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‘It can take a toll on you.’ Harford animal control continues work as Humane Society shelter fills

The call came for a possible rabid fox that had been spotted slinking around a Pylesville neighborhood and may have had contact with the resident dog of the property. Arriving around 9:45 a.m., July 15, Harford County’s animal control supervisor Kevin Cajigas stepped out of the Ford van into the hot sun and got to work.

A neighbor across the street from the house where Cajigas found the fox said he had seen it in his yard, and he heard it had tried to infiltrate another neighbor’s garage. The home’s residents set a trap out for the animal and snared it before calling animal control. It was young — easily just four months old, Cajigas estimated — and covered in scaly patches of mange where its fur had been abraded from scratching its itching skin. Its face was swollen, like it had fought with another animal, and it cowered silently in the corner of the wire trap, thin and trembling.

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This is the day-in, day-out routine of Harford County’s animal control, which responds to some 3,500 calls annually, Cajigas estimated. Necessary work, but work that can weigh heavily.

While the fox was not foaming at the mouth — the calling-card of rabies — Cajigas pointed out that the type of mange it appeared to have is transmittable to humans. The animal could be rehabilitated, he said, but as mangy animals sometimes scratch and cut their itchy skin, wounds can become fatally infected. Whatever the case, he explained, if it possibly had contact with a domestic animal, it would need to take a trip to the Harford County Humane Society and be tested for rabies, so he loaded the trap into the van and set off.

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Harford County Sheriff's Office animal control supervisor Kevin Cajigas takes a closer look at a young fox as he carries the cage it was trapped in by residents at their Pylesville home July 15. The young animal was showing signs of possible rabies.
Harford County Sheriff's Office animal control supervisor Kevin Cajigas takes a closer look at a young fox as he carries the cage it was trapped in by residents at their Pylesville home July 15. The young animal was showing signs of possible rabies. (James Whitlow / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

Cajigas found a love for working with animals after volunteering with a veterinarian’s office in his native Puerto Rico. Eventually, he was hired there as an emergency vet technician, and continued to work with animals when he moved to the contiguous United States. As he was looking for work, he stumbled across the requirements for an animal control officer with the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, found he met them and “the rest is history,” he said.

Working under the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, six animal control officers cover the entire county in zones, Cajigas explained, except on weekends where one person may be responsible for much more.

Because much of Harford County is rural, he said, animal control officers are placed in zones depending on their backgrounds and knowledge of animals. Particularly in areas with farms, officers need to have a knowledge of farm animals; that way, they can avoid mistaking a skinny horse for an abused horse, he said by way of example.

The van Cajigas wheeled toward the humane society had over 83,000 miles on it; others in the fleet have over 200,000 clocked, he said, a testament to the roving nature of the job.

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“This is my office,” he said with a chuckle, gesturing to the dashboard.

Motoring to the humane society, with the fox quiet in the back of the van, Cajigas said there are many misapprehensions about what animal control does. Some county residents think of them as euthanasia-happy dogcatchers who will look for any excuse to take an animal away from its owner. The opposite is true, he said. Animal control does not want to euthanize or seize animals unless they are unwell or unsafe, Cajigas said.

First responses with animal control, he said, are generally a warning, but enough visits can lead to sterner consequences.

Though the catch pole sat in the van’s passenger side footwell, Cajigas said animal control is much more than wrangling rowdy animals. Beyond checking on reports of bites and conducting welfare checks, animal control officers are authorized to conduct humane investigations and seize animals in some cases.

“When you get justice for the voiceless, that is a good day,” he said.

Harford County Sheriff's Office animal control supervisor Kevin Cajigas arrives at the Harford County Humane Society.
Harford County Sheriff's Office animal control supervisor Kevin Cajigas arrives at the Harford County Humane Society. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

Arriving at the Humane Society of Harford County off Connolly Road in Fallston, Cajigas pulled to the side of the building and entered through a set of double-doors. The narrow hallways of the shelter’ backrooms smell faintly doggy, and the first room to the right of that side entrance is sometimes the last stop for animals that cross the threshold.

As a rule, Cajigas said, animals that can carry rabies and have contact with domestic animals need to be tested for the disease per the U.S. Department of Natural Resources’ rules. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rabies virus is detectable in brain tissue, unlike other illnesses that can be identified with bloodwork or other analyses, and it has no cure. According to a 2014 article in The Lancet, a peer-reviewed medical journal, its fatality rate approaches 100%, and it kills an estimated 60,000 people a year — chiefly in Africa and Asia. Effectively, “testing” is shorthand for “putting down” when it comes to known rabies vectors like bats and foxes or any other animal that will not willingly surrender its brain tissue for examination.

According to the CDC, approximately 120,000 or more animals are tested for rabies annually, but only 6% are found to be rabid.

“Sorry buddy,” Cajigas said, lifting the cage onto the steel table.

Depending on an animal’s metabolism, size and other factors, it can take up to 7 minutes for the serum to kill, vet tech Stephanie Clark explained. After sedating the fox, she injected it with three times the amount needed. She said she wanted to make it quick. Time of death: approximately 10:50 a.m. Thursday July 15; witnesses: two animal control officers, one vet tech, one reporter and a handful of quarantined kittens that had tested positive for feline immunodeficiency virus.

After it stopped breathing, the fox was placed in a bag and put in the refrigerator to keep it for a rabies test.

“A lot of people have kindness in their hearts and want to help animals, but it can take a toll on you,” Cajigas said on the ride to the shelter. “The reality of this career is you’re going to see a lot of sad things.”

It is never a pleasure to put down an animal, Cajigas said, but an unfortunate consequence of the job that needs to stay separated from life at home. It can be easy to bring work home, especially since he is on call quite often. But Cajigas’ job is to protect, not only the wild and domestic animals he is called on to manage, but the families and animals in the communities he serves. In this case, one animal had to die for the others’ safety.

“I have a community to protect, also, and right now I have an animal that, it’s sick,” he said. “It’s never a good day when I have to put an animal down; my job is to protect, but I also have to consider the two faces of my job.”

While it is not required of animal control officers, Cajigas stays with animals that need to be euthanized until the end.

“It could be the meanest dog that tried to bite my face off; I will still stay with them until the end because I think that is the most humane thing I can do for them,” he said. “Just to make sure that they were not alone when all this went down.”

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Harford County Sheriff's Office animal control supervisor Kevin Cajigas checks in with one of the dogs he recently brought in to the Harford County Humane Society during a stop at the facility July 15.
Harford County Sheriff's Office animal control supervisor Kevin Cajigas checks in with one of the dogs he recently brought in to the Harford County Humane Society during a stop at the facility July 15. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

Humane society dealing with influx of animals

Animal control officers work hand-in-glove with the Humane Society of Harford County, the county’s principal animal shelter. Everything from lost pets, sick wildlife and seized animals come through its doors. But the shelter is filling up — more so than usual.

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Entire rooms of kittens that would normally be snatched up are going unclaimed. Puppies that melt hearts and usually leave the shelter quickly, too, are staying put. The reasons for the slow down are unclear, but if they do not go, something will have to be done, Shelter Operations Director Cat Kelly said.

The shelter is over capacity, particularly with kittens, Kelly said. Fewer adoptions are not abnormal for this time of year when people go on vacation, she said, but there is an urgent need to make space in the shelter. The shelter regularly posts pictures of adoptable animals to its Facebook page and website with success placing them in homes. This year, though, there is not as much of an appetite.

“Normally, if something like that goes on our site, it’s gone,” Kelly said. “People are waiting in line.”

Cajigas recalled that one of the largest seizures of animals in recent memory came a few years ago when over 90 cats were taken from a hoarding situation. They wound up at the animal shelter. Animal control officers do not stop work just because the shelter is filled, and while it would be uncommon, another case of that size — or a steady drip of animals going to the shelter — could overload it, he said.

So great is the volume that the humane society has lowered its adoption fees on kittens, cats and dogs to $25 until further notice. Normally, adopting a dog can cost as much as $250, and a cat or kitten can run up to $125. The shelter may lose some money on adoption fees, Kelly said, but that beats the alternative.

“We do not want to have to be euthanizing animals,” she said.

The reasons for the influx of animals into the shelter is unclear, Kelly said. Unlike other places, the humane society has not seen adopted animals being returned as the pandemic lifts; the likely cause of the crowding is “a lot of little things,” Kelly speculated.

The humane society is accepting foster home applications for kittens, but their needs go beyond placing animals in homes. Any donations to the shelter are appreciated, particularly wet food for kittens and dogs, as well as litter, toilet paper, paper towels and gift cards to online pet stores and the Home Depot.

“It just means we are in incredible need from the community,” Kelly said.

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