Protecting animals is her calling

Pasco County Animal Services officer Carol Whitehead prepares to check on dog licenses at a Spring Hill residence whose owner raises dogs.

MIKE PEASE | Times

Pasco County Animal Services officer Carol Whitehead prepares to check on dog licenses at a Spring Hill residence whose owner raises dogs.

Carol Whitehead stopped by the Holiday house to make sure the greyhounds had updated shots and tags.

Their owner yelled at her and ordered her to leave. Then he picked an argument with his wife about not having enough money to pay for the dogs' care.

The routine call to Animal Services in 2003 quickly escalated. The man drew back his hand to hit his wife. Whitehead warned him not to. So he stopped, turned to Whitehead and cocked his fist to punch her instead.

Whitehead quickly called a deputy, and the man was arrested.

Sometimes, it's not the animals that give Whitehead the most trouble. It's the people.

It's not easy to deal with emaciated dogs, rotting roadkill or emotional pet owners. So why does Whitehead do it?

Because, she says, someone has to be a voice for the animals.

• • •

Whitehead is 51, with long reddish brown hair she wears in a ponytail.

As a kid, Whitehead picked fleas off strays and hid snakes in her pockets. She felt sorry for animals who had no one to care for them.

Her family didn't have much money, so Whitehead wasn't able to bring home the strays she found in the streets of Pinellas Park.

"As a kid, I saw dead animals on the road, and I'd say, 'Why don't they pick them up?' " she said. "Little did I know, I'd one day be doing that myself."

Before she started a career with animal control, Whitehead worked at Lockheed Martin for 17 years, making triggers for guns.

At the time, Whitehead wasn't sure what to do with her life. Her father, who also worked for Lockheed Martin, advised her to apply.

When her Largo plant closed, she decided it was time to pursue her calling.

She got her associate in arts degree and took a job in 2001 at the Pasco animal shelter as an animal technician.

For two years, she cleaned and medicated animals and helped with adoptions. She had no interest in becoming an animal control officer. But one day in 2003, officials at the shorthanded agency asked for volunteers from the shelter to work in the field, finding stray dogs and picking up dead animals.

Whitehead agreed to pitch in. But she didn't think she'd like it.

During one of her first days in the field, she got a call about a lost chihuahua that someone found in Holiday.

"I drove out there, and as the people who found it were giving it to me, the owners came," she said of the happy coincidence. "They said, 'That's my dog.' It felt good to give it back to them. The dog went home instead of being lost."

Whitehead was hooked.

• • •

If pets could talk, Whitehead said, they would tell their owners to get them a rabies shot. They would ask not to be left outside to roam. They would want to have identification tags just in case they get lost.

"The animals can't speak, so we have to speak for the animals," Whitehead said. "That's what an officer does. We know this has to be done. That's what drives me … it boils down to education. The animals can't tell the owner, so I have to."

She acknowledges it's not a job for everyone. People occasionally yell at her. One irate pet owner swatted her clipboard.

People don't like being told what to do with their animals.

"You take the good with the bad," she said. "Being spit at? That's just part of the job."

Whitehead became a rabies control officer a few years back. She spends most days handling paperwork for the 100 bites the county has per month.

Other days, she is perched behind the driver's seat of a white Ford truck, responding to allegations of animal cruelty and ushering stray dogs into the metal cages in the back of her truck.

Snake tongs, a fishing net to catch cats and a shovel for roadkill rattle in an uneven symphony near the cages.

A picture of Whitehead's stepson Troy and husband, Bill, a Sheriff's Office desk officer, is pinned to the driver's side visor. Whitehead doesn't tell her husband about everything that happens on the road. She knows some of the stories would bother him.

Scanner traffic buzzes. A GPS system allows supervisors to track her every move, just in case something were to happen to her.

• • •

Sometimes, dealing with people who abandon or mistreat animals takes its toll.

Once, Whitehead was called to a house where a neighbor said a dog's owner locked the animal in a shed for three months. When she arrived, she saw an emaciated terrier mix with heartworms.

The dog's owners denied the allegations and said the dog wasn't theirs. Whitehead took the dog to the animal shelter in Land O'Lakes.

"When I first saw that dog, I was in shock," she said. "You know you've got a job to do, and you don't want to show emotion. It's like a switch inside. You can't let it upset you."

Whitehead finds solace in walking with her husband and playing computer games. She also plays with her pets: cats Ashlee, Kodi and Lalana, and a goldfish named Mo.

Four years ago, Whitehead lost a cat to cancer. Named Paul Assenmacher after a professional baseball player, the animal developed a tumor and had to be euthanized.

Whitehead thinks about Paul when she goes to cruelty calls. Seeing people who don't properly take care of animals makes her miss him even more.

• • •

On a recent Monday afternoon, Whitehead wrapped up her field work and started heading back to her office in Land O'Lakes.

That's when she spotted something in the grass on Hudson Avenue.

"I think we have some roadkill," she said.

She maneuvered the van into a U-turn and parked on the shoulder. Four kids stood near a dead dog. One pulled out a cell phone to take a picture.

Whitehead hopped out and put on white latex gloves. She opened the side of the truck and grabbed a black garbage bag. She walked over to the dog. Vultures had been there.

Rigor mortis had set in. Whitehead put the large brown dog into the bag, legs first.

She dragged it to the back of her truck and placed it in a metal cage that locks. It will be taken to the animal shelter. The kids asked what will happen to the dog after that.

Whitehead said a pet crematorium will have it incinerated.

Shock blankets their faces. They had never thought about that before.

Whitehead waved goodbye and drove away.

Camille C. Spencer can be reached at cspencer@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6229.

>>Pet project

A last resort

Animal control takes in thousands of unwanted pets each year. Some are too sickly or antisocial for adoption. Others are healthy and friendly, but if no one takes them home, and if no pet rescue group takes them, the animals are eventually euthanized.

6,785 — Cats brought to the Pasco animal shelter in fiscal year 2007.

6,140 — Cats euthanized that year.

4,978 — Dogs brought to the Pasco animal shelter in fiscal year 2007.

3,241 — Dogs euthanized that year.

Want to do something about those numbers? Make sure your pets are spayed or neutered, and encourage others to do the same. The county offers a $40 rebate to residents who have their licensed dog sterilized by a participating vet. If you're interested in getting a pet, check out the animals at the shelter. For information on pet adoptions, sterilizations and a list of nonprofit spay/neuter clinics, visit the animal control Web site at pascocountyfl.net/pubser/comser/animal/animal.html.

Protecting animals is her calling 06/15/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 17, 2008 9:17am]

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