To be truly successful at anything in life, you’ve got to have passion, and Animal Control Officer Nick Walton definitely has that in spades. Young, fresh-faced, and new to his job at Fulton County Animal Services, the 24-year-old clearly loves what he does for a living.
Unafraid to venture into some of Atlanta’s toughest inner-city neighborhoods to assist animals in need, this brave rookie is not only committed to improving the lives of animals and stopping cruelty wherever he finds it, but also to helping his city become a more humane community. If his unbridled enthusiasm and deep love for dogs are any indication, Walton has a very bright future ahead of him in animal welfare.
In honor of Animal Control Officer Appreciation Week, April 12 through 18, I sat down with Walton to hear about what he’s learned during his first year on the job and why he’s so driven to help animals.
Lisa Plummer Savas for Dogster: When and why did you become an animal control officer?
Nick Walton: I joined Fulton County Animal Services in 2014 after spending three years as a professional dog trainer throughout Georgia and the Atlanta metro area. I wanted to help animals on a daily basis while making a difference in my community, so I thought this was the best way I could do that. I’ve always loved and wanted to work with dogs. When I was eight or nine years old, one of my neighbors went on vacation and asked me to take care of their animals, and ever since that day I’ve been earning a living helping animals.
When I was training dogs in Atlanta, I’d drive by houses and notice tons of dogs being left outside with no food or shelter. I remember driving by three in particular who needed real assistance, some real life support. It bothered me to the point that I wanted to reach out and see what I could do on my own time. That led me to Fulton County Animal Services, and that’s when I applied. I figured, might as well give it a shot, and if I can make a change, this would be the best way to do it.
What does it take to become an animal control officer?
People skills, dog skills, and the ability to learn. You need to be very good with dogs, and you can’t be scared of them by any means, because you do come across quite a few aggressive ones. You also need to have the ability to forget easily so you don’t take home some of the negative things you see throughout the day.
You don’t need to have any sort of law enforcement background — that training takes place on the job. You shadow an officer for a few weeks, depending on your skill level, and that gives you the confidence you need to be able to go into the field and do it on your own. I needed reinforcement with the laws, what’s legal versus illegal — the dog side of things and the people side of things I could handle. Throughout my training, I think I learned more than I ever have in my entire life when it comes to the law enforcement side of things and how to handle people in the field.
When you went into this line of work, was it everything you expected?
I knew I’d be going into the rough parts of town and would be talking to some of the worst people you could ever imagine talking to, but what I didn’t expect was the level of compassion and dedication I found in my peers at Fulton County Animal Services and LifeLine Animal Project. They have truly sparked a fire under me to fight for animal welfare. Because of LifeLine recently coming on [to manage] Fulton County, we now have the opportunity to go out and help the community more so than in most places. They give you the freedom to go give someone a bag of food or build this person a fence or give that guy a doghouse, things that aren’t standard in our country when it comes to animal control.
Describe your typical workday.
There’s really no typical day. Each day brings new challenges and rewards, and it can go from zero to 100 very fast. But typically, I’ll get to work and prepare my truck, make sure it’s got oil and gas, and take care of any maintenance issues. Then I’ll get my calls from dispatch. They’ll usually have 15 to 20 different calls, anywhere from tethering issues, which are very common, to stray or loose dogs. Stray dogs sometimes bite kids, so we’d rather pick them up than respond to a bite call, which is also a semi-regular thing. In the inner city, it’s pretty much standard to not take your dog to the vet, so if the dog is running loose and the dog bites somebody, you pretty much know the dog hasn’t had any shots.
Every now and then, I’ll get some really bad stuff, like just the other day I had to kick down a retaining wall in order to save a dog who had been stuck underneath for several days. It’s cool to be able to save a dog, but it’s still heartbreaking to see the kinds of conditions some animal live in.
What’s the most common animal cruelty issue you run into on a regular basis?
Animals left outside without food, water, or shelter. We see bigger, more severe cruelty cases, but owner negligence is the most widespread issue we come across in Atlanta. One thing we’ve recently been pushing for in the court systems is stronger prosecution, so that people in the community know it’s not a game. You can’t just leave your dog outside and let it starve to death and pay a $50 fine — that’s a real, severe criminal case. My boss always says, “The only way to make a change is to hurt them in the wallet,” so that’s what we’ve been doing, and it’s actually been a very effective tool.
What do you like most about your job?
Saving the lives of animals. Every day when I go home, I try to focus on the animals I was able to save that day … that if I hadn’t been there, the outcome for that dog’s life could have been different. For me to take a dog back to the shelter and a few days later see an adoption stamp on the kennel card, that’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in my entire life. Yes, it’s a very dangerous job, I can’t sugarcoat it, but I find it exciting. It gives you an adrenaline rush, and you’re able to use that feeling to make a change for the positive.
What do you like least?
Seeing dogs suffer due to pure owner negligence. It’s hard to confront those dog owners without being confrontational, and it’s very difficult to explain to a negligent dog owner and prosecute a negligent dog owner while still maintaining a level of peace in the community. That’s a very tough balance; however it can be done. If I feel like a person is getting confrontational, I’ll have the police assist me — they do a very good job at making sure we’re safe, because we’re not allowed to carry any sort of firearm, which is difficult whenever you’re going deep into the inner city on a regular basis. After the police come, those individuals usually settle down and we’re able to handle business. If the dog is outside with no food, water, and shelter, and the person isn’t compliant in making sure the dog gets those things, we will remove that dog and cite that owner for animal cruelty, so having the police nearby in order to do that makes the job a whole lot easier.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about animal control officers?
A lot of people see an animal control truck riding down the street and think it’s the dog pound going to pick up a dog, but that’s the old-school mentality. We only pick up dogs for health reasons or certain conditions, so we don’t just ride around picking up dogs; we also reach out to the community and see how we can help. Educating the community is something that was really pushed on me during my training. We’re not going to be able to make changes if we don’t educate people about what’s legal versus illegal or what are or aren’t appropriate ways to treat a dog. Talking to the community and passing out as many fliers as possible regarding the laws and things like that have visually made a change. At those same houses I would ride by before I got hired here, those dogs are now on well-built runners with doghouses, and they always have fresh water. That’s pretty good to see.
What other kinds of changes have you seen since you started this job?
Instead of not feeding their dogs, people will call us for dog food. They’ve caught on that if they can’t feed their dog, they need to get some food, they can’t just let the dog starve. Now they’re not scared to call animal control for help, and we’re able to help them. So that’s one of the biggest changes I’ve seen, people understanding that we’re not bad people, we’re here to help. It’s nice to see people being able to appreciate what we do in the modern era as opposed to how animal control operated in the past.
Do you have pets of your own?
I have two rescue dogs: Kona, a little Pit Bull mixed with Dachshund, and Baxter, a Boxer/Lab mix. I made sure to get dogs that would have a hard time getting adopted, and being a trainer I felt prepared to handle any behavioral challenges. Kona had issues trusting anybody, particularly males, so I figured she would really need to be adopted, especially because she’s black, and black dogs are the last ones to get adopted. Baxter was the opposite of untrusting. Where Kona would run and hide and shake for two days if she saw a man, Baxter would jump on him and scratch his face while he was doing it. They’ve come a long way since I got them, and now they’re the greatest dogs. They give me a reason to go to work every single day.
What can people do to help stop animal cruelty in their communities?
Be more hands-on with animal welfare. Don’t be afraid to call animal control or anonymously leave a person a bag of dog food if you see the dog is skinny. Don’t be afraid to take the matters into your own hands and fix the problem, because if people just keep [ignoring] these issues, we aren’t going to make any progress. Stand up for what you believe in, stand up for animals, and don’t hesitate to try and make a change.
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About the author: Lisa Plummer Savas is a freelance writer, journalist, devoted dog mom, and animal activist. In an effort to help make the world a more compassionate place for non-human species, she is especially focused on using her writing to spread awareness about controversial animal welfare issues, including the dog and cat meat trade in Asia and Africa. She lives in Atlanta with two spoiled German Shepherds, one very entitled Pug, and a very patient, understanding husband. Read more of her work by visiting her blog and website.