By: Jen Russon
The slogan in Coral Springs, “Everything Under the Sun” is fortunate to also include a humane unit within the city’s police department. Manned by three animal control officers, or ACOs, this special division of police are called upon to do a myriad of things for pets, their owners, feral animals roaming our streets, and the citizens to whom they pose risks.
ACOs, Monica Fedderwitz, Vincent Steckler and Warren Darlow drive trucks with four crate slide-in units in the back, ideal for toting pooches. But these ACOs are more than dog catchers. They help a spectrum of wildlife, from birds and turtles, to raccoons, bats and reptiles – they also deal with the rabid, malnourished, abandoned and lost.
ACOs are among the first to respond to drug raids, clear carcasses from roadways and help displaced animals in the aftermath of wrecks, house fires or an owner’s sudden death.
It’s not for the faint of heart; more for the kindhearted. After ten years with the humane unit, Officer Fedderwitz has been there the longest. Her line of work has resulted in the adoption of an African Grey Congo named Charlotte, and two pit bulls, Groot and Chloe.
Charlotte lives at the humane unit, in a cage next to bins of assorted pet food and cat litter, all donated by Walmart.
“Charlotte is such a good pet that if her owner walked in ten years from now and wanted her back, I’d give her back,” said Fedderwitz, who said she gets to know every animal brought in.
She and fellow ACO, Officer Steckler agree it’s easier for the humane unit to work with rescues and re-home animals when they know a lot about them. Their shared office space is small, but efficient. It smells of bleach because Fedderwitz regularly swabs out the dog cages.
Washing machines whir away in an adjacent room. Large filing cabinets with hundreds of cases referred out to local rescue shelters take up an entire wall.
The animals are kept toward the back of the facility in individual holding pens that look like jail, except in this case, while the cages were being cleaned, with baskets of colorful toys soon to return for their enjoyment.
“We spoil them,” Fedderwitz admits. She goes on to say that much of the time, it’s a happy reunion for the dogs they bring in.
“A dog can be missing for years, and the owner will see one of our Facebook posts and come in to get their pet back. The dogs instantly recognize them, and there are tears,” Steckler said, adding that a scene like this is easily the best part of his job.
Steckler and Fedderwitz, each with a taser at their hip rather than a gun, conduct a tour of the roughly half-dozen dogs at the humane unit. There are two puppies, found together on Royal Palm Boulevard, held in the same pen. They stick their wet noses through the bars and lick Steckler’s hand as he passes by.
There is a Yorkie, too – obviously pure bred and not too far removed from his last grooming.
“This guy’s a repeat offender,” said Fedderwitz. “Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a very good owner. I’ve sent her a couple of certified letters, asking that she come pick him up, but so far she hasn’t answered.”
Fedderwitz described more sad scenarios that come through the humane unit. Often, the person claiming to have found a lost dog is actually its owner.
“I tell them, ‘look, this is the best opportunity you’re going to get to be honest with us’ – if you just can’t handle your pet, we need to know and no harm done,” Fedderwitz said, mentioning that a $250 citation for abandonment would be waived.
She added that many times, an owner welcomes her tips for taking better care of their pet, follows her advice, and it’s a happy ending. Others will cite financial reasons for letting it go.
That’s when Steckler jumps in and says there are programs offered through Broward County like SNIP, where neutering and spaying are offered on a sliding scale. As for cats passing through the humane unit, the policy is called “TNR,” Trap, neuter and release.
The humane unit works with the Coral Springs Animal Hospital, Sawgrass Nature Center and various veterinary centers within the city. Officers Fedderwitz and Steckler are both state certified in chemical capture and euthanasia. Both used to work as assistants for veterinarians in South Florida.
These ACOs get to know their charges inside and out, and said that while they would love Broward County Animal Care to be a no-kill shelter for these animals, sometimes it is necessary to put one down.
The officers are optimistic that the animals in their care, will either find new homes or get back with their owners.
“This one was found on Sawgrass and Sample Road,” said Steckler, pointing to a female dog with big brown eyes and blue bandanna around her neck. She’s been here about two days.”
Other dogs in custody include an especially fluffy, big brown dog who appears to be age five or six, and a few pit bulls, one of which include a white and ginger spotted boy named Amigo.
Amigo has special needs. Steckler feeds him in a miniature high chair, out near the ACOs’ work area.
“Amigo has megaesophagus,” Steckler explained, “which means he has to sit upright when he’s eating or else he’ll just throw everything up.”
She said she wasn’t sure how many people would want to adopt a special needs dog like him.
Fedderwitz has taken many turns feeding Amigo and agrees; it surprised the officers when one of their main rescue contacts, Gretchen Byrne, a Coral Springs Police Officer said she found someone willing to adopt Amigo. If all goes well, Amigo will be moving to Boston soon; however, transportation may prove problematic so Byrne is open to accepting more adoption offers.
Not all are as lucky as this pit bull. Steckler said the humane unit has the legal right to turn any animal without ID over to the county animal shelter within three days; lost pets with ID get five days or more in the humane unit – which rarely happens as they work with a multitude of rescue agencies.
Fedderwitz said if they have room and the dog seems adoptable, or the owner might likely return, they will let the pooch stay indefinitely.
For owners whose worst nightmare is a pet getting lost or run over, the ACOs recommend better securing your property, microchipping, and making sure pets are properly registered.
“Try not to leave your pet unattended in the backyard if you are not home,” said Fedderwitz, adding with irony, “locating lost pets and reuniting them with their owners may be the best part of my job, but I’d prefer not to have to do it in the first place.”
Jen Russon is a freelance writer and English Language Arts teacher. She has published two novels to Amazon Kindle and lives in Coral Springs with her family.