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Animal control: A job with few protections

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Posted: Friday, November 30, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 7:34 am, Sat Dec 1, 2012.

Animal control officers face growling dogs, angry cats and rabid wildlife in a normal week. But these officers say the more dangerous part of their job is dealing with the humans forced to give up their pets.

Officer Roy Curtis Marcum was shot to death on Wednesday while checking on the home of an evicted pet owner in Galt.

Joseph Corey, 65, was evicted from his home on Tuesday and left behind multiple dogs and cats at the residence. Marcum arrived at the home with two locksmiths to retrieve the animals on Wednesday. They were met with a shotgun blast through the front door, which hit Marcum in the chest. He was removed from the scene and transported to a local church, where he was pronounced dead.

It is not clear what protective or defensive equipment Marcum may have carried. The Sacramento County Animal Control Department was closed for the emergency and did not return calls.

Officials from the California Animal Control Directors Association confirmed that Marcum was the first animal control officer to be killed at work in California, though officers have been killed in other states.

Training for animal control officers varies by city, county and agency. Once an officer is beyond the basics of issuing citations, it is up to his or her agency to determine what further training is necessary.

Marcia Mayeda, of the California Animal Control Directors Association, says that is not good enough.

"We really believe those standards are necessary. There are standards for police and firefighters, but not animal control," she said.

Officers in the Stockton Animal Control agency train daily to deal with aggressive dogs and hostile animals, said supervisor Pat Claerbout. They have had injuries from animals in the past, but never from humans. Officers acknowledge that owners can pose larger problems than an energetic pitbull, but they only receive self defense training once a year.

"Dealing with the animal's owners are the situations that are most dangerous," Claerbout said.

The hassle of ensuring firearms certification may be a roadblock for animal control officers.

Dan DeSousa, deputy director of the San Diego County Department of Animal Services, said some animal control agencies are reluctant to train their officers to use firearms. DeSousa said the course entails a week of training and several hours at a shooting range.

It may seem like a liability to equip animal control officers with firearms, said DeSousa, but losing Marcum could change some minds.

Claerbout said her department has always been aware of the vulnerability of officers, and that Marcum's death is a sign to take the next step in protecting officers.

"I can say it's something we'll look at," she said. "The state Animal Control Association is talking about this. They're looking at safety requirements and training."

What animal control officers are trained to carry in terms of equipment also varies widely in the state of California.

Some carry firearms, Tasers or batons, and some wear bulletproof vests, said Claerbout.

In Stockton, animal control officers carry only batons.

In San Diego County, officers do not use firearms. Instead, they carry pepper spray.

"Our officers are equipped to protect from animals, not people," DeSousa said.

Animal control officers face the same dangers as many other public servants and are often the first ones on the scene.

Officers work independently at each call, but are trained to call the police department for backup if they receive verbal threats from anyone on the properties they visit.

If police go out to issue an arrest warrant, and an aggressive dog is on-site, animal control will go ahead to remove the dog before police enter the residence.

"They won't allow it if police know there is a danger, but often they think it will be a very routine contact," said Mayeda.

The call Marcum went out to on Wednesday was considered a very basic call. Claerbout said animal control officers go out daily to retrieve animals from residences after owners are evicted or their homes have been foreclosed on. These numbers have risen since the downturn of the economy.

It may have been the homeowner's closeness with his pets that triggered such a hostile reaction to an animal control officer arriving, said Julia Priest, a dog trainer and retired police K-9 handler based in Galt. Though Priest was not involved in this case, she has more than 24 years of experience working closely with dogs and their owners.

Priest said many pet owners, especially those under stress, attach great emotional significance to their animals.

"To many people, it's the same as a child to them. It's a family member," she said. "The dog is both a comfort to them, and represents whatever they've put into that relationship for the life of the dog."

Priest said that kind of relationship with a pet can be unhealthy, and could trigger an overly emotional response if someone tries to take that pet away.

"That would cross the line. If you repossess a car, that gets people riled up. But you can go out and buy another car. You can get another dog, too, but it won't be that dog," she said.

Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at sarap@lodinews.com.

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