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Friday, Aug. 30, 2013

Olathe monument honors fallen animal control officers

Special to The Star

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Gleaming on a brick wall in Olathe are the inscribed names of 20 American heroes who died in the line of duty.

They weren’t soldiers. They weren’t police officers. They weren’t firemen.

They were animal control officers.

The small memorial, sitting at the National Animal Control Association headquarters at 101 N. Church St., sheds light on a job that many people don’t even can be extremely dangerous.

The keepers of the memorial say animal control officers save people from animals and animals from people. They are thrust in the middle of neighbors violently fighting over dog bites. They risk their lives to rescue animals out of burning houses and fiery car wrecks.

“Animal control officers basically do anything that deals with animals,” said George Harding, executive director of the NACA. “Whether it’s cat Fluffy or an exotic animal.”

Humans, however, are the most dangerous animal.

“When dealing with people and their animals, emotions run high and people aren’t rational,” Harding said. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

He pointed out that last year an animal control officer in California was shot to death through an apartment door. He had gone there to collect pets after an eviction.

Incidents like that one are the main reason the NACA offers national training and safety certifications. The organization is pursuing a grant to provide ballistic vests to animal control officers around the country who need them, based on the danger of their jurisdictions and population levels.

When it comes to animal control officer safety, each jurisdiction is different, Harding said. Some departments offer bite sticks, some offer pepper spray. Some don’t provide much.

“Sometimes officers are thrown a set of keys and told ‘Good luck,’” he said. “We want to avoid that from happening. We really advocate proper training and equipment.”

The organization also holds an annual conference. This year’s conference is taking place next week in Atlanta. Vendors offer the latest gadgets. Speakers provide insight. Awards will be given out.

“It’s a tight-knit community,” Harding said. “You share the same experiences no matter where you work in the country. It’s always nice to talk to other people and get their perspective.”

When the memorial in Olathe was erected two years ago, several animal control officers from all over the nation came out to honor their fallen peers.

Names of victims, who died in the past 100 years, were collected from newspaper archives and website searches, and verified by family members. And although there are only 20 names on the list now, it is getting bigger as more people notify the association of deaths.

Alongside the wall dedicated to the deceased animal control officers sits another piece of American history dedicated to bravery. Enclosed in a glass case is a metal scrap from one of the Twin Towers hit in the 9/11 attacks. It has been dedicated to the search and rescue dogs who forged through the wreckage to save people from the rubble.

“We just hope that this memorial sheds some light,” Harding said. “Not many people realize that animal control officers and even search and rescue dogs sometimes give the ultimate sacrifice for doing what they do.”

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