The 12-hour day for Fairfax County Animal Control officers starts at the crack of dawn. At around 6:15 a.m., while the vans are warming up outside 4500 West Ox Road in Fairfax County, Admin Sergeant Eric Powell sips coffee and reads the Police Department's latest internal news and messages to five Animal Control officers.
One of them starts to talk about a hoarding case, which sometimes goes hand-in-hand with cases of animal neglect. Or what about Biscuit, someone asks, the wild Shih Tzu who's been eluding capture in the Amberleigh neighborhood of Alexandria for the last two years?
"He (Biscuit) looks like a dirty mop," said Animal Control officer Enna Lugo. "And he's so fast, but I'm worried that he's getting sick."
Animal Control officers respond to dozens of daily calls, from 6 a.m. - 12:30 a.m. Four-to-five officers generally work a shift, and each must cover roughly two police districts worth of activity. The operation is part of the Fairfax County Animal Services Division, which includes the county Animal Shelter and the county Wildlife Biologist position (all of which fall under the Fairfax County Police Department).
"There are 32 officers and we have 14 vans," said Powell. "Our average response time is 45 minutes to an hour depending on the call. And according to the numbers, we're fully staffed. Now, adequately? I would say not."
Less than 2 percent of missing cats and 15-20 percent of dogs are returned to their owners. Most are identified with tags, tattoos or microchips, according to the ASPCA.
Just how busy is Fairfax County Animal Control?
2010 2011 2012 Dogs 1,258 1,316 1,195 Cats 474 344 289 Domestic other (rabbits, turtles) 114 116 256 Wildlife 844 848 859 Follow-up Visits 2,541 2,971 3,515 Total Calls for Service 12,258 13,964 13,961
The First Call - A Rabid Raccoon
Officer Lugo watched drivers speed by her Animal Control van on a recent morning as she drove south on the Fairfax County Parkway.
"No respect. People speed by because they see Animal Control on the side of the truck," she said. "I've been cursed at, yelled at and I've been pushed out of lanes. But what people don't realize is that I can punch in their information into the computer to another officer."
Lugo's first call came at around 8:30 a.m. - a report of a sick-looking raccoon hanging out under a large evergreen near a row of townhomes in the 8600 block of Beech Hollow Lane in Springfield.
Lugo, a 47-year-old single mother of two, is a native of Puerto Rico, and has been on the force for eight years. She was a Physical Education teacher for the Department of Defense Schools, and then made a career change when her family moved to Fairfax County. Like other officers, she works 11.5-hour days, 14 days a month (overtime is nearly always available).
"It's a lot of lifting, running and climbing. It's an excellent job for a 21-year-old, but when you get close to your 50s you feel it," Lugo said.
The raccoon looked deceptively harmless. It swayed drunkenly, and there was no alertness in it's eyes. But it could potentially lash out and bite a person, a dog on a leash or another animal, and most likely infect it with rabies. Lugo walked over to the evergreen with a metal trap in one hand and a long snare pole in the other.
"Yep. He looks messed up," Lugo said. "His eyes are cloudy, and he's shaking. I don't think there's much we can do with this one. I think we'll have to put him down."
Lugo deftly looped the end of the snare pole around the raccoons body, hoisted it up and dropped it in the cage. She thanked the neighbor (who waved in appreciation from a distance) and then carried the animal back to the truck.
"This is definitely my least favorite part of the job," she said.
Each Animal Control officer is certified in euthanasia, and the prescribed lethal injection is made with an overdose of sodium pentobarbital. It looks like Windex — its nickname is "the blue juice" — and the effects are immediate when properly applied.
Lugo drove to a nearby abandoned parking lot, parked and opened the van. The raccoon, while his energy was diminished from rabies, instinctively struggled, and hissed and tried to bite and claw through the cage.
Lugo took out a hypodermic needle, filled it with blue juice, and carefully stuck it in the raccoons abdomen. The effect on the animal was instantaneous. His teeth were no longer bared, his breathing slowed and he went to sleep and died within minutes. The raccoon was then put into a plastic bag - to be disposed of later at the shelter.
The townhome on Braddock Road in Alexandria looked ordinary next to its neighbors. Three months ago, before the county intervened, the doors and windows of the home were open to the elements and an army of feral cats.
County code compliance officers declared the structure unsafe, and dozens of cats were taken by Animal Control. The house still has the pungent odor of cat urine, despite a new carpet and paint, and there were still rooms piled to the ceiling with books, newspapers, stuffed animals, a piano and boxes full of knickknacks. Wild cats still patrolled the outside of the home, yet are prohibited by court order from being allowed in.
"I really appreciate all your help," said the male homeowner to Lugo and a Code Compliance officer. "Without your support we wouldn't have the house back together. Come back in a couple months and this place will look like new."
Nearly all of the County's Animal Control officers have stories to tell about hoarders.
"I would not have thought that I would see humans do some of these things that I've seen - see what humans are capable of," said Lugo. "And you always hear the same thing when you walk in with a court order. You hear people say, 'A friend of mine is coming to help me get rid of a lot of this stuff.' And they always apologize for the mess."
Lugo owns a Shih Tzu that was rescued from a hoarding situation - along with 31 of his brothers and sisters - in 2005. "There was feces on the floor, feces on the bed, feces on the sinks," she said. "But that's nothing compared to when we took 500 cats out of this woman's million-dollar home in Mount Vernon and her daughter's home in 2005. Two hundred cats were dead, and she had them entombed in plastic bags and rubber containers - from fresh to liquified. The cats lived in the walls, in the chimney, under the kitchen cabinets..."
The woman, then-82-year-old Ruth Knueven, was charged with five misdemeanors, including animal cruelty. Her house was declared unfit for living, and she was forced to live outside of her home until necessary repairs were made.
"Hoarding is a disease, and I feel sorry for these people," said Lugo.
"A bat can bite you while you sleep and you wouldn't even know it," said Lugo, as she answered an early-morning call at a Springfield townhome.
At around 3 a.m. that morning, a bat flew in through the front door of the home in the 8000 block of Edinborough Drive. The call came in and Lugo knocked on the door at around 9 a.m. The female homeowner had stayed up all night, and had closed all the doors and vents to the home.
"My husband is outside sleeping in the car," she told Lugo.
The bat was upstairs, sleeping above a doorframe in a hallway. Lugo walked up the stairs with a plastic box, unhesitatingly put it over the bat and slid it inside. What had been a small, folded-up dark brown roll, was now outstretched and shrieking.
"Ooh. He's mad," said Lugo.
"You're going to let it go?" asked the homeowner, who's head came into sight at the bottom of the stairs. "It will come back!"
Lugo held up the box and looked at the bat. "No it won't," she said, and then started to sweet-talk the webbed mammal. "He's a cutie-pie, isn't he? Cutie!"
Lugo walked the bat outside and said goodbye to the woman, who then woke her husband from the passenger seat of their Mercedes. She let the bat go in a nearby bush.
Biscuit - the Wild Shih Tzu
"The good day is the day when you find the dog and you get to take it back to it's home," said Lugo. "And it's all worth it when you see the looks on the faces of the family."
But Biscuit's owner is deceased. The Amberleigh neighborhood of Alexandria has been looking for Biscuit, a Shih Tzu of undetermined age, for the past two years. He's stayed alive by eating food left out for wild cats, and he's become wild himself. But rumor has it that he's getting ill, and that he's losing his eyesight.
"That dog has been out for two years. You're never going to catch it. It's a scrapper," said a neighbor to Lugo.
It was nearing the end of the day, and Lugo was talking with the owners of a large property where the dog has been seen, when a neighbor called over the fence: "Hey! Y'all looking for Biscuit?"
Lugo called over: "Yes. Have you seen him?"
The neighbor pointed over the fence. "He's right there," she said, and sure enough, there was the dirtiest, wildest looking Shih Tzu you ever saw - brown and grey, his hair overgrown and tangled into a dirt-filled carpet of a coat.
Lugo, who hadn't time to set a trap earlier or had any of her equipment ready, ran across the yard to cut off Biscuit's line of retreat. The Patch reporter tried to slowly creep up to him as well, and then - in an instant, Biscuit was off! He ran under the chain-link fence and down a hill into a maze of townhome back yards and more fences. We hopped the fence, raced to the bottom of the hill, but Biscuit was gone.
Patch's time with Animal Control also included tramping through the woods to check on a family of foxes, which ran away as we approached, another bat call (this one wasn't found - they can crawl anywhere, apparently) and reporting a hit-and-run of a parked vehicle.
"I love this job because I get to be the one to go and help people and animals," said Lugo. "About 85-90 percent of people will tell me, 'Thank you, officer.' I try to be positive and give people the benefit of the doubt, and it turns out that a lot of people just want to be heard."