Snapping turtle calls to Botetourt’s emergency dispatchers have caught the attention of at least one county resident.

Last summer, it was calls about snakes.

Animal Control calls have more than doubled in the past five years. Officers answered 5,421 calls in the fiscal year that just ended on June 30, 9 percent more than the previous 12 months, and a 55 percent jump from just two years before.
Animal Control calls have more than doubled in the past five years. Officers answered 5,421 calls in the fiscal year that just ended on June 30, 9 percent more than the previous 12 months, and a 55 percent jump from just two years before.

They’re critters common to the countryside, but many folks just don’t know how to deal with them, so they call for help.

When a neighbor won’t do, it’s a call to 911 or the Sheriff’s Department, and Animal Control is often dispatched.

They seem to be everywhere—the four Botetourt County Animal Control officers.

Perhaps because they are.

In the just ended fiscal year, the 12 months from July 1, 2009-June 30, 2010, Animal Control answered 5,421 calls, and Sgt. David Horton alone averaged about 3,000 miles a month on his very visible truck.

Extrapolate that mileage out for the other three officers and you get an idea of why they seem like they’re everywhere.

Like other local services, the Animal Control officers have found themselves picking up the slack for what in the past have been issues covered by state employees, particularly conservation officers (formerly game wardens).

At the same time, county taxpayers are footing the bill for new state regulations (they come with no state money) that require Animal Control to provide emergency medical care for injured animals.

It’s enough to keep any four officers busy.

Horton, who supervises Animal Control under Sheriff Ronnie Sprinkle, said they’ve been trying to get out of the wildlife business, but it’s hard to do.

He smiles when asked about the snapping turtle calls. “We can’t not go when someone needs help,” he says.

In late spring, one resident called for help when a snapping turtle was under a family car.

Another came more recently from Greenfield when a person apparently enjoying a walk on the Cherry Blossom Trail spotted a snapper in the lake there. It had a hold of a crane or egret and the caller wanted someone to do something about it.

A deputy arrived first, but the snapping turtle had already turned loose of the spindly leg and no one had to make a decision about which of nature’s creatures was at fault for doing what was—well—natural.

Those kinds of calls go with the territory when you’re serving the public, Horton said.

The past couple of years, Animal Control officers have found themselves dealing with more and more calls about black bears invading backyards.

“We have rubber bullets now,” Horton said. They use the essentially harmless shotgun rounds to splatter dirt in the face of bruins that are becoming pests.

The Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) won’t trap bothersome bears anymore because moving them (or other wildlife) just moves the problem. Now DGIF tries to educate the public about keeping bird feeders and other attractants out of the yard so bears won’t come around.

Horton said the state doesn’t allow Animal Control to trap and move any wild animals anymore, and they can’t loan traps to individuals as they once did. Now, when a wild animal—a raccoon, skunk, etc.—is a nuisance and is trapped, the animal has to be put down.

Horton said in the summer, conservation officers that cover Botetourt are often working on Smith Mountain Lake where boat traffic has gotten very heavy. That leaves his crew with more of the wildlife calls.

He doesn’t blame the conservation officers. It’s lack of funding from the state.

Even though state law now requires Animal Control officers to take any injured animal to a veterinarian, Horton notes, there is no state money to cover the costs.

“That part of our budget’s gotten unreal,” he said.

County taxpayers have to pick up the tab for any dog or cat that’s untagged or doesn’t have a chip to identify the owner. Of course, if an owner’s located, he or she is responsible for the medical bill.

“The vets in Botetourt have been very good to us on this,” Horton said. They’ll treat these injured animals at a discount. “But it still adds up over a month and a year,” he said.

He noted, too, that on nights and weekends, they have to take injured animals to the emergency veterinarians on Peters Creek Road in Roanoke, who also provide a discount.

Even supplying the simple paperwork the state requires when there’s an animal bite to report comes out of Animal Control’s budget. “The Health Department used to furnish animal bite forms. Now we have to get that form,” Horton said, noting he was going shortly to pick them up.

“The state’s cutting everything, and it’s falling on the localities (to cover the cost),” he added.

Horton noted that the four Animal Control officers—he, Kevin Crowder, Charlie Stewart and Tyree Thrasher—work overlapping 8-hour shifts Monday-Thursday, then alternating 10-hour shifts Friday-Sunday, with an officer on call for dangerous dogs, bites, injured animals and such.

Those 5,421 calls last fiscal year average out to right at 15 calls a day. In the last month or two, he estimates two to three of every five calls have been about stray or feral cats.

“People drop them off, and the multiply as fast as rabbits,” he said, noting the county does not have any requirements to license cats other than they are supposed to have current rabies vaccinations.

He called the number of trapped feral cats “unreal.”

Each is taken to the Roanoke Valley SPCA shelter on Baldwin Avenue in Roanoke. The shelter is a partnership between Botetourt, Roanoke City, Roanoke County and the Town of Vinton.

Animals that wind up at the shelter are held for 10 days if they have a collar or five days if they do not.

Each morning, a picture of the new animals that arrive are put on the SPCA website (rvspca.org) so owners or those who may want to adopt an animal can check them out.

Botetourt Animal Control’s operating budget is $375,047 this fiscal year, and it all comes from local taxes.

That’s to cover the county’s 548 square miles, although many of the dog complaints come from the more populated southern part of the county where about 30 subdivisions or designated areas are covered by the county’s leash law.

“Most dog calls are in the neighborhoods where animals are roaming free, and habitual barking dogs,” Horton said.

Subdivisions and other defined areas can petition to have the leash law implemented if 51 percent of the property owners agree to it. Property owners have to petition the Board of Supervisors to do a survey of the designated area before the leash law is implemented.

A list of the areas under the leash law is on the Sheriff’s Department website under Animal Control.

That doesn’t mean dogs can roam free in the rest of the county, but Animal Control officers have to see dogs on other people’s property in order to issue a summons to the dog’s owner.

Horton said the calls his office gets have mushroomed since he came on board 18 years ago when the county had two Animal Control officers.

The Animal Control officers don’t feel like they’re out there alone, though. Horton said his office has a good working relationship with the Sheriff’s Department deputies, and that’s a real plus in such a large county.

As for those calls to help with a snapping turtle—Horton likens them to what seemed a rash of calls last summer from residents with snakes in their houses. They’ll keep going to help if they can, even if technically the call doesn’t fall under within their realm of responsibility.

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