My life has been embounded by my work as an animal control officer for the past 13 years, in both senses: as “defined” and as “confined.” As well as in the senses of specialization, of territory staked out; like a battlefield, like a theatre, like a sphere of operations; a dominion, a realm, a long-lost estate. And in all the senses of vocation: in joy, in murderous rage, in sweating fear, in despair and sorrow and unhealable awareness that is like the grate of dew-damp, rusting steel against one’s teeth. In speaking of it, every word is a red-hot memory, or two, or a dozen. How does one describe it?
Poets should not become soldiers. Yet another thing Philip Sidney might have mentioned. And yet somehow he didn’t. Maybe he didn’t survive long enough. (1)
It’s a strange job, defining that strange job. An ACO is like a cop, without the salary, benefits, protection, or status.(2) An ACO is like a paramedic, without the carefully engineered equipment(3), a direct line to a doctor, or breaks between calls. An ACO is like a teacher, without books, blackboard, mandatory attendance, or parental backup.(4) And yet we live AMAZING lives. We meet, handle, and help all kinds of animals, every day: hawks, doves, deer, bobcats, rats, dogs, cats, rabbits, cows, you name it. We get to be courageous and noble (5), or kind, tender, or forceful, even aggressive, if the situation calls for it (6). We have camaraderie (usually) with each other, and (sometimes) with other agencies: the brothers in blue, the brothers in red, and the sisterhood of selfless rescuers.(7)
But let me be precise. We go (we went) to work in our undershirts and pants and boots. We added (we add) battledress shirts, badges, and belts, in the locker room.
When is the past not the past? When it survives, I suppose. Then it’s just one big mish-mash of itself.
Out in the shed, we collect our beat sheets (lists of non-emergency calls and investigations to be done), along with our boxes of forms and license tags and code books and the individual tools we can’t live without.(8) We head to the lot to collect our designated truck of the day (9), checking out all the working parts and stocking towels, gloves, animal boxes, syringes, drugs, weaponry, and caging. We get in the truck, we drive out of the lot, we check in with dispatch: “L7 to Comm, Code 8 from AC, I’ll be working North beat today, thank you.” And we hear back a cheery, “Good (morning/afternoon/evening), L7, clear for traffic?” And the long list starts: the deer hit by car, surrounded by spectators.(10) The dog in a hot car.(11) The dead things, the wounded things, the lost things, the sick things, the baby things next to their dead mothers, the kicked cat held by the child with the haunted, kicked look. Interspersed with the cute things, the ducklings and kittens and puppies and baby opossums and raccoons.(12)
If poets DO become soldiers, they should turn to writing dirty limericks immediately, instead of trying to keep feeling. I suspect David Jones knew that, deep down, and did accordingly, at least in the trench. (13) And then he survived and tried to feel and write at the same time, much as I’m doing now. Silly bastards, us.
And we handle all that, and we come back to the shelter. Most days, with a few new bruises and smelling icky. Some days, with a sense of accomplishment.(14) Every day, with a truck full of animals and dead things and cleaning to be done and gas to be replaced and equipment to be checked over again.(15) Everything back to the shed or the locker or the file cabinet or the clerk, self into the locker room shower (if it’s really bad) and some clean clothes. And we’re done for today. Grab a glass of wine with someone, go home, sleep, hope you don’t dream. Write an article for NACA (16) in the morning, give it around for a look, get told: “It’s very … Winnie.” Apparently, not a good thing. Rats.
If poets become soldiers and survive long enough to write anything else, the end result seems to always turn into long and elliptical works of strange, baroque opacity. Interesting, perhaps, only to those who have become baroquen, themselves, the soldiers and the ACOs and the children of abuse. Perhaps this is my pearl, þat pryvy perle wythouten spot (17), if it gets written. If it survives. So many things don’t.
I was a poet, if I’m remembering correctly.(18)
1. Killed by forgetfulness, actually: Forgot a piece of armor, running out excitedly, eager to answer the call, as one sometimes does. (back)
2. In one state, it’s actually a misdemeanor to assault an ACO, but a felony to assault a dog. No, I don’t want them to lower the penalty for assaulting the dog.(back)
3. My old lieutenant, Steve: “Yeah, ideas, whatever. You can’t have everything. Work with what you got.”(back)
4. Now my friend Janice is laughing and reminding me how rare THAT is.(back)
5. Training. I missed the shot; the buck is up and hirpling away on three legs, straight down 500 yards of 45-degree incline covered in fall leaves and rocks, between the hard winter trees. My sergeant, Robbi, runs past me in a tall blonde blur and leaps down the incline like a Valkyrie, or a deer herself, hair flying behind her, and disappears in seconds after him.(back)
6. “Oh, believe me, it calls for it!” Saint Rick of Cairo, patron of all those who kick at the end of a rope.(back)
7. Holy and blessed saints, mostly (Coral! Francoise! Astrid! Jill!), although, as ever, in the shadow of the altar are the unholiest of the unholy. And I smell the cat even through the box, and look at the woman as innocently as possible, reflecting nothing but gullibility, and say, do you mind if I come in for a second and use the ladies room? while I watch for the signs that always come, in the eyes and cheek and forehead, when she says yes. Or no. Either way, I can misunderstand and step in, and maybe she’ll let me.(back)
8. Mine is the famous netknife of my own invention. Alright, famous in my own mind.(back)
9. Vans should be abolished for animal services work by Act of Congress. Not that they will, the slimy bastards.(back)
10. Terrified, bloody, screaming, surrounded by predators who, at any moment, will start biting into her wounded sides (she thinks). Adrenaline’s already rotting her heart muscle, probably. Thirty minutes away — can I get there safely in 20?(back)
11. Since it’s past sunset, and 60 degrees, the dog is doubtless fine, but you never know, and a domestic trumps a wild, so goddammit, I’m sorry, sweetheart, an extra hour of suffering for you. Or two. Or three. Please, please die quickly. Don’t wait for me, love … (back)
12. and, oh, God, aren’t they going to let me cut the wall open? The hell with it, I’m cutting the wall open. Exigency. Loss of life and limb. PC 597. Everyone’s afraid of big words and numbers, even this blustering idiot who’s “going to get me fired.” Fuck it. These two raccoon-shaped baby starfish … I wonder if I’ll get fired. I really should have saved up more. (back)
13. David Jones, In Parenthesis. Click here for Wikipedia link. (back)
14. Holy Christ, I’ve actually GOT her! She’s safe! Oh, my GOD, I’ve got mom! Six healthy baby owls AND a pissed-off mom … wait til the wildlife hospital sees THIS. (back)
15. God DAMN it, I forgot the bat net at that last call. Have to run back and get that, curses, curses, curses, late out again. Aaaaaand reaming from the lieutenant starting in four, three, two … (back)
16. The National Animal Control Association: The Professionals. (Pause for eye-roll and sigh.) It’s a dentless problem, professionalism in animal services. Mostly people who advocate for animal services workers are stuck pretty much professionally teaching expensive classes to try and stay alive, and many shelters, like mine, won’t send us to those. I’ve heard NACA’s classes are great, though. Maybe I could get a new job somewhere down the coast? Where they send people to training? But wait, this is 12 years past, or ahead. I don’t work there any more, nor does anyone I know, really, because we all burned out or gave up or got sent to Coventry. Fuck, I’m doing it again. (back)
17. Unknown medieval poet, “The Pearl.” For original and English text, click here, then click on page to toggle from one to the other). (back)
18. Do ghosts remember things? (back)