people the benefit of the doubt."

Topeka ordinances that help keep animals, and people, safe are based on common sense.

Take dogs, for example. They can't be tethered for more than 15 minutes unsupervised. They must be on a leash. They must have access to food, water, shelter, protection from the environment. Officers are trained to see the signs of neglect and abuse.

When they see it, they can seize the dog and charge the owner accordingly. That, however, has given officers a bad name.

"People think we are just dog catcher or the people who take your dog away," Hopkinson said. "It's so much more than that. And if we do that, it's a last resort."

Education and voluntary compliance are preferred, she said. She proved that Wednesday.

First call
The first call we went on was a report of starving dogs in a crate on the front porch of a house on S.E. California. Sure enough, there were dogs in a crate -- a mother and four pups, to be exact (they were adorable, for the record) -- but the owners were home. The dogs had been in the crate for about an hour while they prepped the house for a bath.

The owner had just moved from Texas and hadn't licensed the mother. Hopkinson, rather than taking the dog or citing the owner ($100 fine), went back to her truck and got a license form ($8).

"The thing about this job is not to jump to conclusions," she said as we walked back to the truck. Later she continued, "We have to use judgment."

Animal control officers had 4,419 assigned calls so far this year, as of Sept. 17. Last year to that date, it was 4,833. Most of those are about loose dogs or checking the welfare.

Unwanted animals dumped here often stick around, waiting
When animal control officers aren't working calls, Hopkinson said, they either check the welfare on previous cases or drive around their assigned area (East, West or Citywide), looking for loose pets, cruelty violations and roadkill. She said she tries to make it to the boat ramp in the 4400 block of N.E. Seward at least once a day. It's a popular dump site for unwanted animals, she said.

"Sometimes they hang around, just waiting for their owners to come back," she said of the pets. "They don't understand."

Hopkinson was an animal control officer from 1997 to 2004. She left because she couldn't take it anymore. Seeing dogs go back to abusive homes. Watching neglectful owners walk. The division of six officers typically is at least one person short, Halford said.

"This is a rough job," said Halford, who has been an ACO for 31 years. "It's not easy to keep people. Nobody stays like I do. This has never been just 'a job' for me. And it shouldn't be. For anyone."

Hopkinson came back in March of this year, because, she said, no other job left her feeling as fulfilled.

"To be an animal control officer, you have to have a big heart and a strong constitution," she said. "You have to separate yourself from what you want to do to these people and with what needs to be done. And you have to have compassion for these animals, because they don't get it at home."

Both Hopkinson and Halford agree that things are better than they were before. But there still are things we could do. Institute a mandatory spay/neuter law, for example. Or put more teeth in our ordinances to ensure harsher punishment for people who are cruel to animals.

After talking with Halford for about an hour, she had this final thought to share with Topeka:

"Taking on a pet is a responsibility. It means taking on the responsibility of that animal's life. That you will do whatever it takes, provide whatever it takes, pay whatever it may take. If you're not willing to do that, don't get a pet in the first place."
For adoptable pets the ACO picks up, visit


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