Dog days of summer for Tisbury ACO
For Laurie Clements, this summer has been one dog day after another. "Last year, it was crazy the last two weeks in August, and the first week in September," said Tisbury's beleaguered animal control officer (ACO). Counting 422 calls from Memorial Day weekend through August 12, she said she realized, "I've had almost double the calls from last summer."
Dogs have dominated her workload this season, Ms. Clements said. Although in the past the pound has been filled with cats, she has had very few calls about stray felines all summer.
As to the most frequent complaints she gets, Ms. Clements said it would be a toss-up between barking dogs and loose dogs. Lately, loose dogs have been particularly challenging. Sometimes enforcing Tisbury's leash law brings both hostility - and heartache - into Ms. Clements's workday.
Requested by the selectmen to clamp down on people who let their dogs run loose at Owen Park and beach, she heads there many times a day, handing out copies of the town's leash law and reminding owners to pick up their dogs' waste.
"It's been tough to enforce," Ms. Clements said. "A few people are understanding, but most have snide comments - 'I've been coming here for years' - 'poop is biodegradable' - one lady told me she didn't think the leash law included the water."
While she sympathizes with pet owners who want to let their dogs enjoy a swim, she said too many irresponsible people have ruined it for everyone.
On August 26, the Tisbury selectmen plan to hold a public hearing regarding possible rules for Owen Park, for example, banning dogs from the beach between 8 am to 5 pm. Ms. Clements said she thinks it would be easier to ban them entirely, rather than trying to enforce certain hours.
Working as an animal control officer in a small community sometimes means having to make tough and unpopular decisions under close scrutiny, and sometimes about pets owned by people she knows. Twice this summer she testified and made recommendations for penalties at dog hearings, including one last week that involved the Tisbury selectmen banning a dog from town that repeatedly ran loose and killed several chickens.
Photo by Ralph Stewart
Ms. Clements also recently dealt with a pet tragedy she said she will never forget. A babysitter accidentally left the front door open in a cottage near Owen Park. The family's Newfoundland, which is always kept in the house or in a fenced-in yard, escaped. True to its nature, the dog headed towards the water, where two little boys were playing on the beach with two miniature dachshunds. The Newfoundland picked up one of the little dogs and shook it, killing it right before the boys' eyes.
"She was the sweetest, nicest dog you could imagine - I tied her up, and she got right in my truck," Ms. Clements recalled. "It was a dual tragedy - both families had young kids."
She said the owners of the Newfoundland felt they had no choice but to have her euthanized because she had shown signs of aggression with other animals before, although never to that extent. They brought their children to the pound to tell the dog goodbye.
"That moment will stay with me my entire life," Ms. Clements said. "You don't just deal with the animals, but also the people - the emotion, the sadness - they're looking to me for answers and comfort."
Recently a woman stopped Ms. Clements in the street to say that her 13-year-old dog had an incurable illness and needed to be euthanized that day. Unable to find words of comfort, Ms. Clements said she cried with her. "Animals aren't with us long enough," she reflected.
Yet despite her job's sorrows, she said, "I like all of it. A lot of it balances out those sad things, like reuniting a dog with its little eight-year-old owner."
So far Ms. Clements hasn't had to catch any injured birds and has had few skunk calls, which she refers to professionals who trap them. She does try to help with all animal calls, taking to heart national ACO training she received in April. "They told us, we don't want to hear you say I don't handle this situation or that - you are animal control, and if somebody has a snake in the basement, you have to be willing to help," she said.
Ms. Clements started working as Tisbury's ACO full-time in June 2006, after working as a dog officer on an as-needed basis for a year. She also worked three and a half years for Tisbury's Department of Public Works.
At the end of a bad dog day, Ms. Clements enjoys nurturing a pint-sized herd she established in her role as the founder of a non-profit organization, Vineyard Miniature Horse Rescue, Inc. She occasionally takes a few of them to visit with residents at Windemere Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, as well.