A day on the job with the dog catcher

JACQUES KELLY

March 29, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

It's 6:45 a.m. and the woman on the phone is insistent. She wants her dog out of the back yard before it barks one more time.

In a few minutes, animal warden Wade A. Johnson and his white animal-rescue wagon are crisscrossing the streets of Baltimore.

He's got a terrier to pick up in Canton, a Shar Pei to remove in Highlandtown, a white cat on Ashland Avenue and black-spotted feline at Calvert and Biddle. He also has a report of some stray dogs fighting with possibly rabid raccoons in Gardenville.

It's a pretty routine agenda for the man universally known as the dog catcher.

He's a fixture on the urban scene. Doors and windows fly open when his truck arrives on a street. He gets looks that could stare down a mean Rottweiler.

"People usually don't like us, but I love my job," Johnson says at the beginning of his 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift.

A day in the life of a dog catcher starts at the Bureau of Animal Control headquarters, a modern, blue-tile-clad building due south of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. It sits at 301 Stockholm St., a secluded corner of South Baltimore under a Light Rail elevated trestle.

Johnson, who grew up on Baltimore's west side and graduated from Walbrook High School, had been a truck driver before taking the job with animal control three years ago. At 29, he's the youngest of the city's eight wardens. He spiffs up the city-issued dark blue uniform with a state trooper-style hat, a British-made military sweater and insignia of both the state of Maryland and city of Baltimore. He looks very official. He says women love his uniform.

Johnson also did a stint with United Parcel Service and seems to know every street, boulevard and alley east of City Hall. As school children are waiting on corners for buses, he's already making his first call of the day. A man waits at the front door of a Haven Street rowhouse.

The owner wants his dog removed from the back yard. And he wants it killed today. No adoption is to be considered. The dog is a tough and obstreperous 70-pound Shar Pei (it's a breed with a crinkled snout). Warden Johnson complies, goes into the back yard and loops a noose-like wire attached to a heavy stick around the animal's neck. He secures the Shar Pei inside one of the truck's cages within a few minutes.

The Shar Pei is a "Not Wanted," or "NW" on the day's animal manifest.

In fact, most of Johnson's work takes him to the homes of animal owners who want a pet removed permanently. In this case, the owner also has a $1,300 bill of sale for the unwanted animal. Johnson says he does not need this and hands the man a pink receipt that says the dog is now the property of the city.

The next stop is Canton, where an elderly woman's companion terrier named King has grown old, can't walk right and is losing its hair. She wants him put out of his misery. He was a good and faithful dog for many years, and she even produces a plastic-covered Evening Sun article written when he ran away five years ago. The story chronicled King's return.

The next stops are ordinary. A white kitten is tearing up its owner's new plum-colored carpeting. That rates it a one-way ride to Stockholm Street. A pooch named Precious has been shot below the eye at his East Biddle Street home. The woman who owns him says he's gotta go take a ride in the white wagon.

A neighbor runs up and asks Johnson to drop by the rear of the 1800 block of N. Montford Ave. to fetch a dead dog in the alley. The carcass, covered in snow, is located. Johnson wears heavy pigskin gloves.

"In three years, I've never been bitten," he says.

The animals that Johnson gathers are administered a lethal injection by a technician as soon as they arrive at Stockholm Street.

Had Johnson picked up any stray animals, they would have been sheltered for five working days before being disposed of. If a dog is picked up in the city by an animal warden, the city charges $50, plus $15 a day for boarding, to reclaim the pet.

Not all animals are immediately put down. The shelter has many dogs and cats available for purchase (costs vary, but they are reasonable) and adoption.

This time of the year, most of Johnson's calls are for dogs and cats.

Come summer, he'll be all over the east side on bat calls. Animal-control wardens regularly remove bats from private homes in the city. They'll also catch and remove a squirrel that's come in through the attic.

"People are terrified of bats, but all we do is take a cup and put it over the bat [providing it is stationary], then slip a piece of paper under the cup," Johnson says.

Animal Control, a division of the Baltimore City Health Department, operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

A warden is always on duty. Most calls, Johnson explains, come from pet owners who no longer want the responsibility of maintaining an animal. But he handles eviction cases where tenants leave dogs and cats behind unattended.

He gets calls to remove dead pigeons, live raccoons, opossums, snakes and other animals, too.

"We preach being a responsible pet owner, but people don't always listen," he says.

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