A call came into the Orange County Animal Services that is common, especially in the summer months. A distressed-looking dog was seen wandering near rail road tracks. The caller was particularly concerned because the dog appeared to be older.
Animal Control Officers Marcus Gamez and Robyn Woodall were dispatched to where the animal was last seen. The dog was in an area that wasn’t accessible by vehicle, so Gamez and Woodall had to carry blankets, water, a stretcher, chip scanner, and other equipment to the animal. When they found the dog, it clearly suffered in the brutal heat.
“When I first arrived on scene, he was growing, trying to flee away from me,” said Woodall, who has been with Orange County Animal Services since 2020. “It wasn’t until he realized he was too weak to get away that he let me approach. You never know how a dog’s gonna act in a situation where he thought there was a lot of stress.”
“Once we were there, we went ahead and assessed it, gave first aid, just seeing what’s going on, checking the gums and any other signs as far as heatstroke,” said Gamez, who has been with Orange County Animal Services for seven years .
The dog was unable to get to its feet, so Gamez and Woodall put it on the stretcher. It was then that they saw the dog’s tag was stitched into the collar it was wearing. They immediately called the number on the collar, but the owner didn’t answer. They carried the dog back to their truck where it was placed into an air conditioned holding kennel and given water.
The Animal Control Officers then plugged the dog owner’s phone number into its Chameleon system that would match the phone number to an address.
“I found the owner’s address, which wasn’t far from where we found the dog,” Gamez said. “From there we went to the owner’s home and made contact with her right when we got there. She was outside yelling the dog’s name and I was like, ‘OK, this is where the dog lives.’ We made contact with her, gave her dog back as well.”
Heat-related calls to animal control agencies is an almost daily occurrence during months when the temperatures creep to 80 degrees and above. Leaving a pet in a car on an 80-degree day, even if only for a few minutes and with a window cracked, can be dangerous for the animal as temperatures in the vehicle can quickly reach above 100 degrees. There often is a lack of air flow, and dogs are unable to sweat as a means to cool themselves off.
“With these 90- to 95-degree days where your car can get up to 130 degrees, that can be fatal pretty quickly,” said Nick Tempesta, who has been an animal control officer with Burlington Animal Services for five years.
In those situations when the owner isn’t present, Tempesta said, the animal control officer must make a judgment call, which concerns how long the dog has been in the car, how hot it is, and the dog’s condition. Is it panting, or does it appear weak? Different circumstances lead to different actions being taken, but the intent always is to bring safety to the animal.
“It always baffles me because you love your dog enough to take it everywhere with you, but then you put it in this very dangerous situation,” Tempesta added.
If making sure the animals are safe in the heat is the top priority, the public education about how best to meet their pets’ needs is a very close and inseparable second. Along with information about the dangers of leaving pets in vehicles, animal services leans in on the constant need for fresh, clean water, and access to shade and shelter if you keep your pets outside. It also helps inform communities on how to recognize when an animal is suffering in the heat.
“I think if people stop and think about it, they’ll understand the classic signs,” said Dr. Sandra Strong, Director of Orange County Animal Services. “So, panting is sign. They also pant when they’re stressed or excited, so it doesn’t always mean that they’re overheated, but you have to put all your clues together. Long-hair dogs are going to be more at risk. Also your snub nose dog, like a pug, or boxers have less airway and they are classically going to be quicker to escalate to becoming heat stressed. And then heat stroke is what follows after heat stress. Any kind of breathing or breathing difficulty. They’re going to seek out shade, somewhere to lay where they can cool off their body. Animals won’t eat as much when they’re hot, so a little bit of decreased appetite. Not eating at all is probably a worry.”
Animal services and control agencies stress to the public to not approach an animal that appears to be suffering, and that the best approach is to call to report the situation. From there, animal control has a series of steps it takes when responding to a call about a heat-endangered animal (not in a vehicle).
“We would do a door-knock try to make contact with the owner, see what history we have with that property, pulling it up in the system,” Gamez said. “If we can’t make contact with the owner, and we don’t see any water, what we would do most time is consult with our animal control manager and say ‘Hey, we’re going to go ahead and get the dog a little bit of water.’ Once we investigate, and if we see any cruelty violation or things that are not in compliance with the ordinance, then we would want to leave a cruelty notice. The officer may come back the next day or may come back a few hours later if it’s something that needs to be addressed right away. If it’s something urgent, of course, we’re going to investigate, do a report and then we’re going to follow the steps through the Animal Control Manager, and the county attorney if we need to expedite the process.”
Animal control officers are well-equipped to provide care for heated animals, in most situations. Service trucks carry towels that can be dampened and placed over an animal, water jugs, muzzles that still provide easy air flow; chip scanners, stretchers, and air conditioned boxes.
If it’s found that the animal is in need of immediate care, and the owner is unable to be contacted, the animal control officers will take the animal to a veterinarian for treatment while efforts to reach the owner are continued.
While animal control officers are equipped for handling animals in stressful and sometimes dangerous situations, among the biggest facing animal services are myths created by decades of movies and TV shows that often cast animal control workers as villains. This has created a mistrust between the general public and the people doing the work to care for animals.
“It can be really difficult,” Woodall said. “We still run into people now who have a negative view of us. But it’s nice to be able to educate people. Even me coming in as a young person, I didn’t know fully what this job entails. I’m still learning as I go. It’s nice to be able to educate people, even people in my personal life. I like teaching what we do, and how different it is from the way it used to be.”
Building that trust and eliminating the “dog catcher” stereotype can help animal control officers better provide care in the moment, and to provide additional assistance when it’s clear good intentions were had, even if they were coming up short.
Officer Tempesta with Animal Control of Burlington said he responded to a call where a citizen believed a dog wasn’t being properly cared for on a particularly hot day. When he arrived at the scene, the dog appeared happy and healthy, but the water bowl was empty and its shelter was subpar. Tempesta was able to talk with the dog’s owner and learned he was providing care, but his means were not meeting his pet’s needs.
“That’s where we step in, we’re trying to change how people see us and show them that we’re here to help,” he said. “I asked the man, ‘How would you feel if I brought you a dog house?’ His face lit up and it was amazing, because we knew he loved his dog and that he wanted to take care of it, but I don’t know that he had the means to get a dog house. And we (Burlington Animal Services) have through grants and donations, dog houses to help folks out. The owner was really receptive to me being a part of the solution. Within 30 minutes, I ran to the shelter, came back and now his dog’s got proper shelter. He’s got clean water. Dog’s living a much better life now.”