More than just a dogcatcher

City animal control officer deals with the creatures we love -- and those we don't

Maryland Journal


Crisis on Cliftwood Avenue.

Yvette Eppes and her daughter Keyona were pinned in their bathroom for two hours as their cat scratched and hissed from the other side of the closed door.

Eppes called the city's animal control department to remove the cat before it mauled them.

Officer Robert Hudnall came to the rescue.

With eight years on the job, Hudnall has sped to his share of stray dogs, fighting pit bulls and opossums wandering through backyards. He also chased a fox that roamed through a Northeast Baltimore neighborhood for nearly two years, retrieved 90 cats from a house in Southeast Baltimore and saved ducks stuck in a sewer drain. The mad cat, named Cookie, didn't faze him a bit.

What Hudnall is not, he says, is a dogcatcher. His job goes far beyond rounding up stray pets. "It's just simple. If it's not human, we deal with it," he said.

Hudnall is one of the city's 10 animal control officers, who work rotating shifts to give the city round-the-clock coverage. He wears a blue uniform and a badge similar to that of a police officer, but without the handcuffs and handgun. He relies on a baton, pepper spray, a digital camera and his voice - to soothe the scared animals and command the aggressive ones.

At the Eppeses' house in Northeast Baltimore, Hudnall got out of his white van and grabbed a cage, a flashlight, an extending pole with a leash and a set of gloves. Inside, he crept down the stairs and into the basement, the last place Cookie had been seen.

Eppes cowered in the kitchen, peering at Hudnall's shadow as he moved through the basement.

"I'm not going to stay in this house with that cat," she said. "I'm scared of that thing."

Cookie darted up the stairs, through the kitchen and into the living room.

"She's up here," Eppes shouted.

Hudnall walked upstairs only to see the cat run behind a chair and then back to the basement.

Hudnall went after her and spent several minutes looking in the basement. He spent a half-hour looking behind storage boxes, appliances, cubby holes and other dark crevices.

Finally, he had an idea.

"Place some food or something to lure her out," he said, calling for other officers to return with a cage to capture the cat later that evening.

Hudnall blotted sweat from his forehead and walked back to his van. He cranked up the radio he keeps tuned to gospel music and reached for a stack of assignments, more than a dozen pages.

"It was kind of different," he said of the cat call. "They had this cat for four years, and for a cat to become aggressive for some reason, that was shocking. I've seen about two other cases like that in my entire career."

Hudnall said it is his love for animals that keeps him going.

"All of us have a passion for what we do," he said. "I love what I do. This is like breathing - this is something that I enjoy doing and that I must do."

Hudnall has a police-like demeanor and a stocky build with a boyish face. The 40-year-old Northeast Baltimore resident was a security officer before joining animal control.

He owns two dogs - one a Rottweiler named Daisy, whom he saved from a public park four years ago.

Animal control officers are supervised by the city Health Department and commissioned by the Police Department, which gives them authority to issue citations, conduct investigations and rescue and confiscate animals. They responded to more than 27,800 cases over the past year.

One incident stands out for Hudnall.

On April 8, 2004, three pit bulls were doused with gasoline and set ablaze after a staged dogfight in the 1600 block of E. Lanvale St. in East Baltimore. The dogs died.

"That is the most horrific call in my career, and I will always remember that, especially when I go in that area and see that vacant dwelling where those animals were put through that suffering," he said.

On the day Hudnall dealt with Cookie, he also had to contend with a bat flying in an elementary school, a pit bull roaming into a drug store on York Road, a dog attacked by a group of pit bulls, and a dog released to his custody by its elderly owner who could no longer care for it.

Midway through his shift, Hudnall returned to animal control headquarters on Stockholm Street to unload the dogs and the bat.

One by one, he took each dog from the van cages to a large room lined with cages to hold animals.

The pit bull that was brutally attacked by other dogs near the Johns Hopkins medical complex showed little strength when he was found earlier. But now, tail wagging, the dog lifted his head and pulled back on the leash as Hudnall was trying to pull him into the building. Hudnall paused, trying to coax the dog, but no success.

Finally, Hudnall lifted the dog and carried him into the building. The pit bull placed his tail between his legs and began to pant as Hudnall led him through a set of doors and into a steel cage.

The dog was euthanized because of the extent of his injuries.

At the shelter, animals' health and aggressiveness are evaluated. Strays are kept at the shelter for three days so officials can look for the owner. Animals in good health are given up for adoption or given to a nonprofit animal agency; others meet a different fate.

Hudnall ended his eight-hour shift with a drive through back alleys along North Avenue, looking for strays.

Finding none, he completed his day and turned on the radio.

The next day, Cookie the cat was finally captured in the Cliftwood Avenue house. She was determined to be overly aggressive and was euthanized.

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