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Animal control officers battle everything from lost pets to escaped livestock

Photo by Kristen Ralph

Photo by Kristen Ralph

COVINGTON -- It may not be the Land of Oz with lions and tigers and bears, but Newton County has been home to emus and kinkajous and zebras.

"You never know when the phone rings what it's going to be," said Freddie Ellis, senior administrative specialist with Newton County Animal Control.

Ellis, who was the second employee hired when Animal Control was created in 1990, said, "In our history, we have responded to calls of ostriches, an emu in 2000, donkeys on the interstate, pythons, frogs, fish. We've dealt with all kinds of stuff."

Indeed, "predictable" would not be a word to describe an average day at Animal Control. Every day brings a variety of situations to which the four Animal Control field officers must respond: barking dogs; animal bites; raccoons, snakes or other wild animals sighted on personal property; livestock breaking out of fences; or horses roaming along a county road.

ON THE ROAD

"I love coming to work every day -- every day is different," said Maynard Kerrick, who has worked as an Animal Control field officer for 13 years. "I love animals. I grew up on a farm and I knew this job was for me."

Kerrick begins most of his days about 8 a.m. when he picks up a stack of complaints from the Animal Control offices on Lower River Road that he responds to throughout his shift. He climbs in his truck, which is laden with various implements needed to secure or protect him from unpredictable animals, including a large kennel to transport any wildlife back to Animal Control offices, and begins driving along the county roads, keeping an eye out for stray dogs or other animals that have gotten off their owners' property.

On this particular November morning, the radio in the truck began to crackle as the dispatcher's voice advised that a group of cows near Almon Church Road had broken free of their fence.

Kerrick made his way to the scene, but by the time he arrived, another Animal Control officer and deputy with the Newton County Sheriff's Office had responded and the cows were secured.

Kerrick said these particular cows routinely get loose. Later that morning, he called the owner, who said the gate was unsecured as a result of sand dredging on the Yellow River nearby. He said that company agreed to reinforce the gate to keep the cows in.

Back on the road, Kerrick spied two small dogs wandering in the road. He slowly drove past a couple of houses to see if the dogs would begin to bark, a sign of protection and an indication of where they live. Sure enough, the dogs began running and barking as Kerrick parked in front of one of the homes.

After speaking with the dogs' owner and leading the animals to their fenced backyard, Kerrick returned to his truck where he received a call that a woman in Covington saw a raccoon sitting on her front steps.

Upon arriving at the East Street property, the raccoon was nowhere to be found, but Kerrick decided to look around the home and the property across the road.

"If you think about it, raccoons are like baby bears," he said. "They have claws and teeth; they're no joke."

On the way back to Animal Control, Kerrick responded to a call that horses were wandering along Lower River Road. He and fellow Animal Control Officer Therese Taylor shepherded the animals down the road and through a rusted gate. They then secured the gate with a rope.

All in a day's work, Kerrick said, as he made his way back to the Animal Control offices.

Some days are quiet with few calls and easily handled situations. Others, however, can test a field officer's fortitude.

For example, on Nov. 3, Kerrick was on duty to assist with the incident in Mansfield where two raccoons that were allegedly kept as pets mauled a 9-month-old baby. In April 2009, he helped bring to safety a zebra that had been placed in Seney Hall on the Oxford College campus as part of a student prank. He also assisted NCSO investigators in 2004 when they arrested 123 people involved in a dog-fighting ring.

BACK AT THE OFFICE

Activity at the Animal Control office can be just as hectic and unpredictable as life on the road.

Each day, Freddie Ellis fields phone calls from the public and assists those who come in to either give up an animal or to consider adopting one.

Between the telephone, radio and foot traffic, Ellis is always helping someone.

She said she averages about 370 complaint calls a month for all parts of Newton County, including the cities.

"A resident called to say she has a kitten at her house, sitting on her front porch and she can't find a home for it," Ellis explained as she hung up the phone. "I will dispatch an officer to the area she's in."

Ellis, deeply familiar with the county, scarcely looked at a map as she directed the field officer to where the woman lived.

A few minutes later, a man came to the office and asked for some documents he needed for an upcoming court hearing regarding a dispute over a neighbor's animals. Ellis asked him to fill out a request for open records and told him she would have the information for him in a couple of days.

"Good luck," she said as the man left.

On another day, Ellis chatted easily with a woman who came in to reclaim a dog she had given up the previous day as they waited for a kennel officer to retrieve the pet.

Ellis laughed when recalling some of the stranger calls she has received over the years.

"I remember we got a call about a kinkajou, which is part of the raccoon family, that had escaped from an exotic animal farm and wound up here in Newton County," she said. "The owner reclaimed it and then it escaped again, and they've never seen it since."

Ellis also was called to assist getting the zebra off the second floor of Seney Hall.

"I never thought I would be able to say I rode in an elevator with a zebra!" she said.

LIFE IN THE KENNEL

Animal Control was first established July 16, 1990. Teri Key-Hooson, who has been director of Animal Control since its inception, said she was the sole employee for about a month before she hired Ellis, who came on initially to work in the kennel.

Today, Animal Control operates on a budget of approximately $450,000 and employs four field officers, three kennel officers, Ellis and Key-Hooson.

Each of the field officers and kennel officers rotates who is on 24-hour call and weekend duties. Ellis and Key-Hooson are also on call most days.

The employees at Animal Control have a deep well of knowledge and experience: four of them have been with Animal Control for 20 years; Taylor for 18; Kerrick for 13; and Kennel Officer Robin Standard for six years.

When it first opened, Animal Control was equipped with nine large kennels that could be converted to 18. Key-Hooson said those nine kennels immediately were filled and today all 18 are usually filled.

In addition to the dog kennels, Animal Control utilizes six quarantine runs for dogs that are sick or because they have bitten someone; about 10 quarantine cages for cats; 26 regular cat cages and five puppy pens.

Key-Hooson said they are at full capacity, which ebbs and flows, about 95 percent of the time.

Also on the property are a fenced area for larger animals, such as horses, goats, cows and the like, and cages for birds, rabbits and other smaller wildlife.

Adult animals are fed once a day and the puppies and kittens are fed twice a day. Water is present at all times.

Animals can be brought in to the shelter from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

THE HARD TIMES

Newton County Animal Control is not a no-kill shelter so animals that cannot find homes are euthanized using an injection of Phenobarbital.

Key-Hooson said county ordinance provides that animals without an identifiable owner can be euthanized after being in the shelter three business days and those with an owner have six days. However, more time is often given and efforts are made to find homes for as many of the animals as possible.

Ellis said Animal Control officers will scan strays for microchips and rabies tags and attempt to contact the owners. She said Animal Control currently has two animals with microchips but they cannot locate the owners.

"We try to hold on to them as long as we can," Key-Hooson said.

She said they try to work with rescue groups and the Humane Society of Atlanta. She said a lady comes each week to take pictures of animals to post on the website, PetFinder.com.

Ellis said those who are missing a pet are encouraged to call Animal Control as soon as possible so they can see if they have the animal in one of the kennels.

"I wish people would call and send a picture immediately when the pet goes missing," she said. "A description like 'black chow mix' is very common. ... We do everything we can to encourage people to come here and look at the kennels."

Newton County Animal Control is located at 210 Lower River Road and is open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. Field services are available from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. For more information, call 770-786-9514 or visit http://co.newton.ga.us.