From rescuing a blue heron with two broken legs to responding to a river otter with a concussion, City of Edmonds Animal Control Officer Debbie Dawson has no shortage of favorite memories during her nearly-30-year career.
“You wake up every morning, and you have no idea what calls are going to come in, or how you’re going to meet the challenges you have to solve,” said Dawson, who is retiring April 3.
Like the time she received a call that a bald eagle had fallen from the sky, next to a Talbot Road home.
The bird had “literally landed spread eagle in the driveway as these guys were washing their car,” Dawson recalled. The residents called Edmonds Animal Control and Dawson responded to transport the bird – which was alive but not moving — to the PAWS Wildlife Center in Lynnwood.
With assistance from the Talbot Road car washers, Dawson was able to get the bird into truck, remembering her surprise at how light it was. “A bald eagle only weighs about 15 pounds,” she said. “Its bones are hollow and it’s all feathers.” Unfortunately, the eagle – who was very thin and likely sick or old – died shortly after arriving at PAWS.
There was a happier ending for the river otter, which had been “bonked on the head” by a passing train along the Edmonds waterfront, Dawson said. Due to the injury, the animal’s eyes were unable to track, so it underwent several months of rehabilitation at PAWS. “Finally when the eyes made the adjustment from the head concussion it had, we had a release party on Olympic Beach, so that was pretty cool,” she said.
As for the blue heron with the broken legs, Dawson remembers being in awe of the wingspan of the magnificent bird, which covered the entire length of her animal control truck on its way to PAWS. She doesn’t recall whether the heron ultimately recovered from its injuries, which occurred when it became entangled in power lines, but that’s no surprise, given her dealings with numerous wild and domestic animals during three decades of service.
Dawson did not originally start out in animal control work. In fact, the Bellevue native is a lifelong musician whose first job was as a high school music teacher. But after meeting her husband, who was in law enforcement, she decided to change her career path. She started out as a reserve officer for the Lake Forest Park Police Department, then served with the King County Sheriff’s Office until a knee injury ended that phase of her career.
“But I still pursued the law enforcement aspect because it’s outside, you never know what you’re going to do, you don’t know what challenges you have to solve and it’s kept me interested instead of being in that sound-proof band room on a clock,” she said.
Dawson also handles — along with the city’s other animal control officer Tabatha Shoemake — ordinance enforcement issues on city rights-of-way, such as parking and illegal dumping.
As she reflected on her nearly 30 years with Edmonds, Dawson said she was proud of her efforts to create an animal control officer training program through the Washington Animal Control Association (WACA) and the Criminal Justice Training Commission.
“When I started in 1986, animal control and responsible pet ownership wasn’t viewed very favorably,” Dawson said. “People just didn’t know about it. Now, we’re better. We’re spaying and neutering more. We’re wearing uniforms that make us look like professionals instead of blue jeans and a T-shirt running around like a dogcatcher. People are getting into the profession for the right reasons.”
During her career, she has never been bitten by a dog, which she attributes to “reading the animal, being smart, using the equipment and being lucky on a couple of occasions.” Cats, however, are another matter, and she admits to receiving “three nasty cat bites” while on the job.
“They move so fast,” said Dawson, herself the owner of two cats who both are former strays from Edmonds. What makes her story more interesting, though, is that one of those bites actually came from a dead cat.
The cat in question died after being hit by a car. As is customary, the deceased animal was frozen and bagged and Dawson went about her usual process of cataloging it by age, sex and color in case the owners were searching for it. Because the cat’s lip was curled slightly, displaying its canine teeth, she was able to estimate the age at 5 years due to the lack of tartar.
Task complete, she went to re-bag the animal for pickup by the service that disposes of the city’s dead animals. “Somehow in re-bagging it I lost my grip and that tooth tore my finger wide open and I though ‘wow, I’ve been bitten by a dead cat,’” she recalled.
She has responded to many dog bites received by Edmonds residents and visitors over the years and as a result, has her own opinion about efforts of other municipalities to pass breed-specific bans, particularly those focused on pit bulls.
“There are a lot of really nice pit bulls and there are pit bulls that people haven’t handled well, that are not nice,” Dawson said. “But in Edmonds…you name the breed, we’ve probably had a bite for that breed.”
While Dawson had already been thinking about retirement in the near future, her decision to leave now was prompted by the sudden death in January of her father, Reid June. Dawson and her husband Tom will now be focused on caring for Dawson’s 82-year-old mother Jeanne, who still lives in her own home with her Jack Russell Terrier.
Dawson – a trumpet player who had for many years played echo taps with her father, a cornet player, at Tahoma National Cemetery and other Puget Sound locations in honor of military veterans – will continue that tradition in her dad’s memory this spring. She will be playing at Renton’s Greenwood Memorial Cemetery — where her father was laid to rest — as well as three other South Puget Sound venues on Memorial Day. (Dawson also has played taps at Edmonds-area memorials, including the city’s Memorial Day service at Edmonds Cemetery, but won’t be able to perform locally this year due to her South Sound commitments.)
She also will keep playing with the all-female jazz band, the Mood Swings.
As for her other retirement plans, Dawson said that she will continue to assist in training animal control officers; she has been asked to come back as a civilian instructor for the WACA program. She also said with a smile that her husband, a retired Clyde Hill police officer who has been handling domestic chores during most of Dawson’s animal enforcement career, has informed her that she will have “some new jobs” around the house.
“The worst part [about retirement] is really leaving things unfinished,” Dawson said. “Law enforcement people are problem solvers. We get a problem, we solve it and we hope it never happens again. Well, clearly that’s not going to happen. People in Edmonds still abandon animals and they still abuse animals.”
Dawson said she always saw herself as “the voice” for animals who couldn’t speak for themselves. She offered this parting advice for Edmonds residents wanting to know how they can best help Edmonds animal control officers do their sometimes-difficult jobs.
“Be aware,” Dawson said. “If there are two dogs in an apartment, and you’ve been home 24/7 sick and haven’t seen anyone around, I need a phone call. Who’s feeding those two dogs? Have they been abandoned?”
“You are the eyes and ears for us,” she said.
Editors’ note: All Edmonds animal control reports should be directed to 9-1-1.
— By Teresa Wippel