‘Let’s See What We Find Today’
Animal Services Officer Lavonia Byrd does more than pick up cats and dogs-she can be called on to rescue squirrels, capture bats, or corral wandering horses.
It’s been a quiet morning for Montgomery County Animal Services Officer Lavonia Byrd.
Byrd, who patrols a swath of the county that includes Bethesda, Potomac and Chevy Chase, sometimes handles as many as 10 to 15 new calls during a 10-hour shift. But two hours into her 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. workday, there hasn’t been a single one. Byrd has spent the sunny July morning following up on previously filed complaints.
She’s just climbed back into her white Ford van after visiting the site of a reported animal bite in Bethesda when the first call of the day comes in via her laptop: A white and brown dog has been found roaming free in Potomac.
“It sounds like he has a collar,” Byrd says as she cruises down Bradley Boulevard toward the address. “Let’s hope he has a chip, too.”
Byrd slows down when she reaches a neighborhood of large colonials and Tudors off Democracy Boulevard. She parks across from the address that was dispatched to her and reviews the background information for the call before leaving the van.
As one of Montgomery County’s 18 Animal Services officers, Byrd has been called upon to do everything from retrieving missing goats to digging a family of squirrels out of a drainage pipe. She serves as a shepherd to lost animals and a mediator to warring neighbors. Before she walks onto a scene, she often has no idea which of her considerable skills she’ll need to employ.
“OK, here we go,” she says, and knocks on the door.
At 32, Byrd has a wide smile, big brown eyes and short dark hair. Her 5-foot-6-inch frame looks fit and strong, an image that’s bolstered by her bulletproof vest and black, steel-toe boots. Still, when she arrives on scene, people frequently ask: “Is it just you?”
Some, like the three men who called about a snake in the basement, follow up by remarking, “But you’re a woman.” (To the men’s amazement, Byrd captured the snake in a pillowcase.)
Growing up in Clinton, a rural community in Prince George’s County, Byrd and her six siblings had a menagerie of pets, including four dogs, a ferret, a rabbit and a cat. “I took care of all of them,” she says.
She says she felt a connection with animals from a young age. “They may not be able to speak, but they let you know exactly how they feel,” says Byrd, who now lives in Upper Marlboro with her sister and their American bulldog, Dedo.
After graduating from Surrattsville High School, Byrd spent more than a decade working as a veterinary technician at various animal hospitals. In 2009, she was hired by the Prince George’s County Animal Management Division, where she spent four years as an animal services officer before joining Montgomery County Animal Services in December 2013. She has learned that there is no such thing as an ordinary day in her line of work.
Byrd once was called to an apartment complex to find the source of a mysterious meowing, and discovered that a cat had been stranded in an air pocket under a new concrete patio.
She dug out the cat after seeing a pair of paws through a gap in the concrete.
Another time, Byrd received a call about an alligator in someone’s bathtub. She determined quickly that it was actually a bearded dragon, a common pet that had escaped from its owner’s apartment and found its way into a neighbor’s bathroom.
She has helped to corral an emu that got loose from a farm, sprained her ankle while rescuing an injured duck during a heavy rainstorm, and administered CPR to a squirrel.
“We don’t just pick up dogs and cats,” Byrd says. “We pick up hawks, goats, chipmunks, squirrels, reptiles. Horses can get out. Especially at night, it can take awhile to figure out where they came from.”
Like Byrd, many new officers come to Montgomery County with prior experience working with animals, says Katherine Zenzano, community outreach coordinator for the Montgomery County Animal Services and Adoption Center. But their only formal training is riding along with an experienced officer for 12 weeks.
Then they are released to patrol one of the county’s six animal-services districts on their own, working four 10-hour shifts per week, knocking on doors that lead to all manner of situations.
On this early July day, Byrd’s knock is answered by Hal Horenberg and a Labrador retriever mix named Chief.
“Hi, you,” Byrd says as Chief nuzzles up to her leg. Horenberg says a neighbor found Chief in her backyard and brought the dog here, knowing that he takes in foster dogs and strays through his nonprofit, Home at Last Sanctuary.
Horenberg says this is the fourth time the dog has been brought to his home after being found roaming the neighborhood, and says the owner “couldn’t be bothered to come outside” when the dog was returned to his home in the past.
“I don’t want to turn the dog back over to the guy,” he says. “And I don’t really want to turn him over to you. I don’t want him to spend any time in the shelter.”
“The legal aspect is, it’s his dog,” Byrd says. “I will be giving the dog back to him. Will I be writing him tickets? Yes. Will I be making sure his vaccinations and licensing are in order? Yes.”
Byrd thanks Horenberg and leaves with Chief, who happily jumps into the largest of several kennels in the back of Byrd’s van. She climbs into the front seat and plugs the owner’s address—which she obtained from Horenberg—into her laptop. “He said the dog’s been out four or five times before, but we’ve never been to this address for a complaint,” she says, shrugging.
Mediating disputes between neighbors is an essential skill for Animal Services officers. “The first thing I ask when a complaint comes in,” Byrd says, “is, ‘Have you ever spoken to your neighbor about this?’ Usually they haven’t.”
Disputes often have to do with more than just barking. “They’re really mad because the neighbors park their cars on the side of the road, or because their shutters are different colors,” Byrd says.
Later that day, for example, Byrd will stop at the scene of a call in Rockville in which one resident accuses another of letting her dog run through the neighborhood without a leash. When Byrd tries to get to the bottom of the possible leash-law violation, the discussion turns to complaints that the neighbor drinks and drives.
Before Byrd drives away from Horenberg’s house, she peeks into the back of the van, where Chief is curled up with a blanket. “Are you ready, little buddy?” she says. She drives a couple blocks away, stopping at a mansion with tall white pillars and a wrought iron gate, where she presses the buzzer.
Complaints of animals at large are among the most common calls Byrd handles, along with barking and unwanted contact—usually after someone’s dog jumps on an unsuspecting passerby. Springtime brings loads of wildlife calls.
Montgomery County police handle complaints about deer and nuisance wildlife, such as squirrels eating the garden or a raccoon living in the chimney. And the Maryland Department of Natural Resources handles calls regarding bears, such as the one that was spotted in a tree on the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda in June.
Otherwise, there’s very little that falls outside Byrd’s job description when it comes to animals. She gets a lot of calls about bats inside people’s homes as night falls. Recently she answered a call about an injured bird and found a hawk lying in someone’s driveway—she brought the hawk to Second Chance Wildlife Center in Gaithersburg.
Animal Services Officer Haleh Mirabrishami says her first encounter with wildlife occurred two years ago at a one-bedroom apartment in Germantown. Police searching the residence of a person who was facing burglary charges asked Animal Services officers to come along because they believed there might be wild animals inside. A SWAT team entered the apartment first. When Mirabrishami and her colleague walked in, they saw a piece of paper attached to a door, with one word written on it: “SNAKE.”
Inside a closet in the room, Mirabrishami found a 5-foot python. In the bathroom, she found a small, severely malnourished American alligator. The owner was charged with animal cruelty, and all of his animals—which also included five turtles, several fish and two pit bulls—were seized.
Mirabrishami once responded to a call about a husky that was left for more than an hour in a hot car with the windows up. The officer was ready to break through the window when the owner showed up and insisted that the dog was fine. “That made me very angry, to have the owner arguing that the dog, which was clearly in distress, was fine,” Mirabrishami says.
Byrd says the hardest part of her job is seeing animal tragedies that could have been prevented, from heartbreaking cases of neglect and cruelty to innocent mistakes such as a dog strangling itself on its own leash (Byrd says that’s why pet owners are required by law to keep their dogs on a harness if they need to be tied up outside).
She remembers an animal-neglect case in which a hoarder was keeping a rat terrier in a tiny, unkempt space in her apartment, which was packed from floor to ceiling with her belongings.
“That little rat terrier would shake every time I touched it or picked it up,” says Byrd, who brought the dog back to Animal Services headquarters. That call had a happy ending. When Byrd returned to inspect the woman’s apartment a week later, professional cleaners had cleared the place of all debris, and dog food and fresh water were waiting for the terrier.
Some calls don’t end that way, of course. About 1,000 of the 14,000 calls the county handles annually are animal cruelty or neglect cases, says Paul Hibler, deputy director of the Animal Services Division.