Animal control officer balances enforcement, common sense, with good humor

Edgartown animal control officer Barbara Prada has many four-legged friends to check on her daily rounds. —Photo by Steve Myrick

Longtime Edgartown animal control officer (ACO) Barbara Prada had just begun her day at the office early one recent morning to take care of paperwork, handle emails, and size up the day when the radio sitting on her desk cackled with a message from one of the Island’s 911 dispatchers asking her to call the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital emergency room.

She guessed that she would be notified of a dog bite. Very little surprises Ms. Prada after 31 years on the job, but when she contacted the emergency room, she learned it was not a dog bite.

“It was a mouse bite,” she said. “You don’t get many of those.”

Ms. Prada assured the emergency room doctor that there was a near zero chance the offending critter carried rabies, or any other disease of concern.

With a laugh, she recounted another recent incident, a late-night call reporting a sheep and a goat loose near the old town landfill. She arrived to find a sizable herd of sheep, two of which were recently shorn, and could be easily mistaken for goats. Ms. Prada knows every person in Edgartown who keeps sheep, or might keep sheep, so within a few minutes she had a good idea where the sheep belonged, even though she could not reach the owner.

She began shepherding the animals toward their home, using her patrol truck to nudge them along.

“Every time they would slow down, I would give them a little toot with the horn,” Ms. Prada said. “They came to a big patch of grass. Well, they all stopped and started eating grass. I had to zap them. Gave them a little zap with my siren. That got them going.”

Then there was a woman whose pet Macaw had flown the coop, and was perched high in a tree in her front yard. The exasperated owner of the talking bird called Ms. Prada.

“She said ‘I keep telling him to come down and he says ‘okay,’ but he never does,’” Ms. Prada said.

After a trip to town hall, for more paperwork, she was back in her immaculate office. Calls were few that day, so she took the time to call the Animal Rescue League in Boston. She has been trying to convince the organization to provide low cost pet spaying and neutering for Island residents.

“The cost of spaying and neutering is so expensive,” she said. “A lot of people on the Island just can’t afford it. The Animal Rescue League has a spay wagon that goes around. I thought it might be a good idea to see if I can get them to come down for a weekend.”

Balancing act

With firmness, extensive knowledge of the state laws, and a healthy dose of good humor, Ms. Prada keeps order and helps bring justice in Edgartown to all matters that involve animals. She has help from two assistants, Catherine “Betsy” Buck, and Jen Morgan. Like all Island ACOs, they must balance the law with common sense and reason, while trying to apply even-handed enforcement. That is often a difficult assignment, when the strong emotional attachment people have with their pets gets mixed into a dispute, and when the target of enforcement might be one of their friends or neighbors.

The job requires response to calls at all hours. Recently an Edgartown resident apologized profusely for calling Ms. Prada at 3 am. After searching for hours, and still quite upset, the new pet owner reported a lost puppy. Ms. Prada was told her there was no need to apologize. “That’s what I get paid to do,” she said.

She keeps meticulous records, dating back to 1984, of every call that required a response. In 2013, the department responded to 1,497 calls. The majority, 870 calls, were for dog related incidents. There were 212 calls for cat problems, and 99 for all other animals combined.

If Ms. Prada has to pick up a loose or lost dog, the pet owner often gets a warning. For repeat offenders, fines progress from $50, to $60, to $100.

Ms. Prada said the number of calls has fallen significantly during her years on the job, and people have changed their attitudes.

“That’s what effective enforcement does,” she said. “People don’t want to pay the fines, and I take them to court if they don’t pay.”

Demands of the job

The job of ACO is far more demanding than the days when most towns appointed an on-call dog catcher to round up stray animals, and little else.

These days, at any one moment on the job, an ACO might have to be part police officer, part exotic animal handler, part emergency medical technician, part crime scene investigator, or part constitutional law expert.

Formal training includes instruction on techniques for capturing animals, preventing dog bites, how to handle rabies and other infectious diseases, how to conduct a hearing before a board of selectmen, courtroom procedures, and the fourth amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides protection from unreasonable search and seizure.

Under a comprehensive state animal control law enacted in August, 2012, every city and town must appoint an ACO. The ACO is required to complete a 96-hour certification and training course.