Reposed from the GUARDIAN issue \ Amy Olivieri
I want to be an animal control officer when I grow up … says every little girl, right? Okay, maybe not every little girl. It’s not a job that most little people maybe even know exists,
I would imagine. Many adults may have a negative connotation when they hear “animal control officer” or see the truck with the cages drive past. I gotta come clean here—I used to be one of those people. I’d be hunched over, wearing a black hoodie, reaching to sneakily let my dog off leash on the beach and then
continue on, not enjoying our time because I was so stressed out, keeping vigilance for the evil “ticket lady.” I thought animal control officers hated animals and
truly relished giving out citations.
I needed to get to the bottom of why someone would want this job. I had some questions for Dee Zagari, who’s been the Neptune Beach Animal Control Officer for the last six years
(and was with Atlantic Beach Animal Control prior to that) to find out why she’s so mean and why she hates animals. Turns out, neither of those things are true! Whaaa … how can this be?
Dee … why do you hate animals?
I don’t believe you. Prove it.
I actually have an animal background. I have a associates in equine training and a bachelors in equine science. Animals—especially horses—are my absolute passion.
What made you interested in animal control?
I’ve always been interested in the structure of law enforcement, but for me, it’s all about the animals. I can really make a difference in their lives.
What is a typical day for you?
I get in at 7am and leave at around 6:30pm. I always come in to make sure they haven’t put any new animals in over night, then I take care of the house cat, Fat Cat. Then I clean and normally head to patrol the beach. After that, I do a parameter run of the whole city and Jarboe Park. Then it’s all about calls. Neptune Beach is usually pretty quiet. Everyone looks out for each other.
What kind of calls do you respond to?
We mainly handle domestics—cats and dogs. We only help wildlife if they’re injured. Nuisance wildlife is handled by Florida Fish and Wild Life or the Wildlife Rescue Coalition of Northeast Florida. If it’s sick or injured, we will bring it to Shorelines. If they can help it they will. Certain times of year, we have rabbits. People get them for Easter and find out they’re a lot of work and release them. Then we have to go out and try to catch these domesticated rabbits who don’t belong/won’t survive in the wild. [ Don’t do it, people. ]
Do you have a most memorable call?
During my time in Neptune Beach, it would be the goat running loose at the five-way. It took us about 45 minutes to catch her—every time we would get her fenced in, she’d go right through the slots of the fence. Dealing with traffic and everyone looking to see what was going on—that was crazy. Goats are not allowed in the city, so I’m sure her owners didn’t want to claim her because of the fine. Her name is now Annabelle, and we relocated her to Ponte Vedra. She’s very sweet!
What’s the most difficult thing about animal control?
When I have to deal with neglect and cruelty. Some people just need education because they honestly didn’t know. But when it’s a blatant lack of food, water, or shelter—common sense things—that’s difficult to deal with. It’s not a big thing in Neptune Beach, but there are some tough cases. The part that I hate the most is writing people senseless tickets, but it’s my job and I have to do it—if you’re breaking an ordinance, I have to write a ticket. People always say Don’t you have something better to do? No. This is literally why I’m here. To keep people and pets safe.
What are the citations?
We do three stages—first offense is $50, then it goes to $75 then to $100 for everything except cruelty/neglect, leaving dog in a hot car, and dog bites.
What is something you’d like people to know about your job?
The number one thing is people always say I must hate animals. I’m not in this job for money, it’s not glamorous … so, it’s all about the love of animals. I would do anything to help an animal. I can’t even think why someone would get into this position if they didn’t love animals. It’s all for the love. None of us enjoy driving the beach and writing tickets. But it’s part of our job.
Do you have any hot tips for people who’ve lost their pets?
The first thing to do is go on Next Door and Facebook and then—of course, the cities don’t particularly care for them but—put up flyers with at least one good photo. Each beach has their own animal control, so if you’re at the beach, call them all and bring a flyer to each one … we work together. I like to know what each animal control has in their kennels. I’m constantly on Facebook in the Lost and Found pages trying to help reunite pets with their people. We want an empty kennel. And also go to the vets—and bring your flyer.
What is the process when a dog or cat is picked up as a stray?
Here in Neptune, we hold for five days. 95% of our dogs that come in as strays go home that day or the next morning—which is great. We don’t have very many people who don’t claim their animals.
How many times have you been bitten?
Just four times in 15 years. I’m very cautious. [Read: good at what she does.] Once was a cat—all four teeth into my calf, and it twisted it’s face and shook. That hurt. I’ve also gotten bitten by a Chow, a Husky, and Fat Cat.
Is there anything the public can do to help Animal Controls at the beaches?
We always take donations—anything from old blankets, towels, and sheets, to pet food donations, treats, and toys—if we can’t use it at the beaches, we take it to Animal Care and Protective Services downtown or the Humane Society. We reach out to other rescues to see if they can use it as well.
Each animal control also has their own volunteer needs as well. In Neptune, we need volunteers to help in the kennel on my days off—if you’re over 18 and can pass a drug test—come help! I encourage people to reach out to their animal controls to find out what’s needed.
C’mon Dee … Why can’t dogs be off the leash on the beach?
It would be great if they could, right? But, the main thing is safety. You have control of your dog when it’s on a leash, and you don’t have control when it’s not, no matter what you think. With birds and kids (some kids like dogs and some kids don’t) and cyclists … and other dogs—your dog may be friendly, but there may be a dog walking on a leash that is not and your dog runs up to it and it may get hurt. The rules are truly there for safety. I always use my mom as an example—she loves dogs, but if she was approached by a dog she didn’t know on the beach, she’d most likely have a heart attack. We try to be as accommodating as we can, but our objective is to keep everyone safe.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I love being at home hanging out with my three old pups. I also just started riding horses again, which I’m extremely excited about.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about being an animal control officer?
We’re not mean! We’re very approachable. We loooove talking about animals, and each one of us are specific to the kind of dogs we love. I personally LOVE old dogs, and my breed of choice would be Belgian Malinois. I do what I do because I love the job. Next time you see me, wave or say hi! I’m really not so bad.
Thank you for clearing up those misconceptions for us, Dee, and for all you do to keep us and our pets safe! We appreciate you. •