When you hear the phrase “animal control officer,” the image in your head may well be that of a surly officer, wrangling rabid dogs all day. Edmonds Senior Animal Control Officer Debbie Dawson is anything but surly, and she sure doesn’t spend all day wrangling animals (but more on that later).
I had an opportunity to ride along with Dawson during a day on the job, and found her to be a happy-go-lucky, self described “energizer bunny” who brings zeal to the sometimes mundane daily life of an animal control officer. Come October, Dawson will have served the Edmonds Police Department for 29 years, fueled by the thrill of “not knowing what I’m going to do every day!”
Her path to becoming an animal control officer wasn’t exactly a straight one. Growing up with a penchant for playing instruments, she always wanted to be a band teacher. For four years, Dawson taught band in Bellevue and Forks. As time went on, she realized that being confined to a room and doing the same thing every day didn’t suit her. Now, she uses her talent for instruments as a hobby, playing in an all-female jazz band called The Mood Swings and bugling for Veterans Day services at Tahoma National Cemetery.
In search of a career change, Dawson considered the profession of her then-boyfriend (and now husband), who was a police officer. But while training as a King County’s Sheriff’s Deputy Recruit, an unfortunate injury ruled out any future as a police officer. It was now time for Dawson to reflect upon what she wanted to do next, she chose animal control work because it “met my inherent need of puzzle solving; that’s why I’m able to do this job,” she said.
Dawson noted that in Washington state, there is no formal training needed to become an animal control officer. In 1996, she “saw a need and started the first two-week training program” through a partnership between the Washington Animal Control Association (WACA) and the Criminal Justice Training Commission (CJTC). Classes include traditional law enforcement classes: criminal law, report writing, self-defense, plus specific animal classes on topics such as animal behavior, capture and restraint and handling exotic animals. A day of mock scenes and a final test is used to determine whether the student will get the state certificate.
Currently, the WACA and the CJTC are still in partnership and offer this academy once a year. Dawson noted that almost all agencies in Washington require their animal control officers to attend the program, despite the fact that animal control training is still not a state requirement in Washington. “Nearly every jurisdiction recognizes the value and importance to have trained people doing this job,” she said.
It was 9 a.m. when I hopped into Dawson’s animal control truck, where I was met with a warm smile and a handshake. The itinerary for the day included an animal noise complaint, traffic ticket writing and potentially digging up a dead animal that was beginning to smell underneath a house. We took off to our first stop: the humdrum task of writing tickets. Until then, I actually had no idea that in Edmonds, animal control officers also issued parking tickets, and she considers this the mundane part of her day. “Parking tickets are not fun,” she said. “If you enjoy writing tickets, you’re probably in the wrong business.”
She had warned me that it would be a slow day, so she offered to take me to Paws In Paradise, the local Edmonds kennel where the stray animals she picks up stay until claimed. As we walked through the building, Dawson explained to me that if an animal is not claimed within 10 days, the animals become the property of Paws in Paradise and are put up for adoption..
Upon seeing these strays– some with tragic stories– it led me to my next topic for Dawson: the worst scenes she had encountered. She listed some horrific sights she had seen, including neglected animals, animal cruelty indictments, cock and dog fighting, and dead animals.
Dead animals are especially sad, but those situations are also — as contradictory as it sounds — a rewarding aspect of her job, Dawson explained, “Finding a dead dog can be heartbreaking but it can act as closure to the family,” she said. Even animal cruelty indictments have their positive side, Dawson said, “It doesn’t make me happy but it’s giving a voice to an animal, holding someone accountable and that’s important.”
It was about noon when Dawson joked about how uneventful the day had been. But she noted that although nothing “big” had been done, we’d stayed busy all day. Ironically, it was then that we were interrupted by the radio reporting that a stray dog had been found and was waiting for us at the Edmonds Marina. Finally we had a specific task!
As we made our way down to the marina, Dawson shared more anecdotes about calls she’s handled. They included an eagle falling “spread eagle” (pardon the pun) out of the sky due to a fight with another bird, and an otter that survived getting hit by a train. She laments that she was not on duty during the infamous 2006 bear sighting incident in Edmonds’ Westgate area. “It was my last day of graduate school and I had a presentation, and I followed along through the radio. I missed the whole darn thing but I got an ‘A’.”
We arrived at Marina Beach and were greeted by a jumpy little black Scottish terrier, aptly named Scotty. He happily hopped in the back of the truck and we drove to the off-leash dog park, hoping to track down his owners. Noticing that it was low tide and thus the dog could have easily wandered past the dog beach perimeters, Dawson asked everyone on the beach if they’d seen anyone looking for a dog. We then used the information on Scotty’s collar to call the owner, who didn’t answer. Eventually, we were able to find the owner and Scotty was returned.
It was satisfying to see Dawson do what she does best: “Being a part of the community, talking to people—all good stuff,” she said.
— By Miranda Gillis
Miranda Gillis is a 2015 Meadowdale High School graduate