2018-03-08 / Around Town

Conversation with Middletown Animal Control Officer, Erin Patel

By Jocelyn O’Neil

In Erin Patel's office there is a wall she jokingly refers to as the "doggy wall of fame." Photographs depicting dogs who, because of their size, ride in the passenger seat of her patrol car, are tacked up as a reminder of the more lighthearted parts of her job. Newport This Week sat down with Patel to chat about what it's like being the only Animal Control Officer (ACO) in Middletown, her policies on ticketing and the 11-hour car ride that started her career.

What inspired you to become an animal control officer?

I've always worked in the animal field in some capacity. I ran a kennel in D.C. and I've been a veterinarian surgical technician. But those [jobs] don’t allow you to have control over animal issues. This position allows me to help them in a legal capacity, and in a physical capacity, [more] than other ‘animal’ jobs. You don’t see the other issues at the other jobs. This would be bigger cases, vicious dogs, animal hoarding, things of that nature, so heavy cases. But it also lets me do the more fun stuff [pointing to the doggy wall of fame].

How did you get from upstate NY to the D.C./Virginia area?

I was in upstate NY and I knew I wanted to be an ACO and saw a listing for it in D.C. I got in my car and showed up after an 11- hour drive. They asked if I had an appointment and I said 'no.' The Head ACO came out and said, ‘We need someone with initiative and drive.’ And I said, 'Like someone who just drove eleven hours to get here?’ They hired me on the spot. I worked there as an ACO for four years.

What do you want readers to know about you?

I would say that my job has a lot to do with educating people. I do a lot more than the public perceives this position to do. I get loose dogs, all the wildlife calls, all the coyote calls. Basically, I do 20 to 30 different things.

Is it difficult being the only animal control officer in Middletown? Does Middletown work with Portsmouth, Newport in any joint operations?

There are days when it's difficult, when it's back-to- back calls and bigger cases that have to be updated. Luckily, I have Liz [Futoma, Portsmouth ACO] and Julie Sweeney [Newport ACO]; we all work very closely together. We will assist each other and luckily each of us are incredible at one particular facet of our job. Liz in Portsmouth, she is like a human database with numbers, ordinances, fines. Julie has 15 years' experience in Rhode Island, so she's the one that knows what will and won't stick. And I'm the ‘go get 'em’ one. When it's all three of us together, it’s a very smooth operation.

Can you give me an example?

There was a woman going into a nursing home and the house had to be cleared. Well, it's got five or six cats that are semi-feral. With one [ACO], that could be a week-long job to catch them without getting [bitten] or scratched... I'm not the best cat person, but I'll take on any vicious dog. And maybe Liz isn't the best with dogs, but she's like the cat whisperer. We all have our areas of expertise. It's easier to have the three of us.

What’s your most memorable experience as an animal control officer?

Some cows got loose and I used my loud speaker to move them.

What's the best part of being an animal control officer? What do you love about your job?

I love that I'm part of something bigger. That I'm able to make a bigger impact than I would in any other [animal] field. I'm able to change things in animals’ lives for the positive, because I have a level of control to do that.

Do you issue tickets for dogs running loose?

Yes! It's not as if I necessarily like ticketing people, but it's holding people accountable. This is about the welfare of your dog and also, you are liable if your dog is out there. If a person swerves to avoid your dog in the road and causes an accident, you're liable for that incident. Take ticketing dogs at Second Beach, I feel that if I heavily ticket now, in the off season, by summertime those people will get the picture and not have their dogs on the beach.

If an animal is in a car, what is the protocol (time in the car, temperature outside) someone should follow to call Animal Control?

I would gauge the animal’s stress level, look at the animal's size. If overheating or freezing could occur, I look for the owner and if need be, break the window.

What would you like to say to people about caring for their own pets? What's important for them to know?

Keep them healthy, vaccinated and properly leashed. Pets have many characteristics of human behavior and emotion. They enjoy exercising, socializing, and have the desire to feel needed and loved by others. It is important, however, to realize that pets are NOT people. I always ask people, ‘When was the last time you ran into the road to chase a squirrel without looking both ways for a car?’ Our pets depend on us to make good decisions for them.

What's the most difficult aspect of your job?

The hardest part is leaving it all behind when it's time to go home.

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