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Monday, July 23, 2007

Robert Smalley: Animal-control cop

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Smalley, with King, a pit bull available for adoption at www.fultonanimalservices.com

(Photo by Joeff Davis)

Fulton County Animal Control officer Robert Smalley doesn’t just catch dogs. He’s a member of law enforcement. He writes tickets, which can even lead to prison time.

How long have you been in animal control?

Twenty years.

How did you get started?

I was impressed when watching animal-control officers handle coyotes and bears in California. I lived there at the time. So, when I moved to Atlanta, I answered an ad.

Have you ever seen a dogfight?

Yes, evidence of dogfights. They disperse when they know we’re coming. I look for scarring, scratching, their demeanor and animal behavior. … [There is] a lot of dogfighting in Atlanta. In northwest and southeast Atlanta [especially], mostly [in] the city, because of the income and they can hide them.

What type of animal behavior do you see?

They cower, [do] not look at you. One’s been doing it a lot will charge — no warning.

Why do they cower?

They aren’t aggressive. [The owners] can’t use them for fighting [so] they beat them, and throw them in the street if they don’t kill them. [The dogs] live in deplorable conditions, low-income housing. They can’t pay their rent, can’t feed their families, but are taking care of the dogs. If the dogs are abused, there is abuse in the home; beating their wives or their children.

What is one of the worst cases you have seen?

One house I went into in southeast Atlanta, the man had 15 pit bulls, seven children, all school-age. The floors were covered with feces and weapons. The children were saying they were hungry — they hadn’t eaten in a couple of days, but the dogs were fed.

What do you do in a case like that?

[I] Reported [it] to the Department of Children and Family services. They came out immediately and removed the children. And we removed the dogs. APD removed the weapons.

What happens to dogs that are fought once they are removed from the home?

A rescue group can come down if they are rehabilitatable, but not many make it. The older they are, the harder they are [to rehabilitate].

What do you do when you get to a home with an aggressive dog?

First thing is make sure the dog is not near the truck, and roll down the window and whistle to make sure there is just one dog. If there is more than one, especially pit bulls, they are not going to bark. I go to the house and knock on the door to let someone know I am there. If the property is not fenced, I go around the sides and the back to see if the dog is there. Then I see if the dog will approach me to put it on the leash. If they are aggressive I have to use a restraint pole to get them back to the truck. It keeps them at arm’s length.

Is that hard?

It takes practice. You have to read the behavior of the dog.

How do you read the behavior?

By [their] ears, or scruff of the neck, or tail. Those signs tell if you can use the leash or the pole.

Why do you think people fight dogs?

[It’s an] image enhancer, for money, machoism, [or] just because they like to see things hurt.

Do you like football?

Oh yes! Pittsburgh Steelers, fortunately.

What do you think should happen to Michael Vick?

If he’s guilty, he should face the same penalties as anyone else.

Do you have a dog?

No, I have a parakeet. I want a dog. I have to finish a fence. I’ll get a black lab. It’s a family favorite.

How morally different is it to kill a dog than to kill a person?

No difference in [either]. I don’t think.

What kind of rights should dogs have?

Dogs have the right to live, live comfortably. [They have the] right to be loved, and right to be free. Some freedom has to be restricted for the animal’s safety. We shouldn’t be walking in the middle of the street, neither should the dog. A lot of people don’t understand that. When the legislation about the pit-bull control came up, I suggested that anyone with a felony conviction or under the age of 25 not be allowed to have a pit bull. That would cut down on the fighting.

Why do you think they should be under 25?

Most of our trouble is with younger male individuals under 25 [because of] immaturity and a lack of education on animals.

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