“I love to catch snakes. I also love to catch alligators. It's sort of my thing. I've caught three.”

LAUREL HILL — It was a rainy Thursday morning, and Animal Control Officer Andrea Warren was getting her van ready for the day.

Seven large crates? Check. Control stick? Check. Snake tongs? Check. Cat traps and grabbers? Check and check.

“I love to catch snakes,” she said as she buckled herself into the driver’s seat. “I also love to catch alligators. It’s sort of my thing. I’ve caught three.”

The animal control office in Laurel Hill serves as part animal shelter, part home base for the north end of Okaloosa county’s animal control division, which is run by the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society. A small staff of four, including two office workers and two animal control officers, work day in and day out fielding calls from across the north end of the county about abandoned, stray and dangerous animals, as well as potential cases of animal cruelty. 

“People call in any kind of call on any kind of animal,” Warren said. “It can be a welfare check or a dog with no food or water, or anything else.”

Before getting started for the day, Warren checks up on Deliverance, a stray pointer mix that was called in as a “vicious pit bull” in January but who turned out to be very submissive and loves belly rubs. Warren said it’s dogs like Deliverance that keep her motivated to rescue as many animals as she can.

“We try really hard to find homes for as many of these animals as we can,” she said. “We don’t want to see any of them get put down.”  

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"It's the people that are the hazards" 

As Warren headed to her first call of the day, she passed a cat who had been hit by a car lying lifeless in the middle of the road.

“I don’t want to see him get crushed,” she said. “This is bad enough.”

She turned her van around and got out of the car, placing a clean white blanket over the black cat. She set the cat gently on the side of the road before getting back into her van.

“One of the worst things is when they get hit by a car and they have a collar and a tag on them, and you have to call the owner and tell them you just responded to a call and their dog or cat is gone,” she said. “That’s brutal.”

Warren was on her way to Crestview to teach a woman who had been feeding feral cats how to use a cat trap. The woman, overwhelmed with all the cats she was feeding, called animal control to help her get a handle on the situation. Warren would help her trap the cats, then collect them and bring them back to PAWS where they would hopefully get adopted.

“We do a lot of cat traps and pickups,” Warren said. “I can’t believe I don’t have any (pickups) today, when I picked up five yesterday.”

The animal control officers average anywhere between five to 25 calls a day, ranging from issuing citations for animal neglect to getting people food and water for their pets. Warren said even though she deals with dangerous animals on a daily basis, it’s not always the animals she’s scared of most.

“Some of the hazards (of the job) are getting bitten or jerked down by dogs, getting kicked by horses,” she said. “But a lot of times it’s the people that are the hazards … the biggest hazard is not knowing what you’re walking into, whether it’s the situation or the owner.”

"The only job I've ever been happy at" 

Warren was on her way next to pick up a dog who was called in as a stray and had wandered up onto somebody’s porch during a rain storm. But after retrieving the dog, a 6-month-old pit bull puppy that appeared to be well-fed, she had a sneaking suspicion that the dog wasn’t just a stray.

“I think that was their dog I just loaded up,” she said after placing the puppy into a crate in the back of her van. “I can’t prove it, but I just have this feeling.”

More than anything, Warren wants people to know that animal control officers do a lot more than trap dogs and cats. One of the biggest misconceptions about her job, she said,  is that she is just a “dog catcher”.

“We don’t want to take peoples’ animals away from them—unless they deserve it,” she said. “If we see people who can’t afford to feed their dogs for a couple of weeks until they get their next paycheck, we’ll get them food. We have rabies vouchers for $5 that people can get if they can’t afford to get their animals vaccinated for rabies, which is state law in Florida.”

Still, Warren said her job can be distressing when she has to encounter so many people who don’t care properly for their animals.

“Sometimes, I think people are just not smart when they have animals,” she said. “I don’t think some people realize how much time and money and effort they are.

Even so, Warren says this is “the only job I’ve ever been happy at.”

“You’ve got people who love you and say thank you, and you’ve got people who want to shoot you as soon as you walk up,” she said. “But I love my job. To me it’s very rewarding. It’s very upsetting sometimes, but also very rewarding.”