Rick Smith remembers his first dog. It was a poodle named Pogo that his family had when he was 7 years old.
Pogo was family.
"That dog was with us all the time, everywhere we went," he said. "She was like one of us kids," he said. Mr. Smith remembered the day Pogo died. It was a somber day for the family, like losing one of their own. It would be a while before they would need or even want to buy another chew toy.
"We didn't have a pet for quite awhile after that," Mr. Smith said. "I think it was probably like losing a child. "The next child is not going to take its place, it's not going to be the same."
Some 70,000 deaths later, you'd think Mr. Smith would get used to death. That's his estimate of how many dogs and cats have been euthanized at the St. Joseph animal shelter since he started working there about 30 years ago. You get used to it, but then you don't, either.
"We basically have destroyed an animal for every person who lives in this community," he said.
It's a horrible death for a good friend nobody wants. No tears. No home. No loving family saying goodbye.
When Mr. Smith started in 1979, animals were euthanized in a high altitude decompression chamber. The animals were placed in a cage inside the chamber and sealed. When the oxygen was pumped out, the animals suffocated.
By 1984 that was considered inhumane. Carbon monoxide was used. Then about 10 years ago lethal injection came into use. And that's what is used today at St. Joseph Animal Control and Rescue offices, where anywhere from seven to eight animals are euthanized on a daily basis.
"If the community could understand what this consists of I think we could change attitudes about allowing animals to breed at will and the overpopulation problem," Mr. Smith said. "Over the years it's been kept kind of a secret."
Mr. Smith hasn't been on the street since he took the job as manager of Animal Control and Rescue in 1984. But to some, he's the face of the dogcatcher. A face that's perpetually tanned from an admitted addiction to tanning booths. An addiction that became life threatening a few years ago when he developed melanoma. Doctors cut a big chunk out of his back but they believe they got it all.
"Sad part about of it is I cut back on it but I still tan periodically. I also realize God is in control of my life, and when he decides it's my time to go, that's when I'm going to go," he said.
He has the face of the guy who picks up stray dogs and issues tickets for breaking animal control ordinances. The face of the guy in the cartoons with the evil mustache and big net who scoops up all the cute little animals off the street. Not only that, he kills dogs, too.
But there's a flip side. Like the time he had to take 97 cats out of one house. Or the times he got called to pick up a dog on a leash that's been dead so long it had started to decay. Or the times he's seen dogs that looked like walking skeletons from starvation.
"I look at it from the perception people may think I'm the bad guy, but I still look at things from the perspective of what's fair," Mr. Smith said. "If you violated the law and don't do what you're supposed to do, you brought it on yourself. We're just doing our job. Part of the bad guy thing comes along with the nature of the job."
Steve Norman is one of seven animal control officers working the streets. He's worked for Mr. Smith for six years and describes his boss as strict but fair. He describes his job as an adventure.
"Every day is exciting, every day is different," he said. "We have a lot of routine stuff we do but you don't know you may see an unusual animal ..."
Last week Mr. Norman found himself in a basement crawl space trying to rescue a couple of baby kittens and in a lady's garden capturing a raccoon - all in one day.
"This time of year we get a lot of wildlife complaints," he said.
Mr. Smith's first week on the job didn't involve wildlife, but was wild nonetheless.
"I was supposed to be off over the weekend but we had a hog fall off a transport truck out on I-29 highway so they called me in on Saturday to help out with that situation," he said.
Today he works inside a bright office with grandkids' photos and artwork on the walls, dog event posters and several sticky notes on the windowsill. Every conversation, every phone call is accompanied by the sound of barking dogs.
On the other end of the line sometimes is a complaint about a stray or loud dogs. Or somebody wanting to dispute a fine. It might be someone calling who wants a horse for transportation. The small replica of the Ten Commandments sitting on one file cabinet helps keep everything in perspective.
"I put that there as a reminder. I believe in the Ten Commandments, but I'm also of this world," he said. "Having that set there reminds me these are the rules you need to follow. I put them there as a reminder."
For visitors to his office who asks how he deals with the Sixth Commandment." The one that says "Thou Shalt not Kill," he has a ready answer.
"I have to look at it from the perspective of my motto of humane life or humane death. Just putting animals out there to fend for themselves, knowing they're going to die a horrible death to me is completely inhumane," he said. "Giving them a painless injection is, to me, more humane. I guess in my own mind I had to weigh that out in regards to I don't want to see anybody or anything suffer."
Today Mr. Smith and his wife, Cynthia, have a Border Collie named Cricket. She's just 5 months old and already is a part of the family. He's looking forward to the day in the not too near future when he can spend more time with his family.
Animal Control isn't a 9-to-5 job but it has its good moments.
"When people adopt from us and tell us how blessed they are by this little animal they've adopted from the shelter and how it's part of the family," he said. "That's the rewarding part."
Alonzo Weston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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