Derek Franz
dfranz@eaglevalleyenterprise.com

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January 18, 2012
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On the loose

Nathan Lehnert is a gentle guy but he is often verbally abused by the public and has permanent bite mark scars on the back of his hand from doing his job.

He is an animal services officer for Eagle County - and he mostly enjoys what he does.

"This is nothing I ever expected to do but it's great," he said as he drove around on patrol last week. "My favorite part is when I get to do something positive in the community, and I get to do a lot of things and see parts of the county most people don't see every day."

The tough part of the job is writing citations - or worse, scooping a dead pet out of the road after its owner had been warned multiple times about not allowing the animal to run loose.

"If I never had to issue a citation again, I'd be a happy man," Lehnert said. "People can get pretty emotional at times, and someone trying to do this job well will pick up on that stress. The key is to not take things personally. I've grown into abilities for handling people I didn't know I had."

The director of Eagle County Animal Services, Shawn Markmann, said it's hard to say exactly what makes a good officer.

"It takes someone with an eclectic blend of talents," he said. "Some of my best officers had never been anywhere near this field of work before they started."

A tricky part of working for animal services is that an officer is not really law enforcement but has to be familiar with the law, Markmann said.

"An officer is more of a code enforcer and an educator."

Bottom line - the humans are the hardest part of the work.

"We're mostly involved with neighbor disputes," Markmann said. "We deal with people primarily and animals are involved."

Lehnert has been an officer since 2004. He said the job affected the way he thinks about people.

"My views on how I fit into the community have changed," he said. "It makes me think about the laws I break and how I treat a cop who is giving me a speeding ticket."

Lehnert works with two other animal control officers in addition to Markmann. They have six sets of laws to enforce in addition to the county's - for Vail, Minturn, Red Cliff, Avon, Eagle and Gypsum.

"Once a town is incorporated, it has to hire its own animal control and draft its own laws," Lehnert explained.

In this case, "hire" means an incorporated town contracts with the county for services. Each town contracts for a certain amount of patrol hours per week or month.

"The laws are very similar from town to town except for small differences in their language," Lehnert said. "One town might word a law pertaining to 'dogs' instead of 'animals,' which means cats are exempt in that case."

Otherwise, when neighbor disputes aren't the issue, an officer generally deals with roaming and/or unlicensed pets. County citations carry fines of $40 each for a first offense. Gypsum has the stiffest fines, which were raised last year, to $100 for each charge on a first offense.

"That got people to wake up," Lehnert said.

Any animal picked up by animal services costs its owner $30. If the animal is taken to the shelter, it adds another charge for each day it stays there. Dogs cost $15 per day and cats are $10.

The fines add up fast. Depending where it is, a dog running loose that is picked up and taken to the shelter will set its owner back $85. That is assuming the owner claims it that day and that the dog doesn't have additional citations, such as being unlicensed. When additional issues are cited and the fine costs climb, owners are more likely to become unhappy people.

A common accusation animal control officers face all around the country - as evidenced by an essay in the January/February 2011 issue of "NACA (National Animal Control Agency) News" - is that the officer took the dog in question out of the owner's yard. Lehnert faced the same accusation last week and it wasn't new to him.

Markmann said Lehnert picked up a loose dog at a gas station that morning. Lehnert knew the dog from previous encounters and went to drop it off at its owner's house. The owner wasn't there, so he had to take the dog back to the shelter. The owner arrived in time to see Lehnert driving off, however.

"He accused (Lehnert) of going onto his property and stealing his dog," Markmann said. "It's silly what comes up sometimes. (Lehnert) was trying to do the man a favor. People will accept paying for a window their child broke with a baseball but they have a harder time taking responsibility for what their dog does."

Lehnert said someone who takes responsibility is more likely to get a break.

"The hardest part for me is when people are trying really hard to do the right thing and I can't let them off because I cite others for the same problem, even though the others are doing half as much to correct the problem," Lehnert said.

He said he tries to enforce animal codes "Andy Griffith style," in terms of mediating things in small communities.

"If no one complains and the animal is on private property, then I don't go out of my way to write a citation," he said. "If I can educate rather than enforce to gain compliance, then that's what I'll do."

Of the key tools for rounding up loose dogs, treats, leashes and towels are at the top of the list. A dog that can't be lured into custody with treats is rarely caught.

"People think we can catch dogs no matter what, like on 'Animal Planet' where they use darts," Lehnert said. "We have the capability to use darts but that is dangerous for the dog."

Sometimes when he can't catch a dog, Lehnert can get close enough to take a picture of its tag and read the address on it, which he uses to contact the owner.

The dogs that don't run away tend to be the scary ones.

"They usually go after the truck before they come at me," Lehnert said.

The towel comes in handy when dealing with those aggressive animals. By throwing it over the animal's head, injuries are often prevented. Still, the officers carry collapsible batons on their belts for worst-case scenarios.

"I've only used the baton twice," Lehnert said. "I don't hit the dog, I just use it to block myself. One dog broke its teeth on it."

Animals brought into the shelter are treated for any health issues, groomed and fed. All that is part of a booking process, similar to what humans go through at a jail. Dogs are not fed until after they have been there 24 hours, due to risks for their digestion if their diet is suddenly changed.

Officers also write detailed reports for any incidents they handle and make calls to pet owners for lost and found animals, and welfare and compliance checks.

Lehnert has been bit four times in seven years.

"Every time I've been bit has changed the way I do things," he said, reflecting. "It's been two years since I was last bitten."

He said he used to muzzle dogs. That stopped after he lost control of the muzzle while he was trying to lift a dog into a crate. The dog bit his right hand, leaving significant puncture wounds where there are still divots in his skin.

"One officer ended up in the hospital for four days because of a kitten bite on the finger," Lehnert said. "He didn't want to go to the hospital but it was good he did because he got really sick."

A big part of animal control pertains to disease control. Markmann said animal laws are designed to create a barrier between humans and animals in terms of health threats.

Lehnert hardly knew what an animal service officer was when he saw an ad for a job opening with the county. At the time, he was working security for Cordillera.

"I thought about being a veterinarian when I was a young kid but I never thought about a career with animals beyond that," he said.

Since then, it seems he has found his way into the rabbit hole, both somewhat literally and proverbially.

About 14 months ago, a dog was stuck in a pipe in Cordillera. Lehnert judged the situation to be reasonable, so he grabbed a flashlight, crawled into the pipe and brought the dog out.

"A situation like that is either no big deal at all or a really big deal (in terms of the risk)," he said. "In that case, people made a big deal out of something that wasn't."

Lehnert admits that even when he is getting good press in the newspaper - he's used to seeing his name associated with angry letters to the editor - he would rather not.

"I don't like to be in the paper," he said with an accepting smile.

Sometimes he gets stuck dealing with things he would rather not while he's on the job. But that's OK. He's good at keeping a positive attitude and handling whatever comes along.


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The VailDaily Updated Jan 18, 2012 12:59PM Published Jan 18, 2012 12:48PM Copyright 2012 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.