DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) — McKinzie Flanagan took the call from a concerned landlord earlier this month.
Some tenants had moved out of their Dubuque apartment but had left behind a small cat. The abandoned feline was hiding in a back room of the vacant residence without food or water.
“A lot of my job is about a lack of responsible pet ownership,” said Flanagan, Dubuque’s full-time — and sole — animal control officer.
It’s an often-misunderstood role that blends elements of public safety and animal welfare, civic ordinance enforcement and education. It’s a different species than the villainous dog catchers seen on cartoons.
Flanagan ventured out of her office in Dubuque’s City Hall annex and drove a pickup truck outfitted with six vented animal kennels and a variety of catch poles, cat carriers and animal welfare items to the apartment with the abandoned cat.
“You definitely have to (love animals),” Flanagan said of her job.
The Telegraph Herald reports that Flanagan, 29, is a native Dubuquer who graduated from Dubuque Senior High School and Iowa State University. She has served as Dubuque’s animal control officer since October 2017.
At the vacated apartment, while men cleaned the front rooms, Flanagan stepped into the back room in search of the cat. Its white-and-orange face peeked around the edge of a mattress leaning against a wall. The cat gave Flanagan a quick glance with large eyes, then ducked back behind the mattress.
Flanagan filled a bowl with water and retrieved a can of wet cat food from her truck. She returned to the truck and filled out a notice giving the cat’s owner 24 hours to collect the cat or the animal would be surrendered to Dubuque Regional Humane Society. Back at the office, Flanagan called contact numbers in a bid to reach the cat’s owner.
“People are like, ‘You must like animals more than people — that’s why you’re in animal control,’ but it’s not like that at all,” she said. “You actually deal with people more than animals.”
Flanagan worked in animal control in Jo Daviess County, Ill., before joining the staff of the department in her hometown. She previously worked in animal control in Boone, Iowa, when she was in college at Ames.
“I kind of fell into it,” she said. “The shelter I worked at in Boone, we doubled as animal control. I was a vet tech (in school) learning (animal) behavior and medical things.”
Flanagan often introduces people to her animal control role by emphasizing the things she doesn’t do, contrary to common misconceptions.
“There’s still that mentality that animal control comes and takes your animal, and we euthanize everything, which is not true,” she said. “People get super defensive. If I get a barking complaint, people are like, ‘Oh, you’re going to come take my dog.’ No, I just want you to try to address the issue, so you can live better with your neighbors. It’s mind-boggling to me that people would think I would come pluck their dog out of their house because it was barking.”
Flanagan works from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dubuque’s animal control department only handles calls in the city. Other jurisdictions handle calls in Dubuque County outside of the city. Dubuque County also has a contract to take stray pets to the Dubuque humane society.
“We do animal control for all county areas that do not have their own police department,” Sheriff Joe Kennedy said. “We also cover the towns that have law enforcement (animal control) when their officers are off duty.”
Flanagan is kept busy within the city limits.
Dubuque’s animal control department handled 1,274 complaints in fiscal year 2022, a period that spanned from July 1, 2021, to June 30, 2022. The call numbers are similar to statistics from fiscal years 2019 (1,299 complaints), 2020 (1,273) and 2021 (1,278). Another 543 animal complaints in fiscal year 2022 were handled by Dubuque police, who often respond to such calls when Flanagan is off duty.
“With this job, you never know what each day is going to be like,” Flanagan said.
Flanagan spends most days enforcing Dubuque’s pet licensing laws, responding to reports of pets running loose, ensuring proper quarantine periods for pets are observed following biting incidents and — occasionally — addressing cases of animal cruelty and neglect.
Dubuque animal control and police conducted 157 neglect or cruelty investigations in fiscal year 2022, up from 132 and 105 in 2021 and 2020, respectively, according to city statistics. Another 33 calls in fiscal year 2022 were to respond to animals left in cars in excessively hot or cold conditions.
“It is frustrating and sad sometimes,” Flanagan said. “Every once in a while, when I’m feeling down, I go out to the humane society and cuddle whatever puppy they have there. I never have to go far to find something to lick my face and make me feel better.”
The enforcement aspect of Flanagan’s role can make her unpopular with some pet owners.
“I get yelled at a lot by angry pet owners,” Flanagan said. “I’ve been called some interesting names. I have one lady who, whenever she sees me, she yells and calls me ‘Karen.’ She saw me one day at a stoplight. I was looking up the street at something and she yelled, ‘Mind your own business, Karen.’”
Sometimes, the occupational hazards extend beyond name calling.
“I’ve had people threaten me,” Flanagan said. “I had someone tell humane society staff he wanted to stab and kill me. It gets a little nerve-racking at times. It does not happen often that I get into a situation where I have to call (police). I haven’t had anything too crazy happen.”
Dubuque Police Officer Kimberly Hoover has received specialized training in animal control issues, and she and other officers work closely with Flanagan.
“If she is off-duty, we will pick up those animals that need to go to the pound — cats and dogs,” Hoover said.
She and Flanagan have gone on animal calls together, and officers also attend to calls when the unarmed Flanagan feels threatened.
“If there’s ever a call where she is afraid because the person is aggressive or confrontational, we’ll back her up,” Hoover said. “She doesn’t carry guns. She doesn’t wear a vest. She doesn’t have Tasers or carry pepper spray. So, we will definitely back her up any time we can. People think she’s trying to take their dogs away, but really she’s trying to help people be responsible owners.”
Much of Flanagan’s work deals with public safety, including the effort to reduce the incidence of rabies, a viral disease that can be transmitted from animals to humans. Once symptoms appear, the disease is virtually always fatal. Dubuque requires all dogs and cats older than 6 months of age to have a valid pet license, and licensing requires proof of a current rabies vaccination.
Dubuque had 11,301 licensed pets in fiscal year 2022, down from 11,736 the previous fiscal year.
“All of the vets in town, when they vaccinate an animal for rabies, and the (pet owner) lives in the City of Dubuque, (the vets) are required to send us those records,” Flanagan said. “We forward that information to (a contracted) pet licensing company, and that triggers notices for us to send out to the pet owner to have their pet licensed.”
Flanagan is kept busy most days following up on licensing requirements and the common problem of animal bites.
“Any animal that has teeth can bite,” Flanagan said. “Do you get along with every person you have ever met? Your dog is not going to, either. You put an animal in the right situation, and it will bite.”
There were 200 total animal bites reported in the city in fiscal year 2022, of which 131 were dog bites. The numbers increased from fiscal year 2021, when there were 177 total bites, including 121 dog bites.
“(Responding to dog bites) I’m making sure that the animal is healthy and, therefore, the victim is safe,” Flanagan said.
City ordinances require that animals that bite be checked by veterinarians and remain in quarantine for 10 days following the bite, even if the animal is current with its rabies vaccination. The animals must be cleared by a veterinarian following the quarantine period.
Flanagan often finds herself dealing with frightened animals during the course of her day.
“I usually get calls that there is an aggressive dog running loose, and I get there and the dog is barking and acting tough, but that’s because they are scared,” she said. “I use (dog) treats and — I’m sure I sound ridiculous — I use a baby voice (to calm) them. Usually, that is all that it takes. You just take a few minutes and make friends with the dog.”
Although Flanagan can’t predict what will happen in her job each day, it’s a safe bet that she will visit Dubuque’s humane society at least once. Dubuque’s animal control department brought 382 animals to the humane society in fiscal year 2022, with the police bringing another 90.
“The community thinks that the shelter and animal control are together, which is a misconception, but we do work very closely together,” said Bri Eickhoff, the humane society’s director of operations.
Flanagan’s work isn’t always focused on cats and dogs. There were 124 calls related to wild animals in fiscal year 2022. Flanagan estimates that 90% of these calls regarded raccoons.
“I probably get at least one raccoon call per week,” she said. “A lot of times people will call us because they see (raccoons) in the daytime, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re sick. If they are acting weird or you can get too close to them, that’s when it’s a problem. I deal with sick raccoons a lot.”
Flanagan said in her experience, most sick raccoons are suffering from distemper, a virus that can affect an animal’s lungs, immune system and brain.
“I’ve never had (a sick raccoon) attack me,” she said. “I just put a net on them, so I can transport them to be humanely euthanized.”
Flanagan occasionally deals with residents keeping exotic animals in violation of city ordinances.
“We did have a couple of calls about a lady with a caiman,” she said.
Caimans are reptiles similar to an alligator, only smaller. The caiman in Dubuque caught the attention of authorities and residents.
“(The woman) was driving around with it on her dashboard,” Flanagan said. “She also was carrying it around in her purse. We never did figure out what she did with it. She told us she gave it back to her boyfriend in Wisconsin who was allowed to have it.”
Flanagan has her share of snake tales, too.
“I got a call about an eviction once, and (the tenant) had a red-tailed boa. She was close to 6 or 7 feet long,” Flanagan said “They are not allowed (in Dubuque).”
The tenant returned to the rental and grabbed the snake before any ordinance enforcement was possible.
“I got a call about (the guy) later, when I was off-duty,” Flanagan said. “He was hanging out at the gas station at 14th and Central, and he was wearing the snake around his neck and scaring people.”
The day after Flanagan responded to the abandoned cat case, the pet’s owner returned to the vacated apartment and picked up the cat to take elsewhere. Flanagan’s efforts to contact the owner had paid off. The incident wouldn’t lodge in the animal control officer’s mind, unlike some other incidents.
“I got bitten by a dog once,” Flanagan said. “It was a German shepherd. He was not a nice dog. I showed up, and I saw this guy walking around and I said, ‘Hey, are you missing some dogs?’ He started to say something, and his eyes got real big. I was facing him, and he looked past me. They had 14 dogs, and most of their dogs were running loose, and all of them were running at me. The shepherd ran up and bit my leg. I talked to the guy for a little bit, and then, I went to the hospital.
“This job gives me some crazy stories.”