Does San Juan County need an animal control officer?

The lack of a county animal control officer means the weight of animal cruelty, abuse and neglect falls on the shoulders of local deputies. To make investigating and prosecuting such issues easier, islanders are advocating training an officer in animal control.

“Many animals over the years are relinquished to the shelter … in various stages of neglect or abuse, and few people are ever prosecuted,” said Jaime Ellsworth, Animal Protection Society of Friday Harbor board member.

Since the shelter’s inception in 1981, Ellsworth, along with the board and staff, have passively looked into what it would take to hire an animal control officer in the county.

A group of concerned islanders, including Ellsworth and her daughter Jennifer Rigg, began actively trying to figure how to employ a local animal control officer after a particularly egregious animal hoarding case in 2009.

“Her animals were confiscated by legal authorities, and she was ordered to refrain from owning any other animals. Yet, she began hoarding numerous animals [all over again],” Ellsworth said, adding that those pets were also confiscated, due to inhumane living conditions and health issues. Still, the woman continued hoarding everything from dogs and exotic birds to horses and goats until her death. The situation was never resolved legally, and according to Ellsworth, it is unknown what happened to those creatures.

Most counties have an animal control officer in some form, even as a part-time position, or contracted out with a neighboring county. According to Sheriff Ron Krebs, San Juan County has not needed a full-time animal control officer. The sheriff’s department has retained retired Deputy John Zerby to investigate animal control cases about six or seven times over the last three years. Krebs is open to sending at least a detective, if not an additional officer, to be trained in animal control. Then the officer could pass information to the entire department.

That training would take place in Blaine, Washington, for an 80-hour course at the Washington Animal Control Academy. The fee per person is $400, plus additional per diem (wages, food and lodging costs) as well as other travel expenses.

Classes include capture and restraint, dog bites and vicious dogs, blood sports (such as dogfighting and cockfighting) and wildlife identifications, and handling, among other subjects.

The 2018 class is already in progress and the next one will occur in March 2019.

“Animal control training provides in-depth knowledge of how to recognize abuse or neglect and most importantly how to safely control and contain animals that are a threat to human or another animal’s safety,” Ellsworth explained, emphasizing that once this course is taken, the attendee will be a licensed animal control officer.

The officer or detective would not be a full-time, or even part-time animal control officer, but would have the extra knowledge and skills to handle such cases as they arise.

Emily Diaz has been an animal control officer for 13 years in Skagit County. Her job, she says, includes handling everything from barking dogs to animal cruelty, neglect, beastiality, arranging fostering and transport of horses, goats and cattle. Armed with evidence like photos and graphs depicting body, skin, coat and hoof or paw health, Diaz also testifies in court. The ability to testify as an expert witness could be beneficial on the islands. One issue Krebs has encountered over the years is not finding veterinarians willing to testify, or even go on record, in cases of abuse or neglect. He gave the example of a horse that officers and citizens were concerned about, yet, when photos of the horse were provided, the vet stated the animal appeared fine. Without an expert, there was no case, and the horse was left with its owner.

Besides working with deputies and testifying, Diaz works to inform the public, by both speaking in schools and working with pet owners as to the best care for their furry friends.

“A huge part of my job is education,” said Diaz, adding that often times people simply don’t know how to take care of their pet, so she provides information about dietary needs, for example, or tells them to bring the animal to the vet if medical care is required. She returns for follow-up visits to ensure the owner is doing a better job. Though not a deputy, Diaz still has the ability to conduct investigations as well as write charging affidavits. If the owner does not improve or make required veterinary appointments, she can and does charge them.

Skagit County, like San Juan County, does not have a leash law, so one thing Diaz does not do, she says, is handling stray dogs. Dogs at large, Krebs says, is the most common animal control issue locally. Though the county does not have a leash law, it is required that dogs be under their owner’s control at all times, by vocal command is acceptable. A majority of dogs on the loose are simply a matter of a canine accidentally escaping. The dog is captured by deputies and returned to their owner without incident.

“Most of the dogs are friendly, and hop in the patrol car as soon as we whistle at it,” Krebs said, adding that only on a couple occasions have dogs been aggressive toward officers. Also, he added, there are not usually repeat offenders. If the same owner has multiple incidents of a “dog at large,” the deputy would write the owner a ticket.

Unfortunately, farmers can suffer losses when pet dogs accidentally escape their enclosures and gain access to farm animals, Ellsworth said. An animal control officer would be able to investigate those instances and determine if there are repeat offenders. This would benefit farmers as well as protect the canines.

“Animal control is not just for animal safety, but for human safety as well,” said Diaz.

For more information, visit the Washington State Animal Control Association at