Friday, August 18, 2006

IN THE BEGINNING (Animal Control)

1. In the beginning
“Can you lift up a big dog?” asked the young, handsome, black, male Civil Service panel interviewer.

“Well, I know I can pick up a wolf, because I was married to a taxidermist and handled the animals brought in for mounting. I can’t pick up both ends of a cougar at once because they’re so long that while I’ve got one end off the floor, the other end is still down there. And I have to skid bears, especially grizzlies. Of course, they were all dead.”

The panel looked at each other. The woman asked, “Could you shoot a coyote?”

“Every morning before we had our own breakfast, we went out on the prairie and shot a gopher to feed our pet eagle. So I’ve had a lot of practice. Of course, it was only a .22.”

The hard-bitten older man asked, “Could you serve a citation to an angry citizen?”

“Have you ever told an angry Blackfeet athlete he couldn’t play in the tournament game because he didn’t get his assignments done?”

The man smiled. “What about breaking up dog fights?”

“In Browning I had to break up dog fights every morning to get into the school building.”

His smile broadened. I’m not sure he believed me, but I was telling the truth. The woman on the panel looked worried. The black man wanted to ask me about Blackfeet Indians -- he didn’t, but I know he wanted to.

In Montana I’d taught high school English and been married to a taxidermist/sculptor, who divorced me, which was why I was back in Portland looking for a job. I did not want to teach anymore. I’d gone to the county civil service and was working my way through the exams for various jobs. I had no idea what the job of “Animal Control Officer” might be like and that was probably an advantage. It’s a job where all the best people seem to come by accident.

Before taking the paper exam that preceded this interview, I’d turned to the small dark-haired woman next to me and asked, “Do you know what this job is?”

“Well, I’m hoping it has something to do with horses. Maybe whether they have enough feed and water or something. I’m pre-veterinary.”

It happened that whoever had to design the test had been told by impatient county prosecutors that animal control officers weren’t writing good enough reports, so the exam was mostly about writing reports. One of the previous exams had included an agility test, since the person who invented that one was quite literal about the job being “dog catcher.” She designed an obstacle course that involved ducking under desks and jumping over chairs. A fellow across the table was very pleased to have missed that test, since he had a crippled leg. None of the people who showed up in uniform looked very pleased about writing to questions. They weren’t the writing type. (Thus the report problem.) Other than that, it didn’t appear that any of the double-dozen test takers fell into the same type.

I came out first on the list when written scores and interview were combined. The manager could choose anyone from the first five on the list. He was determined not to hire a woman. One of the two men on the list withdrew. Another turned out to have a felony conviction. In trying to get rid of me, the manager declared that anyone who had not had experience caring for animals was disqualified. I called my ex-husband, who wrote a letter of recommendation for me, saying that I had cared for our animals: dogs, cats, bobcats, horses, cattle, an eagle, an owl, et al. The manager said that was “household” and not for pay. So I called Bob Scriver again, and he submitted an affidavit that he’d paid me to care for the animals before we were married. By now I was feeling the resistance and becoming much more interested in being hired. Who were they to say I couldn’t do the job? Bob wrote, “If she says she can do something, she can do it.” (He didn’t tell them the rest of what he told me: “You know what you CAN do, but you don’t know what you CAN’T do!”)

So the manager decided to send me out into the field with a real animal control officer -- he figured that would run me off. I went out with a handsome guy named Kris, who clearly had orders to tell me every horror story he could and to take me to the most atrocious complaints possible. We went to see a horse staked out in the sun with no water. The next call was a single mother whose child repeatedly threw a kitten against a brick wall. When we intervened, the mother grew very angry and said the child was only trying to throw the kitten over the wall and it wasn’t his fault he wasn’t strong enough. We couldn’t talk her into giving us the kitten. We never seemed to catch any dogs. Kris liked a clean truck.

This managerial strategy had gotten me really interested by now. I talked to the assistant manager, who was QUITE different from the manager. Think Kojack, think “The Shield,” think big bald guy who smokes long thin brown cigarettes and doesn’t say much. The less he said, the more I said, so that much later when I knew him well enough to ask for a first impression, he said he thought I sure talked a lot. In the next five years I learned to be much more like Mike Burgwin, but I still talk a lot.

Burgwin had nothing against hiring a woman. In fact, he thought it was time. The manager finally concluded that the best way to get rid of me was to put me out in the field until I failed. There had only been one other female animal control officer in the state of Oregon, a woman in Washington County -- in the posh hills west of Portland -- and she had to quit when she hurt her back. I would be the first woman in the county, the second in the state.

I don’t know what Mel’s title really was, but he was the deliberate, humorous, Andy Griffith country man who kept track of officers and trucks. (His biggest challenge with female AC officers was teaching us to walk around our truck, looking for flat tires and oil puddles, before we drove off for the day.) He actually had field experience, unlike the two managers, though Burgwin had been a police officer in California. Mel would train me.

We took the fistful of complaints that had come in by phone, got into the truck, and went out to address them one-by-one, trying to get them into some sort of geographical pattern so we wouldn’t have to retrace too much. We picked up dead cats, dead dogs, dead possums. It drove Mel wild that I kept leaving the “o” off the front of opossum, which he thought was improper and a sign of poor English skills. “It’s Oh-possum,” he corrected me again and again. We found a dead and abandoned rubber galosh reported by some near-sighted citizen, but declined to pick it up. I observed dead animals who seemed to be only sleeping and others that had been smeared clear down the block, their lung blood much brighter and more orange. Some were maggoty -- it was summer.

The sheriff’s radio in the car wasn’t all that busy. They kept us on a separate channel, but we observed the same protocol and used the same code for calls. The deputies who were assigned to monitor the radio were guys who were recovering from injuries or who had goofed up and were being closely supervised. They were bored and inclined to be amused by almost everything, including me on the radio. There were supposed to be a couple of county health nurses on the air, but I never heard them call in. We had an occasional emergency -- dog hit by car, dog being held by citizen -- that meant we were notified by radio to put aside our plans and go deal with the problem.

Once we went back to the shelter to get the horse trailer so we could haul a horse into safekeeping. A citizen had had it tied up in the backyard for a day without finding an owner and was out of patience. Mel was entertained that I was so wary of the backend of the horse. He thought it meant that I was scared of the animal, but in truth all the horses I knew were likely to lash out with both rear feet, including the horse I rode.

2. On My Own

After I’d spent a couple of days out with Mel, trying to absorb his advice and war stories, I was sent out on my own with a fistful of complaints to cover Mel’s area while he caught up on shelter-based tasks. It was lucky I was in the rural county because the hardest thing for me was city driving. I’d learned to drive in a stick-shift pickup, so that was fine, but I had a low consciousness of things to watch for in the city. In fact, at night when everything was rain-slicked patent leather, full of moving neon reflections, I was sometimes almost immobilized for lack of ability to interpret what I was seeing.

In the daytime on county roads I still had tunnel vision, trying hard to keep in focus my goals as an animal control officer. So concentrated was I, that when I came upon a stopped school bus, I didn’t stop behind it as I ought to have. Instead I inched past it, watching for kids, not even registering what I was doing. When I got back to the shelter, Mel was waiting for me. The school bus driver, a woman, had called him and given him an accurate description of me. She could easily have had me ticketed which would have lost me my job.

Mel confronted me with my misdeed and at that moment I went into amnesia. I denied the whole thing, really believing that I hadn’t done it. Months later, just as I drifted off to sleep, the whole incident replayed itself in my mind and I knew I’d been lying. Mel’s combination of exasperation and amusement persisted throughout my career in the field.

But it was not the worst of what he, Burgwin and the manager were afraid of what might happen. They hovered by their radios, waiting to see what 719 would do next. My number, 719, was so branded into my consciousness that even today, thirty-five years later, if someone in a crowd says, “I’ll meet you at seven-nineteen,” my ears whip around to focus on them. If someone wished to wake me from a deep sleep, they could do it quicker by saying 719 than by saying my name.

I think the management expected me to be assaulted, maybe shot or maybe raped, by either some bottom-feeder human or some vicious animal. They thought I would make grave political errors (they were right there) or get into hair-pulling fights with low-class woman (wrong). Some of them just figured I’d quit. Damned if I would. What no one expected -- not even me -- was that I would get interested. But I did.

The reason they HAD to hire at that point was that vacation season was beginning. It was August, the temperatures were soaring over a hundred degrees, and few remember how polluted the air was in Portland in the Seventies, to say nothing of the streams. Pets wandered everywhere, trying to find a comfortable spot. I drove from one address to another, the steering wheel slippery from sweat, picking up one dog after another and grateful that they had been detained by citizens. We had nothing but a cab over the bed of a pickup with chains installed along the sides, bull-snaps every so often, and a couple dozen choke-chains to put on the dogs. They couldn’t be put in there loose because of fighting, but the choke chains wrenched them around unmercifully so I tried to drive smoothly, esp. going around corners.

The worst was coming back with them on the Banfield Freeway with its narrow lanes, reckless drivers, and miasma of exhaust after a ten or twelve hour day in the heat. The radio squatted there malevolently, waiting until the truck passed the last convenient egress to demand that I turn back for one last call. One day in fireworks season a couple of little boys on an overpass dropped a lit firecracker on the truck which exploded between the cab and the topper. I thought we’d been shot. So did the dogs, who shut up for once.

I was still living with my mother, who had not approved of the job but approved of unemployment even less, and when she saw me stagger in full of sweat and stink, she’d push me into the shower, lay out clean clothes, then pull me out the door to a Mexican hamburger joint that served Margueritas. My father the teetotaller would not have approved, but he was dead and it was clear I wasn’t going to live through this without a little help.

Some time in the fall the second female animal control officer was hired, the small, dark-haired pre-vet woman I sat next to at the test, and I was assigned my own district. At this point in law enforcement history, Lee Brown -- a man of cool and education who later had to wrestle with the serial murderer of small black boys in Atlanta -- was the sheriff of Multnomah County. I was assigned SE Portland from the Willamette to 82nd and from the Banfield to Powell. A new policeman also assigned to that area was Charles Moose, who rose steadily in the Portland Police Force until he was chief and then found his nimesis in the man and boy snipers just outside Washington, D.C.

Clearly the politicians and higher managers were determined to hire blacks and women in a spirit of equity and a certain amount of experiment. A UPS driver in the area was a former Rose Festival princess who innocently drove her tall delivery truck under a low wisteria pergola at the sedate Baptist Theological Seminary on Mount Tabor. It was demolished. We all made our mistakes.

My “beat” was inner SE Portland and it suited me pretty well. The area was from 82nd Street, which had been the city limits when I was a child, to the Willamette River, which had once been lined with docks and warehouses. The other boundaries were SE Powell, a major artery, and the Banfield Freeway, which was sunken, following an old water course, curving over into NE and then back almost to SE.

Burnside was the real division between SE and NE, but the Banfield was the more practical line since one had to cross back and forth over bridges. Learning where they were took a while. There were little pockets of short streets that were hard to find because the approach was peculiar, chopped off by the sunken freeway. This former water course was still enough like a stream -- with landscaping along both sides imitating riparian banks and the asphalt ribbon of pavement shining wet so often -- that large animals occasionally followed it at night. Most notable was a deer that got into the open-air shopping mall called the Lloyd Center and panicked at the plate glass windows, finally crashing into one of them and slicing itself up beyond saving. Most impressive were the cougars that go whereever deer go, though we rarely saw them.

The sociology and geography of this area was fascinating in my view and one of the rewards of the job, but later on I found that it was hard to interest new officers. I had one major high-income neighborhood, Laurelhurst, and two extinct volcanoes, Mt. Tabor and Rocky Butte. Just south of Laurelhurst was downscale housing, now often occupied by hippies. In Laurelhurst, which was proud of its artistically curving streets, I sometimes got lost until I spent some time learning the names of the streets. Once I paused on the street by a large red-headed woman, rather like Julia Child, who was working in her yard. She turned out to be a recent immigrant from Ireland. I asked her if the climate were the same and she said Ireland was rather more cold. I asked her about pets and she said that in Britain one didn’t have a pet without a walled yard! After that, when I passed her working on her yard, I would tarry a moment and she’d say, jestingly, “Ah, are ye out persecutin’ God’s four-footed craytchurs agin today?” in a thick brogue.

Just south of Hawthorne, which was having a counter-culture revival plus hosting many halfway houses for felons, I answered a complaint about a man who didn’t keep his dogs confined. They weren’t licensed either. He said that he’d spent enough time locked up with a number on him and didn’t intend to ever impose that on his dogs. I kept trying to impress him that a dog license was “a phone call home for a dog without a dime,” and proof of rabies immunization so that anyone bitten would be spared the shots, which at that time were pretty formidable. He was reasonable, self-contained, and polite. Partly as an experiment, when I was in the neighborhood and saw him sitting smoking on his front steps with his dogs, I’d stop and sit alongside him for a moment to chat. We talked books and society -- he was a guy who had made a mistake, not a natural lowlife -- and I’d get in a little something about licensing dogs. Finally he did buy licenses. But there wasn’t time to do this with everyone.

Down the street was a hostile household of young people headed by a self-appointed alpha male who defied every authority figure. One of the household dogs, an Irish Setter, was hit by a car and I was called. The man of the house and others arrived soon after and I surrendered the dog to them, not ticketing them since the injuries to the dog seemed punishment enough. Later they had a Saint Bernard (I was becoming curious about the origins of expensive purebred dogs in a scruffy household) but it would rush off and stand in its own yard, as though it knew I couldn’t impound it there. Once I had an inspiration and brought along a little bag of cookies. Instead of chasing the dog, I sat on the curb and slowly ate my cookies. Soon there was slobbering on my shoulder and I had the dog. In court the alpha male guy pled “entrapment” and tried to paint a picture of me offering my haunches to the dog. This sort of thing makes officers ever more strict.

On the same street an electrical company worker was up a pole and happened to glance in an upstairs window. He saw what seemed to be a body on a bed, outlined with mold and strangely sunken. When police investigated, over the objections of the male resident, it turned out to be the woman who presumably owned the house -- dead for years. The man had been living with her when she died but was not the designated inheritor, so he simply spread a blanket over her and left her. After he had been endorsing and cashing her Social Security checks for a while, everyone got used to it and he was not challenged.

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