MARION – The red heeler came prancing into view, looking at once anxious and excited, and approached Flathead County Animal Control Officer Paul Charbonneau’s truck.
Charbonneau whistled out of his window at the pacing dog. The young male approached the truck as if expecting the person inside to be the one who apparently abandoned him the night before.
“What’s up buddy? How are you?” Charbonneau asked the heeler as he petted the rust-colored fur, checking for injuries. The dog had been running back and forth across U.S. Highway 2 before a Marion property owner called it over and fed it.
Once he loaded the dog into the truck and took a report from the property owner, Charbonneau began the drive to where he says the owner should have taken the heeler in the first place: the Flathead County Animal Shelter.
“There’s no excuse, especially dropping them 18 miles out of town,” Charbonneau said.
While en route to the shelter, Charbonneau got word his next assignment would take him to Columbia Falls.
“One end of the county to another,” Charbonneau said after breaking connection with the dispatcher.
It was a typical summer day for Charbonneau as one of four county animal control officers. In a job that takes him to all edges of the county nearly every shift, Charbonneau and his fellow animal control officers run the gamut of animal experiences in the Flathead.
This could mean corralling wandering horses and finding their owners or responding to a barking dog complaint. But as Charbonneau noted, a day’s work might also find them calming and leashing uneasy dogs after the canines’ owner dies or wrangling 70-plus cats out of a hoarder’s house.
Animal control officers work as unsworn officers for the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office and have done so for three years after a shift from the county health department. Charbonneau said the transfer to a county agency with more enforcement capabilities has been beneficial for the officers and county residents.
Before the departmental shift, animal control personnel worked from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., five days a week, usually answering calls about problem dogs. Now, there is an officer on duty 17 hours a day, from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. They also handle all animal calls coming in to the sheriff’s office, freeing up deputies for other calls, Charbonneau said.
The shift meant downgrading their three-quarter-ton trucks with custom kennels on the bed to regular county trucks, which saves on gas and makes it easier to encourage a scared dog to hop in.
“For us, it’s been a really good move,” Charbonneau said.
It’s also a relatively rare arrangement for animal control, Charbonneau said. Most animal control operations are run either by non-profit agencies, such as the ASPCA, or as an independent government agency, he said.
Like many officers in the Flathead, the animal control officers are busy. But unlike most agencies, these officers are largely on their own throughout the day.
Their shifts run from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 1 p.m. to 11 p.m., overlapping for three hours. Charbonneau said some weeks he responds to more than 10 calls a day. This can mean driving hundreds of miles during one shift.
“Just like anybody else, we could use more help,” Charbonneau said. “But we’re getting the job done.”
While Kalispell covers its own animal control needs, Columbia Falls contracts with the county. Whitefish also has its own officer, but that position is in the crosshairs now that the city is facing a shrinking budget.
Though no final decisions have been made on the Whitefish officer, Charbonneau is personally wary of adding the city to his territory.
“We’re busy enough as it is,” he said as he drove the back roads to the animal shelter. “I don’t even want to think about it.”
The officers are well known at the county animal shelter, but their arrival is not always celebrated. Last week, the shelter staff greeted the lost red heeler with smiles, back scratches and resigned sighs.
“We’re bursting at the seams here,” said shelter Director Cliff Bennett.
Charbonneau followed Bennett outside to the fenced-in pavement where the shelter has had to erect dog cages out of spare fencing.
“Next call I might have two more,” Charbonneau told Bennett.
“Yeah. Darn,” Bennett said quietly as he surveyed the area for more space.
Though the presence of an animal control officer usually means more dogs for the full facility, Bennett noted that the shelter is usually the last option for the officers.
“These guys really try hard to find the owners,” Bennett said.
An officer for a decade, Charbonneau, 44, began his animal control career after spending several years in the private sector. He was a member of the sheriff’s posse when the opportunity arose.
“This job came open and I applied and I got it,” Charbonneau said.
Growing up with horses, dogs and cattle helped him adjust to his new post, according to Charbonneau, which was beneficial in a job he said offered little initial training: “I was pretty much given a catch-pole and told, ‘Here you go.’”
In the decade since, Charbonneau has seen the odd and the heartbreaking. As for the most unusual situation he’s been in, Charbonneau recounted being called in with another officer, Dave Swanson, to assist sheriff’s deputies with an eviction.
The animal control officers had to round up the tenant’s emperor scorpions, which happen to be some of the biggest of the species.
“Dave and I, hating spiders…” Charbonneau trailed off, finishing his sentence with a shudder.
The scorpion search led to the couch, and when the officers lifted the furniture up, they found a five-foot python skin shed, but no snake. This memory induced another laugh and shudder from Charbonneau, but acknowledged it is all part of the job.
“You have to suck it up and catch ’em,” Charbonneau said.
In his whole career, Charbonneau has only been bitten once, and it happened last month. Charbonneau doesn’t blame the dog though, because he was a stranger on the canine’s property.
“It goes with the job,” Charbonneau said. “It was a dog doing what dogs do.”
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