Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Before I was hired to be the first woman dogcatcher for Multnomah County (second in the State of Oregon), I was asked to go on a “ridealong” to make sure I really knew what it was all about. The powers that be were convinced that any woman exposed to the raw facts of life would find some other job more genteel. They were wrong: I was intrigued by the problems and interested in trying to find solutions. Going in and out of people’s lives in response to complaints and emergencies took me places I never suspected. It felt like a call to action.

I never forgot the power of that experience and used it now and then in different ways. Once I asked the judge to “sentence” a vitriolic, scoffing, noncompliant middle-class woman to go with me all day. By noon she was saying she could only admire animal control officers and that she would never make trouble again.

By far the most pleasant ridealong passenger I had was David Weintraub, who took the photo with this blog. Intelligent, cheerful and competent, I don’t think he -- like the rest of us -- really had much idea what he was in for. My area was SE Portland, which ranged from big mansions broken up into little roosts for hippie kids with big dogs through pleasant quiet neighborhoods down to the rather grand homes around Reed College, where people felt their dogs were “entitled” to special treatment. I usually didn’t deal with the real criminal element of the city, but rather with argumentative folks who wanted to impose their own standards of the good life on everyone else.

The fact that I had a photographer along did affect the dynamics of interventions. Some dogs were easier to catch, since they had learned just one set of indicators for animal control officers -- one person, no camera. Some offenders (the dogs were not the offenders -- it was the people who were breaking the laws) were harder to deal with because they began to playact and show off. Others made themselves scarce, not wanting their photo anywhere they could be recognized.

On the other hand we never faced the trauma of the young, pretty, female officer down in the rural south who was carrying along a videographer. A pit bull came out of nowhere and attacked the officer, trying to tear her throat out but not quite able to leap that high, so shredding her bosom. The videographer, male, got some footage of it, maybe thinking that all animal control officers knew how to handle such events. In a moment he realized that the officer was overwhelmed and put down his camera to grab a big stick and beat off the dog.

The worst David and I confronted that day was the evidently communal household of owners of a St. Bernard who had also owned an Irish Setter, but it had run loose until it was hit by a car. Evidently penniless, according to the neighbors, they let the dog lie in the front yard unattended until it died. Since it was on private property, I certainly couldn’t remove it and the neighbors would have been at some legal risk to do so. They felt it would be dangerous.

I was suspicious of how such threadbare young people managed to acquire such fancy purebred dogs and one way to find out was to boost the St. Bernard -- which was loose -- into the truck. In order to get it back, they’d have to answer a lot of questions and come up with some stiff fees. If I put a citation on the dog, they would also be recorded in the formal court system and required to pay or go to court. If they ignored it, it was possible that some day far in the future when the highway patrol stopped them and ran their identification through the computer, this citation would come up. Very inconvenient.

I rarely cited loose dogs without some history like this. But in those days we didn’t get pit bulls very often. (Rottweilers were just beginning to be turned to the same nefarious purposes as fighting dogs and drug guards.) Once there was a story about a deputy who was trying to serve a warrant way out in the boonies. He knew enough to stay in his vehicle and honk, but a pit bull came charging out and bit his tires hard enough to deflate them. Luckily, he had a radio. In those days animal control officers didn’t have personal radios or cell phones, just the radio in the truck. If things looked tricky, you told the dispatcher to listen for you and if you didn’t come back on the air in ten minutes, to send backup. It was nice to have someone else along.

Today David is a successful writer, photographer, editor, and instructor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina who will get his master's in December. His website: shows off his fine work. I particularly admire his portraits of individuals in their own settings. I would like to think that his portrait of me in my “dog-catching” days is a good example. When I called out of the blue, he was so organized that within minutes he was able to locate the photos he took that rainy June day in 1975 just before I went to a desk job as education coordinator. We both remember it rather vividly.

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