Wednesday, September 13, 2006


The image of the “dog catcher” is forever embedded in the consciousness of America, along with all the epithets: “I wouldn’t vote for you for dogcatcher.” “I wouldn’t wear that hat to a dog fight.” “Don’t date her -- she’s a real dog.”

One day I knocked on the door of a barking dog complainant and found myself face-to-face with my high school counselor, Grace Deierlein. “Why, Mary Strachan,” she gasped. “I thought I got you a scholarship to a good college!” She did, too.

My mother was so embarrassed that when people asked what I was doing now, she’d just say airily, “Oh, she’s doing government work.” In the end, after many wild tales and philosophical discussions, she decided that I was the Margaret Sanger of the animal world (because of trying to cut down pet overpopulation) and after that it was all right. I think that’s the key: all the wild tales and philosophical discussions. Thus these blogs.

When I was first hired, we wore dark green wash ‘n wear work shirts and pants along with what someone called “Texaco gas station attendant hats.” The kind with a little patent leather bill. After a few years we went to the same beige and brown uniforms that the sheriff’s posse wore, along with Ranger hats. We had quite a lot of argument over those hats, which were very expensive Stetsons. Most of us, like police officers, hated to wear hats of any kind. Some wanted ball caps. I’m interested that the sheriff’s deputies in this little town wear ball caps and basically military multi-pocketed cargo pants with mesh and leather military boots. Trim, light, official -- but somehow “kid’s clothes.”

Several of the guys wanted us to look as much like police as possible and haunted the shop downtown that supplied police with leather add-ons, like holsters for the steel flashlights that made such good weapons once loaded with batteries. Mel liked the Texaco hats, but he also liked a good military press on our outfits. When I came in from the field with puppy fur stuck to my pants legs up to the knees, reeking of cat pee, my hair on end, no sign of a crease anywhere, an unidentifiable smudge on my nose, he despaired.

One day I was driving past the big statue of Joan d’Arc who flies her flag at 39th and Glisan, a traffic circle that confused traffic, I saw two Shelties dodging in and out of the cars. I pulled over to the side street they seemed to come from and was bailing them into the truck when the owner, an expensively dressed woman, came storming out. While I wrote tickets so I didn’t have to transport the dogs, she hissed at me about how heartless I was, how barren my soul must be, what a sterile bitch, etc. “Do you have any children?” she demanded. I didn’t.

A little later I got a call to zig over to NE to pick up a dog a man was holding. He was a big black guy and he didn’t like uniforms. “What kind of bull dyke they hirin’ down there at County now?” he demanded, running a critical eye over my bulky physique.

Then I responded to a call about a pack of dogs following a bitch in heat. (A canine bitch, that is.) Sure enough, about five big male dogs. I tried to put the female into the truck, which usually meant the “pack” jumped in as well, but this time it didn’t work. She was too skittish. So I hooked fingers in the collars of those that had collars -- four out of five ain’t bad -- and pulled them towards the truck. Combined, they had roughly the power of a dogsled team and when the female bolted, I became the sled, skidding along on my knees, which demolished my britches. When I gave up, a bystander, a rather well-turned-out young guy who had been safely on the sidewalk a few houses away, shook his head and said, “Stupid ditsy blonde! Don’t know how to do anything.” That made me mad: my hair was naturally bright red.

When I got back to the shelter, one of the attendants was just getting a phone call. Someone was demanding to talk to the woman officer with the frizzy hair and the big boobs. “Here, Mary, it’s for you.” Of course, the other woman officer was a small flat-chested brunette, so it wasn’t a hard deduction.

The first manager of animal control was deeply sexist, a Portugese, and he called me “dear.” I asked him not to, since I was in a feminist phase. He said he’d call me any damn thing he wanted to -- he was the boss. I said, “Okay, sugar!” which so enraged him he almost came over the desk at me. That’s when Burgwin started calling me “Babe,” as in “Hey, Babe, get your butt in here.” Of course, he was grinning and enjoying the whole thing.

When I stopped for lunch at a restaurant and used the ladies’ room, I often startled more conventionally dressed ladies who didn’t expect a uniform.

Portland is famously rainy. We were required to wear black shoes but there was no stipulation about what kind of black shoes, so I searched around until I found a pair of black canvas tennis shoes. All winter I kept the truck heater turned on high so I could dry my feet and stay comfortable with the window rolled down. We couldn’t use a conventional radio because of being on the sheriff’s radio, so I often sang show tunes, the main songs I knew. A citizen demanded, “Are you SINGING??” Well, that was the theory.

Finally one day I was in the courthouse downtown when I was spotted by the head of the County Commissioners. Evidently some citizen had called his office screaming about being ticketed by “some zaftig old female in tennie runners” and then I went pattering and squishing by on the fancy marble floor. He called the shelter and I was ordered to buy black boots. Defiantly, I visited the Danner boot factory, which was in my district, and bought the biggest heaviest blackest boots with the heaviest tread they had -- meant for firefighters who are parachuted into the scene. Actually, they turned out to be very useful when a mean dog made a feint at my ankles.

One hot summer day I was on the Banfield at the end of the day, sweated through and stinking, but cheerful because I had a ticket for the ballet that night. (I’ve always been a balletomane.) The radio came crackling on and insisted that I turn back to pick up a dead animal, not even in my district. I tried to suggest someone else, but I was the last truck out. No choice. Shifted over to the outside lane and the off-ramp, grumbling.

It turned out to be a dead sheep. In fact, it had been dead quite a while since the owner, an old man, had disappeared on his own pursuits and left the carcass where it lay. The woman next door was fed up with the smell and determined to get rid of it RIGHT NOW. So, heave ho, it went into the truck which luckily didn’t have many dogs in it. And SPLUSH the thing broke open in a cloud of gas, goo and maggots. It was by far the most stinking and nasty carcass I ever picked up and it splashed slime on me. The woman shrieked but she was so happy to be rid of the thing that she didn’t complain.

I got to the shelter late and rushed everything enough to get to a shower and dress, but only barely and my scrubbing might have missed a few places. Anyway, I got to the Civic Auditorium and crowded to my seat during the overture, sighing with relief. At the first intermission I glanced at the woman next to me and found she was staring at me incredulously. “Aren’t you the officer who picked up the dead sheep?” Sure enough. “I didn’t know dog catchers went to the ballet.”

Clearly the last part of the consciousness raising project will be the erasure of the phrase “dog catcher.”


SB said...

I am loving this series of posts. Since I read you in Bloglines, you probably don't know that.

Do you know you've got a book here?

A good book.

Thivai Abhor said...

I would like to extend an invitation to you to join in on a collective blogging section of our upcoming winter issue of Reconstruction

Here is the original call:

Theories/Practices of Blogging

Our intent in this section of the issue will be to collect a wide range of bloggers and link up to their statements in regards to why they blog (something many of us are asked) and any statement they have on the theories/practices of blogging.

If you already have a post on this you can feel free to use it, or, if you are interested, you can submit a new one.

We will link to each statement from the issue at our site, with the intent of creating a hyperlinked list of statements on blogging that can serve as an introduction to blogging (or an expansion of knowledge for those already blogging).

If you are interested please contact me at mdbento @

Anonymous said...

Superb writing--brava!
Cop Car

prairie mary said...

Thanks, folks. I'm pleased you like this stuff.

Prairie Mary

Matt Mullenix said...

>>Clearly the last part of the consciousness raising project will be the erasure of the phrase “dog catcher.”

But Mary, don't you think "Animal Control Officer" is a tad militant?

I much favor "critter getter."

Maybe, "County Critter Getter" if it has to have an official ring.

Great post (again)!

Anonymous said...

This whole thing was freaking hilarious. Thank you for a bit of fun and the laughs I got with this blog. I feel for you with your job but at the same time think it's awesome - you MUST write a book!

prairie mary said...

The book "Dog-Catching in America" is available at

Prairie Mary