First of all, don’t call them dogcatchers — they’re animal control officers. I found this out the hard way, when I sent out a message looking to interview dogcatchers and received all the wrong kinds of replies, with people telling me “best thing is to start using the phrasing ‘animal control officer’ — dogcatcher is insulting,” and, “I hate that term, there is so much more to the profession than that.”
Because I alienated everyone immediately, it made people that much less willing to talk to me about the way they feel their profession is depicted on film. Which makes sense, really — after all, movies like Lady and the Tramp, Shaun the Sheep, Homeward Bound and countless others generally portray dogcatchers as overweight sociopaths who relish at the opportunity to trap and euthanize any dog in sight. And while other professions — like police officers — have a wide variety of media portrayals, both heroic and villainous, dogcatchers are always the bad guys. That’s got to get aggravating after a while.
Fortunately, three animal control officers finally came around, and together we discussed what they do, how they really feel about animals and why family films seem to hate them so goddamn much.
On the Term “Dogcatcher”
David Dossett, actor and animal control officer: The term dogcatcher is very offensive because we’re not like that. We’re law enforcement officers, and there’s a lot of training for what we do. I went to a training in San Diego and did over 400 hours. We save all different kinds of animals too, not just dogs, as we also deal with wildlife and farm animals.
I have animals myself — two dogs — so I didn’t get into this profession because I hate animals, which is what everybody thinks. Even when I catch a mean dog, like a dog that bit someone, some people want me to take the dog and kill it, which we can’t do. There’s a whole legal process involved before that ever happens. If a dog is euthanized, it’s because they’ve bitten people several times or it was a really serious attack where they could be harmful to the public. Then they might get put down, but that’s not very common and that’s all determined by a court, not me.
Jerrod Briggs, former animal control officer: There are a few reasons “dogcatcher” can be offensive. Mostly it’s because of that negative image you get in your head when you hear “dogcatcher.” People think of all those negative stereotypes from TV and film. It also demotes your position as an animal control officer. We don’t just go around catching dogs. Yes, if there is a stray animal, we go out and catch them, but that’s only a tiny fraction of what our actual job is.
Most of our time is occupied by responding to calls of barking complaints, dogs off leashes, aggressive animals and bite cases. With bite cases, depending on the jurisdiction, we have to do a bite quarantine to keep the public safe from rabies and things like that. We also respond to calls of animal neglect or cruelty; that’s going to be the most serious calls we respond to. Those can take a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of work to make sure that you’re going through all the right legal steps.
I think if people knew what kind of training we go through, they’d have more appreciation for what we do. I went through three months of training for this. It’s not like you show up and they say, “Here’s your truck, here’s your net, now go catch animals.”
Amanda Beals, animal control officer: I wouldn’t call “dogcatcher” offensive, it just doesn’t reflect what we do. It seems outdated. The job of animal control officer has really changed over the years. Ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, you were just the dogcatcher. You were kind of that bad guy catching animals and doing a lot of euthanasia, but things have changed now, and the job is more toward animal protection, including investigating cruelty and neglect. We’re doing a lot more positive things now.
On Lady and the Tramp
Briggs: The dogcatcher in Lady and the Tramp is so dark — they don’t even show the face of the character. It’s like imminent doom, which is just an extremely negative and terrible thing, but a lot of people think it’s like that. So many people say, “Oh my God, are you going to euthanize my dog?” And I tell them, “No, we don’t just drive around and pick up dogs and kill them. It’s crazy that that’s what people think. It all comes down to education — we have to educate people on what we’re really doing.
I’ve never met somebody who’s in animal control who said, “I don’t really care for animals that much.” That just wouldn’t make any sense. That would be like somebody who is a doctor, but they have absolutely no interest in the medical field. It’s very weird that that’s the concept — that we’re out there killing all these animals. That couldn’t be further from the truth because we’re hoping to save as many animals as possible and protect the animals.
Dossett: That Lady and the Tramp one is creepy and a lot of people think we’re like that. Recently, I got a call where a lady’s dog was barking and when I showed up, the lady was crying so bad because she thought I was going to take her dog and kill it — like I was the grim reaper or something. And I’m like, “No, ma’am, I just came over to say your dog is barking a lot and it’s bothering your neighbors. Can you help me out and quiet it down a little?” I can’t just go and take someone’s dog, that’s called theft.
Then you’ve got people on the other end who have made tons of complaints about a neighbor’s dog, so they’ll call and ask me to come over and kill the dog. I tell them, “I cannot kill their dog, sir.”
Beals: In Lady and the Tramp, what stood out to me the most is where he’s bringing Tramp out of the house, and there’s Sarah and she’s yelling, “Destroy that dog! Destroy that dog!” That doesn’t accurately reflect what we do, but it does reflect the public’s point-of-view — that’s what they think that we do. That right there upsets me more than any of these movies because you have somebody in the public who’s yelling “Destroy that dog!” because that’s their view of what we do.
On Shaun the Sheep
Dossett: That guy Trumper makes us look like we’re dumb and slow, but he did have that catch-pole-type thing. He also had the vest on, and I do wear a bulletproof vest. I look like a sheriff — I have a baton, handcuffs, pepper spray, everything. So that much rang true.
Beals: Trumper is just gross. It says in there that he “terrorizes poor, defenseless strays” and that’s just horrible. Unfortunately though, there are a lot of people who think of us like that.
On Homeward Bound
Dossett: That’s another one where you have that lazy, dumb dogcatcher. But it did show the other animal control guys remove the porcupine spikes from the dog, so they also showed that we’re trying to help them.
Briggs: There’s another dogcatcher in Homeward Bound 2, and it’s the same thing. They usually look dirty, sloppy and they’re always portrayed as the villain. In that movie, there’s a part where he’s trying to coax the dog, I think with a big cheeseburger or something. They’re always just evil, too. They don’t have good intentions, and it’s crazy how much those portrayals — even if they’re comedy moments — are taken seriously and people think that’s exactly what you do.
Beals: Homeward Bound is a little extreme. They show them muzzling the dog and they’ve got the gloves on, but we wouldn’t do that for dogs that aren’t showing aggressive behavior. They did provide veterinary care, which was good, because many of us do that, but then there’s still that animal control officer they call “chubby” who picks up the cat by the scruff and chases her with the net. We don’t just pick them up by the scruff and stress them out like that. We’re trying to minimize the stress for any animal we deal with.
On The Secret Life of Pets
Dossett: That one’s actually pretty funny because you have the big guy getting beat up by the bunny rabbit. It makes us look stupid again, of course, but I did like that they put “animal control” on there and not “dogcatcher.”
With those guys though, there’s still that image of guys driving around looking for animals, but that’s not really what happens. We respond to calls and we have cases, just like a sheriff does. There’s a case number and everything. Occasionally we’ll be on patrol, but that’s still when we’re responding to a call when someone has seen an animal.
Beals: I actually thought this one was kind of funny — it accurately reflects a day in the life of an animal control officer, and I didn’t think they were doing anything bad. They’re driving around in a truck and they’re looking for animals, but they see a bunny in the road and they stop and the guy gets out and he’s using more compassionate language. That’s what a lot of us do — we see an animal, we stop, we get out, we try to help them and we do talk like that with a more high-pitched, soft voice.
Then I thought it was comical when the bunny attacks him and these other animals come in and it turns into chaos. That stuff happens! You stop for something you think is simple, and then someone flags you down because they have frogs stuck in their window well. This one actually reflects the chaos of the job, which is why, as an animal control officer, you have to be flexible, because every day is different and you never know what you’re going to get yourself into.
Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s sad and sometimes it’s scary. Sometimes you feel good at the end of the day because you were able to help an animal and sometimes you don’t because you couldn’t help them, but that’s the whole thing. Every day is like that.
On How They Think the Dogs View Them
Briggs: It depends on the situation, and it depends on the dog. You’re going to have three kinds of outcomes with dogs. You’re gonna have the ones that are kind of dopey and fun-loving, and they just don’t care about anything. Those are obviously the easiest animals to handle. Then you’re going to have the animals that are fearful. They have no idea what you’re doing, why you’re near them, and they’re scared. They don’t want to be around you. Also the truck is intimidating, and a lot of dogs are fearful of people in uniforms. Then you’re going to have the third type of dog, which is the aggressive dog, and they’re going to hurt you if you try to come too close.
Dossett: A lot of times, when the dogs come to the shelter, they can sense it. When they see the vehicle, they can totally freak out, especially if they’ve been here before. We do have repeat offenders where we’ve picked up the same dog twice in a month, and those fines keep going up and up each time. Some people love animals but they don’t have the time to take care of them, so they neglect their pets. That’s a lot of what I deal with too — animal neglect — like cases where a dog is tangled up while he’s tethered to a pole and they’re choking, or they don’t have food or water. It’s terrible, but we’re just doing what we can to help them, that’s why we get into this line of work.
Beals: Everybody that I’ve worked with in this field, we do it because we like animals. We genuinely care about animals. We believe in being the voice for the voiceless. That’s why we’re doing it.