As the Stamford Police Department flirts with reaching 300 officers on its roster to protect the roughly 125,000 citizens in the City of Stamford, its budget skirts about near $50 million mark. This is not to say Stamford's finest don't deserve all the funds they request to police the city to the best of their ability. The facts are stated simply to serve as a contrast.
Because there is team that operates under the jurisdiction of the Stamford police department that operates with only four members. They operate on a budget barely in the $300,000 range. And the charge they are sworn to protect outnumber the citizens of Stamford and is made up of both domestic and foreign members.
No, wait, not foreign... Wild.
The Stamford Animal Care & Control Center isn't housed downtown, in the heart of the city, with a nice view down Bedford St. It exists next to Stamford waste management systems down on Magee Ave., just outside Shippan Point.
"We're part of the Stamford Police Department's budget. A very little part of it," said director Laurie Hollywood, a tiny, tough blonde with a clear passion for animals. "It's not enough, really. We respond to over 100 complaints a month, normally. 125,000 people live in Stamford. There are certainly more animals than people in this city, pets and wildlife combined, and we deal with both."
Hollywood's been the shelter director since 2005. In March, she'll have been running the show for a full eight years. She has a BS in business and economics and previously managed a Fairfield County equine hospital. Her default mindset is to care for animals, most obvious when she's asked about what the biggest issue facing the shelter is today. Even though she's mentioned the shelter's financial dire straits and is given a window to further express the need for funds, she instead reverts to what she sees daily on her beat.
"The biggest issue today is the amount of animals that are homeless due partly to overpopulation, unspayed female cats and dogs having litters and the economy," Hollywood said. "People are being evicted and foreclosed on, and the cost of a pet, even just the food, can become a burden and they have to get rid of the animal, either by bringing it to a shelter or abandoning it."
Hollywood didn't ignore the financial issue that was being discussed about the shelter's budget because she suddenly didn't think it's important. She answered in the manner she did because in an off-the-cuff, honest response, she will always care about animals first and foremost.
And there are a lot to care about, even at home.
The center is consistently a full house. With almost thirty large dog pens, a wall of cat pens in a separate office and smaller cages and outdoor pens scattered throughout the small compound, it's a symphony of chaos when the animals get worked up. But the crew doesn't even seem to notice anymore.
While fielding complaint calls from citizens, requests for assistance from the police department or conducting followups and check-ins with various animal-related agencies throughout the county, neither Hollywood or Officer Tilford Cobb stumbled over words when an uproar began, as they often suddenly will. In an instant, the entire shelter can be filled with raucous barking as the dogs go crazy for one reason or another (or none at all.) None of the officers even raise their voices.
However, it's not in the most terrific location, and the site is in a bit of disrepair. There are structural cracks running along the walls in the bathrooms and everywhere, space is tight. Two people side-by-side is almost impossible in every location in the shelter.
"We're trying to build a new shelter and we're fundraising now," Hollywood said. "We're hoping to get something that will be a much nicer environment for the animals to live in and for people to come and visit. Not just a new 'dog pound,' but a new 'adoption center.'"
Prior to Hollywood's arrival for the day, Cobb already compiled a list of calls to which he would respond, mapped out a plan of attack and hit the road. A wild turkey that's been running amock on Hope Street near the Donut Delight gets three calls on it's own, with at least one caller identifying it as a "large pheasant," is the first stop on the list.
The plan ever goes the way it's plotted, Cobb said.
"It can take thirty minutes to drive across town and I'll try and organize a bunch of stops in one area," he said. "But then we'll get a call across town and have to heard over there."
Cobb, at 42, is a lifetime Stamford resident. He's been with animal control since he was about 30. Prior to that he was a teacher at Rowayton Elementary. He toyed with the idea of heading to the police academy, but said his love for animals pushed him to apply for this job when it opened up.
"I've always had a love for animals," Cobb says. "I left teaching to follow my dream job. I went to school for architecture and did not like that at all. But ever since I was little, I've been fascinated with animals."
After checking on the turkey, Cobb went to check out a house where police called to relay a dog bite incident from the night prior. Upon arriving, the owner, who had not responded to phone calls from the shelter, is outside fixing his front gate. The dog is wandering around, collarless. After a bit of runaround, Cobb makes a call to the animal's vet on his own and discovered the dog's rabies shots are out of date.
The owner apologized for the incident, and Cobb breaks down that the man is going to need to bring the dog in for quarantine. He issued the owner a ticket for a fraction of the $500-plus he rightfully could have. While they are talking, the dog came around began sniffing the stranger's feet out on the sidewalk."
"He says he's already lost two dogs getting hit by running into traffic. He's got two now with one whose shots expired in August and the other who's never been vaccinated," Cobb said. "I'm going to give him a warning about the license and cut him a break on some of the issues because it's Christmas, but if I check in and the issues are not taken care of, I could hit him with a lot of fines here."
Following the dog bite, Cobb headed to a house on Rutz street where a cat was reportedly abandoned in the home after the family moved out. While discovering the caller had an incorrect address and the house number didn't exist, a call for a loose pit bull comes in, and Cobb had to scramble across town to the Harbor Point area.
As we drive, like any public servant forced to familiarize themselves with the city and learn problem areas, Cobb recalls funny stories or harrowing accounts from the job and points out the homes or businesses where they've occurred.
"There was a deer stuck in that parking lot," he said, pointing at a garage along Tresser Blvd. Then, a little further down Tresser, "There were coyotes living on the tracks up there."
Arriving on the scene, several community members have the dog corralled and, while appearing nervous, the white and brown Staffordshire Terrier doesn't seem like she's going to bolt. Cobb sweet talks her into a leash and brings her to the large an. With a sore back he's thrown out twice in recent months, he doesn't hesitate to help her get into the van while she reconsidered the idea. Fearless despite a strange Pit Bull's face next to his, he lift her from her bottom and pushes her into a cage, where she sits quietly.
Before heading back to the office, Cobb made a stop to a home listed on a recovered dog's microchip information that the shelter hasn't gotten any response from in the two days it's had the dog. A woman answers the door hurriedly, and is surprised to see Cobb, saying she'd received the message, hadn't had a chance to call back, but was actually on her way to pick up the dog now, who she says has bolted five times in the nine days she's had it.
After discussing training options with her and plugging the free classes the shelter offers, Cobb brings the newest tenant of the Stamford Animal Shelter back to base. It's not even lunch yet, but the busy morning has only allowed for more issues to spring up around the city. A litany of new messages and calls awaits, but not all are happy that they are not being granted immediate gratification.
"Well, I was calling so you could help me catch a dog running loose," said one caller on a message, her voice seething with entitlement and disbelief. "But I guess that's not going to happen since I'm talking to this answering machine."
Cobb shrugged it off with a laugh.
"People can be really demanding," he said. "They don't ask. They give orders."
One Short of a Herd
As Cobb settles into the office checking messages, Hollywood follows shortly after with her own haul. In addition to the Staffordshire Terrier Cobb has recovered, Hollywood brings three cats and a dog. Space is in short supply, but they find room for everyone.
When there are just two officers to field calls—and occasionally just one—man hours can become an issue. For every event to which Animal Control responds, there's paperwork that must be done. So, aside from responding to every call received, there's also paperwork that is associated with that call. Which means, with the number of calls received, its easy for months of work to become backlogged as the officers maintain the streets but find little time for the office work.
"When I come back to the office, there are more calls waiting, but there's paperwork for all the stuff I've done so far today," Cobb said. There will always be more calls. If [Officer Stendhal Jean-Louis] is here taking care of the animals, and Laurie is responding to calls, and I'm responding to calls, there's no one to get that stuff done."
Cobb said he wished the department would get the resources to hire at least one more full time worker to bring their roster up to five. The department does have about 50 volunteers that drift in and out according to Hollywood, some more frequently than others, but what they are able to do is limited to manual labor around the shelter, typically.
"That would be to just allow us to operate normally," he said. "Five officers and a kennel caretaker if there really wanted us to operate smoothly. There are days where none of us take any breaks, we just work straight through the day, and we still have paperwork we can't get to. Everything starts accumulating."
Cobb said Saturdays and Sundays are their busiest days, with a lot more people outside of work to notice incidents about which to call the shelter.
"Today, that paperwork won't get done, and with everything that's already piled up, it won't get done tomorrow, either," Cobb said. "The city took away our overtime for using too much of it, but we need it. It would be cheaper for them to just hire more people. But their always cutting into our already low budget. We can't get anything done here."
The Savagery of Wild Life
There is always more to be done. With a dog bite being the "heaviest" call that comes in Friday morning, the afternoon brings a report of a man punching and kicking his dog down a flight of stairs. There are reports of a man keeping a half-dozen dogs in his garage and basement in poor conditions and a dog currently in the kennel with burns to his body because his owner tried to get rid of fleas with a homemade concoction that included bleach. The burned dog is believed to have come from the man holding several dogs on his property. Finally, there's a call about three dogs that had ganged up on a raccoon, and some had wounds that would need to be monitored.
"I suppose if everyone was a responsible pet owner, we wouldn't need people in our jobs or a shelter to house animals and people would have less to complain about," Hollywood said. "But we are human, though, and we have accidents. Each case and each incident and each animal is different. The hardest part of the job is people, not animals."
"It's not the animals at the root of a lot of these problems," Cobb added.
Officer Stendhal Jean-Louis goes by Jean around the office. He has feeding and cleaning cages down to a science, and moves fluidly in his work. An immigrant from Haiti, He moved to the states in 1987 and made it to Stamford by way of Miami and then New York.
He was previously a government worker for the agriculture department in Haiti before becoming an animal control officer. He is an optimist and believes in the natural good in people. Where Hollywood or Cobb identify the job as, at times, wearing because of what they seen, Jean said he tries to always remind them of the natural good they see.
"I take good care of the animals, and they treat me well," he laughs. "The people that have them, sometimes their mind is not focused. Maybe they have addiction or problems at home. I try not to make judgment on them. But you look at the animals and so much of their personality is very human. They make you think of how we react in life."
Jean said watching a dog he cares for get cancer is painful because he knows the dog hurts like a person might hurt, but the dog can't speak its mind or heart.
"You go on a call and you don't know what you're getting into. If I have to give a ticket, they get very angry. There's a lot of confrontation. This job taught me how to hold down a temper in any situation," he said. "I enjoy doing this job and am happy doing it because this job helps me understand everybody."