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Off the leash: Animal Control officers so much more than ‘dog catchers’

Posted: April 5, 2015 2:26 p.m.
Updated: April 6, 2015 1:00 a.m.
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A Kershaw County Animal Control officer deals with a couple of horses who got loose in a rural part of the county.

Kershaw County’s Animal Control officers tackle a wide variety of duties, many the public may not be aware of. Gone are the days of the “dog catcher,” a term the officers say they find offensive, because these days they are highly-trained and well-equipped authorities who handle not only animal issues, but also enforce the county codes regarding litter, illegal dumping and other issues that affect quality of life.

Kershaw County Director of Safety and Emergency Services Gene Faulkenberry oversees the Code Enforcement Division, among several others, and said no two days are the same, especially with animal control.

“They do animal and litter control, but they also do Planning and Zoning code enforcement. They’ll go out on complaints and issue citations and try to correct problems. They do three different jobs, really,” Faulkenberry said.

Sgt. Bobbie Bullington said the majority of the work done by herself and her two fellow officers are in animal control, but they answer complaints about unsightly or potentially dangerous properties.

“The typical is junky yards, junk cars, household garbage on a property or illegal dumping. It’s not illegal dumping on your own property, but it’s a DHEC (Department of Health and Environmental Control) issue. You can’t leave mounds of garbage on your property. It’s a health issue,” Bullington explained. “There’s ordinances and state laws that govern animals and litter.”

With animals, Bullington said most of the calls coming into the department are nuisance calls.

“Most of the nuisance calls are for dogs. Cats are normally feral. The nuisance calls include barking, running at large, what people sometimes call viscous but really they’re not, they just run up and bark at you,” she said. “In some people’s eyes, it’s viscous.”

Faulkenberry said his officers get training at the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy as any other law enforcement officer would. Bullington said specialized training for animal control also comes from various sources. She said the first step when a call is received about a nuisance animal is to try to find who the owner is and verbal warnings are given, or a written warning may be issued for more serious offenses.

“If it continues we can actually issue citations based on the complaint and we all go to court,” she said.

On that point, Faulkenberry added the officers have to gather and preserve evidence to help their case if it does end up in a courtroom.

Bullington said when animals have no home that is known, they either set traps or try to catch the animals by hand. They are allowed to tranquilize animals if needed, but use that tactic only when others have already failed, Bullington said.

“We have multiple avenues. Our traps are the first line of defense. Actually, we try to get the animal to come to us. If that doesn’t work we go to the traps. If the traps don’t work, we have a net gun and if that doesn’t work the last resort is drugs,” Bullington said. “Nine times out of 10 a situation has already de-escalated by the time we arrive, so we get the tail end of it. If there is a viscous dog running loose, we do what we have to do to get the dog away from humans.”

Bullington and Faulkenberry agree it takes a person of certain patience and temperment to be a successful animal control officer and learning animal psychology and behavior comes with experience.

“You have to have an understanding of the animals. Sometimes with animals, what seems mean to you won’t seem mean to me,” Faulkenberry said. “It’s a little bit of a learning curve when you first come in. I’ve always dealt with animals, but I find I now do some things different over the past two years.”

Bullington said she and her fellow officers all have stories involving animals other than the usual household pets.

“We had some peacocks down on 521. We cornered them in a garage. We had a net we would throw and these people had some antiques and nice cars in this garage, so they said, ‘don’t hit our antiques or our cars.” So, we didn’t and we managed to net one of the peacocks and I picked it up and it had been in the swamp for a week and it smelled like it,” she said. “We had a call over in the Elgin area. There was an Emu running loose. It had been in this neighborhood for a week. We cornered it in someone’s yard and we called in a volunteer that has been helping us with livestock. We had to wrangle that Emu into a horse trailer.”

Wildlife falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), but Bullington said she and the other officers will intervene in an emergency, like the time a fawn deer was wandering in and out of traffic in downtown Camden.

“Right up here behind the courthouse, this little deer was wandering around. We called DNR, but they said it would be a while before they could get there and we were afraid the deer would get hit by a car or cause an accident, so we caught it,” she said. “But that was a rare case. DNR takes care of wild animals.”

Faulkenberry said he had a call of 14 cows running loose in the county and when he arrived, their owner was leading them home with a bucket of feed.

“I got in behind them and used my emergency lights so people would see them and not drive up and scatter the herd and he walked them back to the pasture,” he said.

Bullington said when livestock are recovered the department has several volunteers who will offer trailers to transport the animals and farm facilities to keep them until the owners or a proper place can be found. Horses, Bramha bulls and a mule are all subjects of stories from animal control.

Faulkenberry said successful animal control in Kershaw County is accomplished with the cooperative efforts of three agencies; his department, the Walter M. Crowe Animal Shelter and the Kershaw County Humane Society.

“They help us, we help them, it’s that kind of situation. They work great with us and we try to repay the favor,” Faulkenberry said. “Right now it’s a good program and we’re only trying to make it better.”

As for being called “dog catcher,” Bullington said that’s quite an inaccurate term.

“If catching dogs was all we had to do, we would have it made,” she said. “But that’s just a small portion of what we do.”

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