Animal control complaints rise in Shelton, Derby, overwhelm staff

Photo of Brian Gioiele
Animal Control Officer Michelle DeAngelo with mother and daughter cats Violet and Azalea, available for adoption at the Shelton Animal Shelter in Shelton, Conn. on Tuesday, April 20, 2021.

Animal Control Officer Michelle DeAngelo with mother and daughter cats Violet and Azalea, available for adoption at the Shelton Animal Shelter in Shelton, Conn. on Tuesday, April 20, 2021.

Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Connecticut Media

SHELTON — The city’s animal control office is faced with an exploding case load and overworked staff, but help is on the way.

The Board of Aldermen at its meeting last week approved creation of a full-time assistant animal control officer, joining the city’s full time Animal Control Officer Leon Sylvester, who has led the department for the past six years.

“Since the pandemic began, with so many people working from home, the volume of complaints or service calls have risen, quadrupled,” Sylvester said. “It’s more than just handling animals now, too. It’s like we are becoming referees in neighborhood disputes in some cases.”

Sylvester said the volume of animals his department handles has not changed, but the calls — from a dog roaming a neighborhood to removing large numbers of pets from a residence — have become more numerous and complex.

The Shelton Animal Shelter began covering Derby’s animal control issues five years ago, and Sylvester said the partnership will continue for the foreseeable future.

In 2016-17, Sylvester said his office responded to 210 calls and handled 63 animals in Derby, with 582 calls and 236 animals handled in Shelton. In 2019-20, he said Derby had 621 complaint calls with 58 animals handled, with 681 complaints and 69 animals handled in Shelton.

Adding Derby to the local officer’s responsibilities has only added to the workload for a staff of one full timer — Sylvester — and two part-time animal control officers, one part-time kennel worker and one part-time administrative assistant who handles all the necessary paperwork.

“We need to beef up our staff,” Mayor Mark Lauretti said. “We have some employees, again, who have been with us in a part time capacity for up to as many as 10 to 12 years.

“They are very good at what they do,” Lauretti said. “They have worked an awful lot of overtime during this pandemic, and we need to ensure that we can retain these people. That’s the purpose of creating this full-time position.”

Sylvester, who calls his job “24-7-365,” said he hopes the new hire will give some relief and be the first step in adding some more help soon.

“Many of these complaints are not one and done ... some investigations are longer term,” he said. “It’s different than in the past.”

Sylvester said his department handles both the expected and unexpected: roaming dog and barking dog complaints, to entering homes of those who have died with animals at their side. These are difficult emotionally, he said, as staff, including himself, must remove an animal or animals that are in some cases protecting their decreased owner.

Then there’s animal hoarding — for one call, his department dealt with 42 cats in one home; another dealt with 24 Chihuahuas in another home and a third with 70 cats in a single small room.

Sylvester said many complaint calls — especially those involving the police department — normally have two staffers responding. He has not had a vacation since taking the post because of the responsibilities that come with the post and the work required, he said.

Lauretti agreed that Sylvester continues to put in a multitude of hours to ensure that the needs of both Derby and Shelton are met.

“I have to tell you that, from the animal control standpoint, there are a lot more complicated situations out there that we are running into,” Lauretti said, “things like homes having 47 cats in the house that have been abandoned, and there is the same thing with dogs.”

Lauretti said the police department calls in animal control when they have to investigate to animal abuse, particularly with dogs.

“This is a very complicated world that we live in,” Lauretti said. “We need to beef up our staff and this is one way of doing it.”

The Shelton Animal Shelter, with 30 areas for dogs and 15 cat cages, is known for finding homes for most abandoned animals. Sylvester said the shelter presently has a wait list for adoptions and offers food and support to needy families who have animals.

“Public services go a long way,” Sylvester said. “For those with children, children services are taken for granted. These same people, in many cases, have animals, too. We are here to help them.”