It’s time to thank the animal control officers

Animal Control Officer, Corporal Julie Villegas at the Los Angeles County Animal Care Center in Castaic on Thursday, April 16, 2020. Dan Watson/The Signal
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This year’s National Animal Control Officer Appreciation Week feels a little different for Los Angeles County’s Department of Animal Care and Control amid the current health crisis.

Even so, DACC’s officers are considered essential, and are still working hard to protect the county’s animals.

At the Castaic Animal Care Center, Animal Control Officer Cpl. Julie Villegas has been adjusting to the restrictions placed upon them by the coronavirus, but her duties haven’t changed.

Each day, she works to rescue stray animals, including wildlife, and investigate cases of animal neglect or animal wrongdoing, such as dangerous dogs, which includes dog attacks and dog bites, that jeopardize public safety.

Working alongside law enforcement when necessary, she also enforces licensing laws and animal ordinances, along with any other regulations that apply to animals.

“Los Angeles County Animal Control Officers are critical to protecting the safety and well-being of county residents and animals,” DACC Director Marcia Mayeda said via email. “These dedicated officers demonstrate courage, compassion and commitment every day to meet DACC’s mission. We are truly grateful for their service.”

For Villegas, the job is a perfect fit, as she gets to work with animals, which is something she said she’s always known she wanted to do.

“I always had a desire to be with animals,” she said. “I grew up with animals all my life, and they’ve always been a passion of mine.”

Though she’s had all kinds of pets, ranging from dogs and cats to birds, turtles, mice and even silkworms, she considers herself a cat person.

When she saw an opening at the DACC for an animal control officer, she jumped at the opportunity, starting as a dispatcher in the central call center 15 years ago.

Animal Control Officer, Corporal Julie Villegas visits with three-year-old Diesel at the Los Angeles County Animal Care Center in Castaic on Thursday, April 16, 2020. Dan Watson/The Signal

Answering calls gave her the background knowledge she needed to understand the types of calls she would go on when becoming a field officer.

“As you come in, you spend some time in the kennels because it’s a more controlled environment,” Villegas said. “So you get the experience of learning the animal behavior starting off at the center first.”

She has been at the Castaic center for five years now, and loves working with a team she considers family.

“I enjoy working in this area, it makes me happy,” she said. “I love the community.”

The best part of her job? Every day is different. “Every day I learn and experience new challenges.”

Some of those challenges include decreasing the negative stigma attached with Animal Control officers and educating people on their purpose.

“A lot of times, people are not happy to see us,” Villegas said. “Having to explain to someone who is upset why I’m there at their home and to explain to them that our goal is always the well being of animals, not just their animals but all animals, and public safety (is difficult).”

She works hard to offer assistance and support to the community, and takes the time to stop and answer someone’s questions.

“If I can offer a tip to anybody, it would be to spay and neuter your pets, get them licensed and microchipped,” she said. “In the event you may lose your pet, having a license or microchip will be crucial in reuniting with your lost pet.”

While there are challenges that come with the important job, it’s seeing the turnaround for an animal that makes it all worth it for Villegas.

Animal Control Officer, Corporal Julie Villegas at the Los Angeles County Animal Care Center in Castaic on Thursday, April 16, 2020. Dan Watson/The Signal

“When I have impounded a severely neglected or injured animal and it receives medical treatment at our care center and then finds a loving family who adopts or fosters it, that brings me joy,” she said.

As the COVID-19 crisis continues, Villegas and her colleagues are continuing to do their jobs, just a bit more cautiously.

“We are still a 24-hour operation, but our priority right now is public safety and wellness checks on animals,” she said. “We practice physical distancing, wear masks, screen our calls and ask questions. If anyone at the home is ill or feeling ill, it may require us to wear more protective gear.”

Volunteers continue to assist in getting the animals’ faces out on social media, which plays a huge role in adoptions, according to Villegas.

The silver lining of the pandemic is that centers across L.A. County have seen an increase in animal adoptions and fostering, as many remain “safer at home” with more time to devote to a new pet, according to Mayeda.

The center remains open for adoptions by appointment, and currently, adoptions are free for cats and dogs. DACC has also expanded its foster program during this time, allowing any animal that is available for adoption to be fostered.

“Out of all our seven care centers, we are the smallest one,” Villegas said. “We can get full, but right now, we don’t have that many dogs, which is good, and we don’t have any cats.”

As summertime approaches, it’ll soon be kitten season, so Villegas expects that to change soon enough.

“Spring going into summertime is our busiest time,” she said. “It becomes non-stop at that point, (but) I like it when it’s busy, it makes my day go by fast. And, I like to work at a fast pace.”

The Castaic Animal Care Center is located at 31044 Charlie Canyon Road. For more information, visit animalcare.lacounty.gov or call 661-257-3191.

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