TAGHKANIC — Most dog owners only meet their town’s dog or animal control officer under the most stressful of circumstances, when Fido has gotten off the leash or dug under a fence and gone AWOL. Sometimes it’s not easy to figure out who that person is, and the officer is not always helpful.
But that is changing, or it is for those who live in the Towns of Taghkanic, Chatham, Hudson, New Lebanon, Austerlitz, Copake and Stuyvesant. People there are now benefitting from the experience gained in each of those towns because one man, Wes Powell, serves dog or animal control officer for all of them.
On call 24/7, Mr. Powell responds to animal complaints including calls about runaway dogs, barking, biting and other problems, some of which involve snakes. He loves wildlife and once removed a litter of baby foxes from under a porch. Dispatchers at county Emergency 911 and the Sheriff’s Office routinely call him, and even if he has no contract with a town, he still tries to help.
“You’ve got to have a passion for it,” says Mr. Powell, who has a chocolate Lab of his own.
You also need to get certified. Mr. Powell has studied animal law at Hudson Valley Community College and credits his teacher there, Valerie Lang, with influencing the course of his career.
He has taken week-long classes in whitewater rescue, mountain and ravine rescue, and ice rescue for animals and humans. The last course involved donning a dry suit and actually jumping in and going under two feet of ice. Since his face is still exposed, his mustache froze during the exercise, he said. But animals do go through the ice, and some fire fighters who attempt to rescue them can get bitten because they don’t know the handling proper techniques.
In the course of his work, Mr. Powell has assisted in Humane Society animal cruelty case raids of places where people have more animals than they can properly care for. One owner of 20 dogs and 10 cats had neglected the animals’ medical needs and infection was rampant, he said.
When a caller reports a lost dog, Mr. Powell searches by car, instructs the owner to put up fliers with a photo of the dog, and notifies local vets, nearby towns and other agencies that might come across the stray. One advantage he has is his high profile in the communities he serves. People know who he is and where to find him if they do notice a stray in their yard.
If a pet ends up being taken to the Humane Society, the town where the pet was found faces a charge of $305 to cover costs. If he can find the owner, Mr. Powell prefers to return the dog directly to its home.
Dog licenses are a help in locating the owner of a lost dog. The number on the tag enables Mr. Powell to find the owner through the Internet. Town clerks sell the licenses, which are mandatory, for around $7.50 to $15.00 depending on whether the pet is neutered or not; proof of rabies vaccination is required. Officials don’t know how many dogs and owners are in compliance with the state licensing law, but a recent door-to-door licensing drive in Hudson led to sales of 100 new dog licenses. Cat licenses are not currently required, though Mr. Powell said feral cats are a problem in Copake and other places.
In this line of work, Mr. Powell has been bitten lots of times, and he gets monthly rabies booster shots as a precaution. But safety is a long-standing habit he said. “The last thing you want is to get bit because you didn’t take safety precautions,” he said.
Mr. Powell’s most important piece of equipment might be his SUV. Last year he traveled 43,000 miles on the job and expects this year’s mileage to be even higher. Occasionally he’ll get two calls at once, but remarkably, the work is spread out enough that he is able to provide service “better than they had before when you might get a call-back from a dog officer two days later. Now people get service within the hour,” he said.
Even with seven towns and 22 years experience, his animal work is only a part-time occupation. Mr. Powell also serves as constable and court officer for New Lebanon, a position he will leave at the end of this year. If two more towns hire him for animal control services, he may be able to go full-time. He got his first appointment as Dog Officer while working on the Highway Crew in New Lebanon when the previous officer retired.
It’s a job with some security. State law requires every town to have a dog control officer, but he has a commitment to the work he does, regardless of the requirement. “The main thing is I’m there for the animals, doing what’s best for them.”