Understaffed Animal Control department struggles to respond to Beaufort County's needs

Animal control officers are overloaded, understaffed as they strive to protect the public in a job where the saved sometimes bite

May 12, 2008 

Beaufort County animal control officers do it all.

They trap and treat animals. They investigate cruelty cases and make arrests. They prepare animals for adoption and euthanize those they can't nurse to health.

In addition to the normal day-to-day tasks they perform, officers field a constant stream of calls from both Animal Control headquarters and Beaufort County Sheriff's Office dispatch.

The officers often perform all these tasks in a single day.

On top of that, there are only three animal control officers for the entire county. At least one officer is on call 24 hours a day. That means each officer is on call a couple of days a week.

Plans to add three new recruits will bring the department to full staff -- six officers -- for the first time in almost two years, said director Toni Lytton.

Until then, the department will continue to be stretched thin.

"What's a typical day like?" asks Cpl. Beverly Bush. "There is no typical day."

Bush, who has been with the department since 1997, finds "every day is a new challenge."

The biggest challenge?

"Getting everything done," she said.

Many days it's difficult just deciding how to start.

VOICELESS VICTIMS

Officers compile a rolling list of priorities daily. But when they leave headquarters each morning, their Sheriff's Office vans rattling with carriers, traps and canned food, they know there's no chance they'll finish everything on their lists by the end of the day.

"Everybody thinks their call is the most important," said Staff Sgt. Patti Wright. "We have to respond to the most devastating cases first."

Even as officers make progress, "the list grows," Bush said.

For example, Bush and a new recruit -- who can't work alone yet -- responded to a call Thursday about a tortured tan and white pit bull. That case jumped to the top of the priority list.

Once Bush and recruit Deputy Sheriff Danielle Shea got to the scene, they found the emaciated dog, its face swollen, its teeth broken and its wounds covered in maggots.

The two put the badly injured dog on a stretcher and took it to a veterinarian.

"It had clearly been a fighting dog," Bush said.

Animal control director Lytton said tracing stray fighting dogs to owners can be impossible.

At times, the only witness is the victim.

"We wish they could talk sometimes," she said.

THE BITING WARS

During a reporter's recent visit to the Beaufort County Animal Control headquarters and shelter in Beaufort, phones rang constantly. Families clustered together as they filled out forms to adopt pets. A black cat with a broken tail wandered the front office.

Guests of the facility include dogs, cats, rabbits, a horse, goats, geese and chickens, among other animals.

All three Beaufort County Animal Control officers -- who are full sheriff's deputies and currently all female -- have been with the department for more than a decade, Lytton said.

That length of service makes the department unique.

"The burnout rate is usually quicker than that," she said.

Bush recalls a rough start.

"I had two weeks under my belt and then I put in my two-week notice," she said. "I didn't want to euthanize animals. I remember saying to myself, 'I got into this because I love animals. I can't do this.' "

Lytton recalled encouraging her to stay for another two weeks to make time on the job an even month before making a final decision to quit.

That extra time changed her mind.

"Then I realized that what I could give was worth more than how much it hurt," Bush said.

That was almost 12 years ago.

That emotional toll is not the only obstacle officers face.

Many calls involve aggressive animals. And some of them don't appear aggressive at first glance. That doesn't mean they aren't dangerous.

During her field training with Bush, recruit Shea tried to pick up a stray cat. The cat seemed friendly, so Shea didn't think she'd have a problem getting it into a carrier. That's when the cat turned on her, sank its teeth into her arm and refused to let go.

Humor helped her get past the attack.

"I've always liked animals," she said. As she spoke, she looked down at her arm, bandaged from the wrist to the elbow. "Well, I did until today," she said and laughed.

Bush looked down at her own strong, but heavily scarred forearms and offered this: "Welcome to your first bite."

Lytton is another veteran of the biting wars. She takes such attacks as a small affront to her skills.

"When you get bitten, you get mad, because you know you're better than that," Lytton said.

LITTLE HELP, MANY DUTIES

Time is the officers' worst enemy. Bush and Wright andmust cover the entire county alone when the third officer, a member of the Sheriff's Office Dive Team, is unable to work. On those days, Wright covers everything south of the Broad River; Bush everything north.

The officers sometimes get help from road deputies, who handle calls about barking dogs or crowing roosters -- calls that don't require special equipment or expertise. They also rely on the shelter's four technicians and one office administrator, who take care of the facility's adoption room.

Even with all that, keeping up with everything is a struggle.

Animal Control conducts its own investigations into cruelty cases. That means officers are responsible for everything from making arrests to processing paperwork.

THINKING POSITIVE

Of the 5,978 animals admitted to the shelter last year, 1,262 were adopted while 4,322 were euthanized.

While the numbers of animals both admitted and euthanized are slightly up from last year, they have remained relatively stable over the past four, according to data provided by Animal Control.

Animals in the adoption room are kept indefinitely, Lytton said.

"We try to keep them until they get adopted," she said. "Very rarely do we pull them because we have no room."

Animals involved in court cases must be kept until the trial is over. Strays are given physical exams to determine if they're adoptable. If not, they're held three to 10 days before they're euthanized.

For the officers, euthanizing is just part of the job, although perhaps the toughest part.

Bush said she tries to focus on the positive -- like nursing a beaten animal back to health.

"When it goes up for adoption, you feel like a million bucks," she said.

Another highlight is when animals can be nurtured with help from foster families. The foster program, organized by the Humane Association of the Lowcountry, matches animals with people who pay for medicine and food to bring animals back to good health.

NO EXPANSION IN SIGHT

Even when the department is back at full staff, there likely will be more work than the officers can handle.

And expanding the staff isn't an option, Lytton said.

"If we add more staff, then we'll need more technicians" to care for the animals, she said, "and more space. We're already overloaded."

Expanding the Beaufort facility is a dream of the officers, but not one that is likely to come true anytime soon.

They'd like to be able to house more animals, have a bigger adoption room and have a separate room for sick animals. They'd also like more time to visit schools to educate children.

All these things cost money, which is tight throughout the county this budget season. Last year, Animal Control operated on a budget of about $809,000, Lytton said.

While those practical budgetary concerns are important, most of the officers say they are driven by something much more valuable -- that "million-dollar feeling" they get helping an animal in need.

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