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Tending to people, not just their pets

The short walk from the pet shelter to the Animal Control office can feel awfully long during a Florida summer downpour, and Xan Rawls wanted to keep people dry as they came to adopt or retrieve their pets.

A covered walkway would have cost $7,200 that Animal Control didn't have, so Rawls bought six $10 umbrellas for the public to use between the two buildings.

Her boss, Public Safety Director Charles Poliseno, was skeptical.

"He said, "That'll never work. People will take them,' " said Rawls, the recently hired Animal Control director.

"I said, "So we'll put "Animal Control' in big black letters on them and call it advertising,' " she recalled, grinning.

This is Xan Rawls: operating on a shoestring budget, trying to make Animal Control more people friendly and somehow keeping her sense of humor about it.

Rawls, who started three weeks ago, takes the reins of one of the county's most difficult divisions. Her office deals with emotional pet owners, critters that are lost or abandoned and a euthanasia rate of about 8,000 animals a year.

Add to that the office's image problem: news accounts of Animal Control's putting down the wrong pet or letting a quarantined dog escape after it bit a young girl, the firing of former director Hank Baggett after he shot and killed a cat stranded in a pine tree and then failed to mention it in the file or to his boss.

Rawls recognizes the challenge and likes to call herself "the new director with the new direction."

"There are terrific people here. They are committed, caring, and devoted to doing the best," she said. "But the goals the board has set for us are challenging, and it's welcome. I don't do well with boredom."

Microchips and buffets

Rawls hasn't wasted a moment. In the time most people would still be unpacking and settling into their new office, Rawls has started reshaping Animal Control.

She has already ordered her first batch of 500 microchips, tiny pet identification devices that will be implanted in every pet adopted from the shelter. Owners retrieving their lost pets from the shelter can also request the chip.

The chip, which is about the size of a grain of rice, is injected between the pet's shoulder blades. It has a unique number that can be traced, through the manufacturer and seller, to the pet owner.

"You can put a tag on, and someone can take it off. You can tattoo the ear, and someone can cut it off," Rawls said. "This is permanent."

And it will add only about $5 to the cost of a pet adoption.

Rawls also plans to consolidate all the charges into one flat fee, although she hasn't worked out a number yet.

The costs vary now because veterinarians charge from $25 to $50 or more for sterilization, which is required before a shelter animal can be adopted, she said. Add on the costs for other shots and tests, and the adoption costs run $55 or more.

The vacillating prices can be discouraging for prospective pet owners, she said.

"Right now it's all piecemeal, a la carte," Rawls said. "I want to do a buffet price."

She also wants to revisit county regulations. Why not charge higher fines to pet owners who are repeat offenders?

If a wandering dog can be identified by his microchip, why not call the pet owner to pick him up from the Animal Control officer's truck instead of the shelter? It could keep the dog from catching an illness from other shelter animals, she said, and it would force people to claim responsibility for their pets.

"Let's put the responsibility back where it belongs: on the back of the owner instead of the back of the pet," she said.

Rawls is getting help modernizing the office. Darryl Clouse, the county's systems management director, has been working for months on a new computer program that will replace much of the cumbersome paper files the office now keeps. Pictures and information about every animal at the shelter will be available on Animal Control's Web site.

Animal Control will try out the system in the next few weeks.

"This software program is better than anything I've seen in the state of Florida," Rawls said. "It's better than chocolate."

Defender of critters

Rawls' unique name comes from the ancient Greek philosopher Xan, pronounced "Zan." It means defender of mankind, although Rawls has taken on the cause of critters.

While her teenage friends had after-school jobs as babysitters, Rawls was training dogs and horses in her hometown of Jacksonville. She was volunteering at the zoo at age 14, and by 17 she was helping out at animal shelters.

"I just felt such a sense of purpose, so I stuck with it," said Rawls, now 48.

Rawls earned a degree in pre-veterinary medicine at the University of Florida and served as Brevard County's Animal Control director from 1987 to 1992. Most recently she helped run Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida, and she continues to volunteer her time as the group's vice president.

Her Ocala log cabin is practically a menagerie. Her pets include a quarter horse named Shana; Nan E. Goat, a cranky goat that was orphaned when coyotes killed her herd; a 6-foot corn snake named Ethel; three flying squirrels named Jyl, Skippy and Lucille; and three Labrador retrievers named Jazz, Bree and Suni.

Oh, and a couple of fish.

She often has foster dogs, too, like Sam and Shad, two Labrador retrievers awaiting new homes.

"I have a very understanding husband," she said, an electrician named Marc Banks. (Rawls kept her maiden name 15 years ago to avoid wasting the Animal Control stationery she had just ordered in Brevard County).

She also has an 11-year-old son, Travis, who helps care for all the animals.

Rawls' nurturing skills should come in handy as she takes the county's Animal Control division under her wing.

County Administrator Richard Wesch expects Rawls to turn Animal Control's focus more toward customer service and pet adoptions, with less "law enforcement" attitude. Wesch likens it to the philosophical shift the Building Division made several years ago to become more user friendly.

"That will be a challenge for Xan and her people, no doubt about it." Wesch said. "But the way you do that is on an individual basis, in the manner you deal with the citizens."

_ Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at 860-7303 or