Animal Control Officers Are Not Just 'Dog Catchers'

When Tom Wheeler arrives at work at seven a.m., he already has a list of problems he will try to solve. He shared some of those with us as we traveled with him on a typical day on the job.

"A lady called and said her son was chased by a neighbor's dog, almost bit, while he was riding his bicycle," Wheeler says, as he describes one of the day's calls.

The list itself may be a full days' work and that's before his phone starts ringing with more problems.

Wheeler has just about seen it all in 16 years on the job. But when he arrives on the scene, he tries to keep an open mind.

"They ride their bikes with their friends down the roads," D'Iberville mother Melissa Cook explained to Wheeler. "They can't go down these roads without the dogs chasing them and my son got bit earlier and it's ridiculous."

Cook then shows Wheeler the bruises on her 7-year-old son's leg where she says he was bitten by a black Lab. Wheeler offers the child a suggestion.

"If you're on your bicycle and a dog ever comes up to you like that, you can get off and get on the other side and keep your bicycle in between you, sometimes that will help," Wheeler told the child.

Unlike the unincorporated areas of Harrison County, the city of D'Iberville does have an animal control ordinance, but using it to take animals away or write citations is always a last resort.

"I'm going to try to give him a warning first and if that don't work, just let me know and we'll write him a citation," Wheeler told Ms. Cook.

But, as you might expect, the dog's owner has a very different version of what happened.

"I was out here in the yard," Jack Leger said. "He did not bite him. He ran into him and the boy fell down."

"Y'all understand that there's an ordinance for dogs running at large," Wheeler explained.

The dog owner agrees to be more careful about keeping 'Midnight' inside the fence. Now that one problem has been solved, Wheeler has several others to tackle--some of them not so pleasant.

A deputy reported that a dead bobcat was lying on the side of the road. Part of Wheeler's job is picking up road kill. It's not a hard task, but it certainly doesn't smell very good.

But soon, Wheeler is back on the road again, ready for another challenge. The job can be also be dangerous. He's been bitten several times and charged at by vicious dogs. And he's in constant contact with animals that could infect him with any one of more than 200 diseases. But Wheeler says it's all worth it.

"I love it," he explained. "I love to be outside. I'm an outside person. Ride around and talk to people, you know if we can solve problems, solve them."

Of course, there are things that could make his job easier. Wheeler wants Harrison County to adopt animal control ordinances to give him more authority to deal with dangerous animals, but he says, the biggest problem is people.

"I think a lot of it is irresponsibility. People getting pets and they're not really ready for them and they don't understand about spay and neuter."

Animal control officers pick up everything from baboons to armadillos, but a majority of the animals are dogs and cats. They wind up at animal shelters and because there are so many animals and so few homes, most of them are killed.

In the year 2000, in Harrison County, 15,343 animals were dropped off at the shelter. In Jackson County, 9,976 and in Hancock County 4,313.

Now, look at how many were euthanized. 10,671 in Harrison County, 7,390 in Jackson County and 3,605 in Hancock County.

Pets can be a very safe and enjoyable part of your family, but animal control officers want to remind you that you cause a lot more problems, if you're not responsible with your pets.