Thursday, February 18, 2010

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Meet Wellesley and Weston's
Animal Control Officers

Sue Webb was the girl in elementary school who volunteered to take care of the classroom snakes…and turtles…and hamsters…over vacation. She was the middle school kid who brought home dead wildlife that she found around town to bury in her backyard. She was the young adult who helped Wellesley police officers deal with injured dogs before there was an animal control officer on the force.

So it’s not surprising that animal-lover Sue graduated from college as a laboratory animal technician and went on to be a veterinary technician. It’s also not surprising that Sue got the first animal control officer position in Wellesley back in 1976 when the “dog officer” job was upgraded to an “animal control officer.” Sue has been Wellesley’s animal control officer ever since, for over 30 years.

Richard Murray has always loved animals, too. But his tenure as Weston’s animal control officer began more recently, in March of 2009, when the town upgraded the part-time, on-call dog officer position. As a kid, Richard dreamed of being a police officer. For years he worked in Weston’s special police force as well as as a colonel for the Massachusetts Environmental Police enforcing hunting, fishing, and wildlife regulations.

While Webb and Murray’s paths to animal control positions have been quite different, both officers share a deep respect for pets and wildlife, and a dedication to the peaceful co-existence between humans and animals.

Lost and Found
Animal control officers work to protect stray, injured, abused, and unwanted animals. In fact, animal-related issues are the second most common reason why Weston residents call the police, reports Paula Nicholas, the Weston police dispatcher for 25 years. Locating lost pets is the mainstay of Webb and Murray’s jobs.

“Luckily, more often than not, the lost dog is found close by,” reports Sue Webb. Flashing a grin, she recounts how one search for a dog came to a close when the owner called back to say that her pup had been quietly sleeping in the car in the garage the whole time.

When a stray dog is found on the street, checking for tags or scanning for microchips is the first step an officer takes to identify the dog’s owner. When that fails, Wellesley and Weston officers search the town databases of registered dogs by street and by breed. More often than not, they are able to find the owner. When Weston police recently received a report of a Great Dane found near Route 30 and River Road, they searched for Great Danes registered in that area and called their owners. One call led to a referral to another. The pet’s owner was found and the dog reunited with his family – much to the relief of the grandmother who was home alone when the Great Dane escaped without its tags.

To reunite pets and owners, Sue Webb posts information about lost or found pets to the Animal Control Officers’ Association of Massachusetts that sends out SABER alerts to other animal control officers, rescue leagues, shelters, and vets to assist in the search. The SABER Alert, designed on the principles of the Amber Alert, was launched in late 2007. It was named for the first dog, a German shepherd, reunited with his family by this system, and it now stands for “Safe Animal By Emergency Response.”

 

 

If a dog’s owner is not found after ten days, Weston and Wellesley animal control work diligently to find an appropriate home for the dog. Weston’s dispatcher Nicholas says it’s all about networking, networking, networking. She and Murray contact their friends at veterinary offices and animal hospitals as well as other local animal control officers for potential adopters. Webb is on the steering committee for “Pets in Limbo Out There,” a program developed by the Massachusetts Animal Coalition to place more dogs into local Massachusetts shelters where they have a better chance for adoption.

Sadly, the incidence of people dumping dogs in Wellesley and Weston is on the rise, likely because owners can no longer afford their pets due to the tough economy, surmises Murray. A terrier, basset hound puppy, beagle, and a pregnant pit bull crossbreed were found in Weston last summer. Happily, all these dogs were placed in adoptive homes.

Cat- related issues are also on the agenda for the animal control officers. Wellesley has over 3,000 cats; Weston does not keep track. Webb recommends keeping cats indoors to avoid danger. Cats do not need fresh air, and the exercise they require is isometric stretching which can be accomplished with an indoor scratching post or climbing structure. “When a cat is reported lost, I tell people to get down on their knees and go in a straight line to the first logical hiding spot, such as a window well, bush, or front stoop.” Webb recounts a story of a cat found after six weeks under a deck in the snow literally steps away from the owner’s front door. The cat was emaciated when rescued, but survived thanks to a dryer vent that had melted snow for it to drink.

 

Where the Wild Things Are
While domestic animals are a big focus of the job, the animal control officers also deal with a variety of wildlife issues. The worst thing residents can do to jeopardize animal and resident safety is to feed wildlife intentionally or unintentionally (such as filling bird feeders in summer, leaving garbage or compost unsecured, or keeping pet food outdoors). To get wildlife off your property, Webb recommends a tactic her sister devised. When you see a coyote, fox, or other wild animal in your yard, open a window and yell so it knows it is not welcome. Then throw ice cubes towards it to scare the animal away. Ice cubes melt and don’t have to be picked up. Of course, don’t leave little dogs out in the yard even in an invisible fence. The invisible fence keeps your dog from straying, but it does not keep coyotes, foxes, and raccoons out.

  New rules pending in Weston for commercial dog walkers
Weston recently passed an ordinance requiring commercial dog walkers to pay for a permit to use Weston’s conservation lands and trails. The license limits dog walkers to walking five dogs simultaneously. The regulation is currently under review at the Attorney General’s office. As soon as it goes into effect, expect to see Richard Murray at Weston Reservoir and Cat Rock educating professional dog walkers.

Wildlife education is critical to peaceful co-existence, explains Officer Murray. Which is why Richard often personally delivers Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife “Living with Wildlife” flyers to residents who call with problems. Bats, geese, and wild turkeys are a few of the animal-specific flyers Richard distributes. Officer Webb offers a wealth of information about wildlife on the town’s Web site at: www.ci.wellesley.ma.us/Pages/WellesleyMA_Animal/index.

Webb lists wildlife issues by season, “February is skunk month – that’s when males are fighting for girlfriends. August is bat month – that’s when juvenile bats leave their parents.” In prior years, Sue received a bat-related call every single day in August. This past August, Sue only received three calls all month due to the record number of bats dying in the northeastern United States from white-nose syndrome. This bat health crisis is named for the white fungus on the muzzles and wings of affected bats, first documented in eastern New York in the winter of 2006-2007.

The animal control officers contend with other wildlife ills which are more elusive in nature. Sue Webb recounts the time she found a whole flock of dead Canadian geese by Rock Ridge Pond off Cliff Road. She had the pond tested for contaminants, but, fortunately, that was not the cause of death.

 

According to the Town Clerk offices, Weston has close to 1,000 registered dogs and Wellesley over 2,700. Massachusetts state law requires that all dogs wear town license and rabies tags.

 

Tending to the Animal Kingdom
Sue Webb’s expertise and above-and-beyond dedication to the animal kingdom takes her out of Wellesley to treat animals in disaster areas across the United States. As a member of the National Veterinary Response Team, Webb traveled to Homestead, Florida in 1992 after Hurricane Andrew slammed into South Florida, ravaging the area, and she took care of domestic animals in what she calls the “small animal tent city.” After the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, Webb went to Ground Zero in New York City to care for the search and rescue dogs battling dehydration from working in the extreme heat of the remains. The next year, Webb spent two weeks in Virginia to help control the outbreak of bird flu that had the potential to jeopardize international trade if not contained. In a Tyvek suit and mask, she collected dead birds from farms to be tested for the virus. In 2000, she went to New Orleans to help deal with the devastation of Hurricane Katrina by treating the pets while their owners were being treated by doctors themselves. And after Hurricane Ike, Sue traveled to Orange, Texas to rebuild an animal control facility ravaged by the storm.

Webb is also on the Massachusetts Zoonotic Disease Advisory Committee. (A zoonotic disease is one which can be transmitted between animals and people, such as West Nile, H1N1, or rabies.) Sue was appointed by the Governor of Massachusetts over 15 years ago and still serves today despite multiple changes in administrations. Most recently, Sue learned about swine flu protocols for farmers to prevent pigs from getting the flu from humans.

Who to Call
While the Wellesley and Weston animal control officers offer a wealth of information and assistance, residents should be aware of a few other resources. For rabies and rabies quarantine questions, Wellesley residents should call the Board of Health at 781.235.0135; Weston residents should call the non-emergency police line at781.893.4803. Both Wellesley and Weston residents can also call the 24-hour Massachusetts State Veterinarian at 617.626.1794. If you have problems with mice, rats, or bugs in your home, call a private pest control company. If larger creatures such as squirrels, raccoons, birds, and skunks are the issue, contact a private animal control company, such as Bay State Wildlife Management, who contracts with the Town of Weston.

Wellesley residents, want to volunteer to help animals in town?

Here are four ways you can assist.

  • Transport injured wildlife to the licensed wildlife rehabilitation facilities in South Weymouth or Grafton, MA. And then, if an animal is well enough, bring it back to the area in which it was found and release it into the wild.
  • HELP SUE feed the domestic ducks at the duck pond located at the Wellesley Town Hall.
  • Lay trails for Mazi, Wellesley Police department’s bloodhound, to practice her scent-tracking training.
  • Transport senior citizens and their pets to and from the vet.

 

 

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