A pack of reddish-brown dogs have been having the time of their lives at Oklahoma’s Capitol building.
They’ve had the run of the grounds, rooting for rabbits and bounding over grassy lawns, for at least three weeks.
The problem is, the pooches have gone on the attack — for people. Two visitors suffered dog bites at the northeast Oklahoma City Capitol building in recent weeks. Others report being chased. Animal welfare workers laid traps to capture the dogs. Three were caught since the bite incidents, said Sheridan Lowery, a field supervisor with the city’s animal welfare division.
Commentors on the dog bite stories report on NewsOK’s Facebook page that strays are an issue elsewhere in Oklahoma City.
“People are aggressively pursued by dogs,” one woman writes.
Lowery, the supervisor, confirmed the division works multiple dog bite cases every day. In 2013, there were nearly 900 reports made for animal bites — vastly, dogs.
Calls for service
On Wednesday, the seven animal welfare officers assigned to the field arrived at the animal shelter at 8 a.m. with more than 250 service calls that needed attention.
A painted sign of sad-eyed kittens and dogs greets visitors to the Oklahoma City Animal Shelter, 2811 SE 29. In glass rooms near the entrance inside, kittens snuggle together beds while older, bolder felines eager for a scratch slink toward visitors who enter. In the back of the shelter, metal cages house lost and abandoned dogs whose barks reach a fever pitch when a prospective dog parent passes by. One pup skyrockets itself a good four feet into the air again and again.
Down a different hallway, a handful of supervisors occupy small offices. On a computer screen, a list of ongoing calls for service includes a report of city workers being chased by a pit bull at Lake Stanley Draper.
In 2013, the animal welfare division received around 35,400 calls for service, from loose livestock on the roads to injured or sick animals and cruelty complaints to deceased animal disposal. The most common type of call is for loose animals — mostly dogs.
Animal welfare officers completed 887 animal bite reports in 2013. The majority of the animal bites are from dogs, and about 20 percent involve cat bites. Now and again a call comes through for a wild animal bite — fewer than 10 per year.
On Wednesday afternoon, Lowery drove to the Capitol to check the traps that had been set for the wayward dogs. The metal cages are in the shade and plenty roomy enough for a dog’s short-term comfort, and they do not hurt the animals; upon entering, a trap door swings shut behind the dog. Cages are baited with a fresh can of dog food and checked daily.
Three of the dog suspects have been captured this way and taken to the animal shelter for observation. It’s likely they’ll be put down.
Under normal circumstances, the dogs would be considered for adoption, sent to a foster parent for socialization and further training, or to various animal rescue organizations that work with the city.
“The bad part is that the dogs may not be able to pass the evaluations due to health, temperament, or there just may not be room physically for them,” Lowery said. “At that time, they would be euthanized.”
The dogs will likely be administered a shot of a euthanization solution in pursuant to state level directives by the Oklahoma State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, Lowery said.
At the Capitol, plum parking spots for state Senate leaders are vacant; the legislative session ended in May.
From his position on the Capitol building’s east side, security officer Steve Lehr has had a good view of the grounds. He described the dogs as reddish brown and said they look like a mom and her pups. He theorized one of the pups was covered in spots — ticks, perhaps. Another guard guessed someone at the Capitol had been feeding the strays.
Lehr has helped escort to their cars two women who felt jumpy after being chased by the dogs outside of the Capitol building, he said. He’s not seen the dogs in recent days.
The four traps are empty and Lowery heads back toward the shelter. Then a call comes through from dispatch; there’s a domestic dispute over a dog in far northwest Oklahoma City.
Lowery drives that way.
An emotional encounter
The city’s 14 welfare officers drive Ford F250s outfitted with air-conditioned dog paddy wagons. Directed by a computer-aided dispatch system, the officers respond to calls in the sprawling, 620-square-mile metro. On duty, they wear ballistic vests for protection against people and animals, and carry with them other tools of the trade: an aluminum catch pole with a noose on one end for the safe and humane handling of cats and dogs, leashes, gloves, pepper spray and a baton. Officers have been wearing the vests for about five years, Lowery said. Before then, at least two were injured on the job; One officer was stabbed, another mauled when a problem dog owner turned his dogs loose to attack.
“We stopped counting at 72 puncture wounds,” Lowery said.
Driving toward an out-of-the-way neighborhood on the edge of Oklahoma City, Lowery discusses the various things he has encountered in 14 years at the city’s animal welfare division. For most of that time, he served as a field officer or investigator.
There are the meth houses. Dogs are an excellent first line of defense, as it turns out, if you happen to be a drug dealer.
Meth dealers have a habit of hiding the drugs in or under dog houses. Pit bull-type breeds tend to be a favorite choice, Lowery said. When busted, the question of what to do with the animal remains and an animal welfare officer is called.
The officers see stunning cases of animal abuse and neglect, and sometimes, the abuse of animals goes hand-in-hand with abusive treatment of young children.
Lowery pulls into the neighborhood and parks on the street. In a yard, a sinewy dark-haired woman in an orange tank top and ripped jeans clutches a cell phone to her ear, looking upset.
She looks toward an animal control vehicle parked on the street in front of her. An Oklahoma City police officer stands at its window. Inside, Desiree Moore scans the computer system. The animal control officer is looking for evidence that a reddish-brown pit bull named Poot, currently sitting in a police squad car near by, belongs to the woman in the yard. A female relative of the dark-haired woman’s estranged husband sits in a sport utility vehicle. She has a claim to the animal, too.
Moore finds a record that Carolyn Patton, the woman in the yard, is the dog’s owner. The pit had been picked up before, and Patton had come to claim him at the animal shelter.
“Can I get him?” she asks.
The police officer says yes, reminding Patton to tag and chip her animal.
Tears of joy fill her eyes as Patton sprints toward the squad car.
Poot leaps out and runs toward Patton, who hugs and scratches the pet.
“This dog is me and my kids’ best friend,” she said.
The blond relative throws up her hands as she walks away, mouthing off before speeding off in the sport utility vehicle.
The dog docket
Emotions run high when it comes to man’s best friend.
Those tasked with carrying out city ordinance involving vicious dogs and dog bites also bear witness to emotional scenes.
Laura Yates, an assistant municipal counselor for the city’s criminal justice division, previously handled the “dog docket.”
Animal control cases are heard Monday afternoons in municipal court.
Animal welfare officers turn over dog bite investigations to the city. The owners of the accused dog have to settle the matter in a court hearing and face fines of up to $500. A judge determines whether or not the dog owner is harboring a dangerous or vicious animal. If so, a judge can order that the dog be destroyed. Or, the owner could be allowed to keep the pet under certain restrictions.
“What you get used to is, people are emotional,” Yates said. “What you know is, the dog owner does not believe the dog is dangerous. The person who has been bitten or had their animal attacked does.”
The attorney on any dog bite case is tasked with cutting through the emotion and putting the evidence in front of the court.
“Our job is just to keep the city safe,” Yates said. “We do the best we can to enforce the ordinances to make sure people walking down the street are safe.”
A busy day
Back at the animal shelter, Lowery returns to his office.
The calls haven’t stopped; the list of service calls on his computer screen has gotten much longer.
Two of the dogs at the Capitol remain on the loose. At the shelter, dogs, cats and rabbits wait for a new owner to love. A boa constrictor needs a new home as well.
Animal control officers brought the snake — as well as a Chihuahua, German shepherd and Pomeranian — in from a home where an Oklahoma city man had been shot. Police were looking for the animals’ female owner, a person of interest in the crime. When she came to the animal shelter to claim her pets, shelter workers called officers, who arrested her there.
It’s all in a day’s work at animal welfare.