With Beasts Come Burdens — and Rich Rewards; Chief of Animal Control Brings Lifetime of Caring To Often Difficult Job

Cathy Lickteig Makofski Special to The Washington Post  Sept. 25, 2003.

Copyright The Washington Post Company Sept 25, 2003
Deborah Baracco remembers when it became clear to her what she should be doing with her life. It was 11 years ago, and she was managing the kennel at a veterinary practice in Anne Arundel County, loving her work and learning a lot.

“All the pets I cared for had good homes,” said Baracco, 38, Howard County’s animal control administrator. “But when I thought about it, I realized that what I really wanted to do was work with animals who had no one to fight for them.”

As a child, Baracco brought home every sick, injured and lost animal. “My mother let me care for them, but I had to return the ones I could to the wild,” she said. One of her first rescues, a tiny feline she named Kidders, is now a 21-year-old cat.

Three years ago, when the previous animal control administrator resigned, Baracco was asked to take over the job temporarily while a search was conducted to fill it. At the time, however, she was working as kennel manager and didn’t want a job that took her away from daily contact with animals.

“The time I spent caring for the dogs and cats had become as important to me as it was to the animals,” Baracco said. “But I did agree to take the job until someone could be found.”

The search went on for more than two years, until Chief of Police G. Wayne Livesay persuaded Baracco to take the job permanently. The animal control facility, at 8576 Davis Rd. off Route 108 in Columbia, is part of the county Police Department.

“I wanted Debbie in this job because she is talented, energetic and well respected by the staff and throughout the community,” Livesay said. “She has already established good relations with the public and with special-interest groups, both of which are vital to the success of the facility.”

The transition from kennel manager to administrator was eased considerably, Baracco said, by the caring staff she inherited. “We can teach employees to care for the animals, but we can’t teach compassion. Everyone here is full of compassion for every animal that comes in,” she said.

Workers say Baracco’s attention to cleanliness has increased the public’s appreciation for the animal shelter. “Debbie — I call her our barracuda — is a stickler for cleanliness because it reduces the chance for disease and sickness. Now we are getting compliments from the public. They say the kennel is immaculate,” said Dawn Graham, 44, who has worked at the kennel since 2000.

In addition to her years of experience, Baracco has studied animal care and behavior and animal facility management at Carroll Community College and has taken Professional Animal Workers Society classes at Anne Arundel Community College.

During the winter, the shelter takes in 225 to 275 animals a month, and three-fourths are adopted. In the summer, it handles 350 to 400 animals a month, with permanent homes found for slightly more than half of them.

“The volume in the summer makes it a little harder to find them all homes,” Baracco said. The shelter can house about 25 to 30 adoptable dogs and 65 adoptable cats at any one time.

Small dogs are the first to be adopted. Large, dark-colored dogs are the last because of their size and because a dark coat often makes it difficult to see the animal’s eyes. “Adopting families want to feel some connection to the animal through its eyes,” Baracco said.

To encourage adoptions, the staff uses marketing ploys such as bright bandannas on the dog, or identifying a pet of the day and displaying the animal’s name on a board for visitors to see. Shy dogs are allowed to roam about the office so visitors can see them interacting with people rather than sitting in a cage. “We do anything we can to give the animal every advantage of finding a family,” Baracco said.

During the adoption process, the applicant’s family must visit with the pet so the staff can determine if it’s a good match. Then the family’s veterinarian is asked if they provide proper care for any other pets they have. In addition, if the family lives in an apartment, the landlord is called to verify that pets are allowed.

Finally, workers check the animal control database for possible complaints against the family. “We use all of our resources to make sure the animals go to loving homes and that the breed is appropriate for the family,” said Baracco.

Monica Miller of Laurel and her two teenagers recently adopted Ferris, a mixed-breed puppy that had been given up by its owner. Seeing so many dogs that needed homes was distressing, Miller said. “However, I was pleasantly surprised that the kennels were so clean and that all the animals had fresh bedding, water and toys,” she said. “Our adoption went very smoothly, and Debbie was a pleasure to work with.”

Older pets that have been given up due to their age are difficult to place. “These poor animals sit in cages expecting their owners to return. Every time someone walks by, they are hopeful,” said Baracco, who writes poetry about forgotten pets.

Some animals that come in are too sick or aggressive to be put up for adoption. “The most difficult part of my job is making the decision to euthanize when we cannot help the animal, or because we have run out of space and, legally, cannot keep them more than 10 days,” Baracco said.

To save as many animals as possible, Baracco established a network of more than two dozen reputable rescue organizations that provide extended care for dogs, cats and other animals until they can be adopted or placed in foster homes.

“Debbie has saved many animals, and she deserves lots of credit,” said Linda Junkins, whose group, “Tails of Hope,” takes in more than 100 mixed breeds, cats, guinea pigs, hamsters and rabbits a year from Howard County and finds homes for most of them.

At their Anne Arundel County home, Baracco and her husband, Mike, who has a home improvement business, have seven dogs, six cats, three ferrets, two rabbits, two snakes and Kidders. About five years ago, when the heartbreak of her job began to get the better of her, Baracco took up agility training with one of her own dogs.

Acting on commands from Baracco, the dog has learned to jump through hoops and navigate tunnels. “It’s a fabulous sport for the dogs and owners, and we are surrounded by positive dog people,” she said. “We are a pretty good team and compete whenever we can.”

As part of their community education work, Baracco and her staff talk to school and community groups about spaying and neutering and caring for pets. “We believe that the decrease we are beginning to see in the number of animals coming to the facility is due to our communications efforts about uncontrolled breeding,” she said. The monthly intake at the shelter has fallen by about 11 percent recently, she said.

Last year the four animal control officers at the facility responded to 369 calls about injured animals, 1,000 calls about strays, 251 reports about cruel treatment and 213 calls about bites. “It takes time and skill to handle these calls properly,” said Baracco.

An officer, she said, may have to take an injured animal to a vet or spend time instructing an owner about proper care for a pet. In addition, if there is evidence of cruelty, the officer can launch an investigation. The Howard County Code allows animal control officers in Baracco’s division to write criminal citations.

“It’s good to know that all of us who work here are making life better for the animals in Howard County,” she said.