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Front & Center: Response to newspaper ad beginning of 31 years at animal control agency SCRAPS

In “The Wizard of Oz,” Tin Man cautions Dorothy Gale about lions and tigers and bears.

Nancy Hill, regional director of the Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service, usually defers to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife regarding those critters.

“But when I started out as a SCRAPS animal control officer, I once used a fishnet to capture a bobcat on the Sullivan Road I-90 overpass. I also tranquilized a cougar that had escaped from the Walk in the Wild zoo, and removed a 6-foot-long python from a stolen car.”

SCRAPS handles about 10,000 pets a year – roughly two cats for every dog.

During a recent interview, Hill discussed the right and wrong reasons to own a pet, retirement and how cuteness can trump common sense.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Hill: I was born in Wilmington, Delaware, and raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

S-R: Do you remember your first pet?

Hill: My mother is allergic to dogs and cats, so I made friends with all the neighbors’ dogs and cats. When I was about 10, I got a parakeet – Billy the bird.

S-R: What were your interests as a teenager?

Hill: Photojournalism. In high school, I shot photos for the yearbook and school newspaper, worked in a camera store and freelanced for the Cherokee Nation and Oklahoma Cycle News.

S-R: Where did you attend college?

Hill: I started out at the University of Arkansas but ran off to California after a year. Eventually, I decided to become an environmental scientist and earned a degree at Mendocino College (in Ukiah, California).

S-R: Was there a moment that changed the direction of your life?

Hill: Yes. After college, I worked for the U.S. Forest Service doing environmental impact statements and stream stability surveys, which I really enjoyed. But when Ronald Reagan ordered cutbacks in the early ’80s, I lost my job. That was life-changing.

S-R: What was your fallback position?

Hill: I got a job in northern Utah working for a city parks department. They assigned me to their largest park, which happened to be a zoo. I was a zookeeper for five years, which led to my current career.

S-R: What brought you to SCRAPS?

Hill: While going to school in California, I came through this area on spring break and found it beautiful. Later, when I was with the Forest Service, I worked in North Idaho. After I got married and had my first child, my husband was transferred to Connecticut, and I got a job managing a cat sanctuary there. But we didn’t like the East Coast. So after a year we put everything in a U-Haul truck and moved to Spokane. I answered a newspaper ad for a Spokane County animal control officer and was hired in February 1986.

S-R: What do you recall about that early experience?

Hill: There were times when I feared for my safety, times when people thanked and hugged me, and everything in between.

S-R: Were you ever bitten?

Hill: Never. One dog jumped and went for my throat, but I was wearing a heavy coat and deflected him with my arm.

S-R: What are the responsibilities of an animal control officer?

Hill: Now they’re called animal protection officers, and the job is unique. You have to be part counselor, veterinarian, police officer, educator and best friend. You need excellent communication skills, both verbal and written, and a strong, strong dose of common sense.

S-R: How many animal protection officers are on your staff?

Hill: Ten.

S-R: What does the officer job pay?

Hill: Between $35,000 and $45,000.

S-R: How long were you an officer before you began managing SCRAPS?

Hill: Nine years. When my director, Marianne Sinclair, moved on, she recommended me.

S-R: How has SCRAPS evolved since then?

Hill: We used to be much smaller – more mom-and-pop. And there were so many loose animals and irresponsible pet owners, we were completely overwhelmed. We’ve moved from the old dog-catcher, dog-pound model to today’s regional animal shelter. And we’ve seen so much more responsibility on the dog ownership side.

S-R: To what do you attribute that?

Hill: All across the country, people are making dogs their companions – part of the family. They’re realizing the importance of vaccination, training, microchipping, licensing and sterilization. We used to have a real problem with pet overpopulation. We don’t have that with dogs at all anymore, but we still have a long way to go as far as cat owners are concerned.

S-R: Weren’t other groups more involved in animal protection in the past?

Hill: Yes. When I arrived, SCRAPS only handled unincorporated Spokane County and contracted with a few small cities, while SpokAnimal and the Spokane Humane Society shared the city of Spokane contract. Over time, the Humane Society dropped out. Several years ago, area elected officials decided to go with a more regional approach, and we took over in January 2014.

S-R: Any recent changes?

Hill: When we went regional four years ago, we bought the vacant Harley-Davidson dealership building at 6815 E. Trent. Retrofitting it cost more than the estimate, so we were unable to establish a veterinary clinic at the time. But I continued looking for funding. The ASPCA gave us $85,000 for equipment, and a bequest paid for retrofitting more space. Now we’re able to spay and neuter animals in-house prior to adoption, and in the next few weeks we’ll start offering low-cost vaccinations and microchips.

S-R: Besides microchips, how has technology impacted animal protection?

Hill: Laptops in the officers’ trucks let them check animal records in real time. And if a citizen finds a licensed pet, we can look up the number and reunite the pet with its owner, even in the middle of the night.

S-R: What portion of local pets are licensed?

Hill: Probably only 20 percent.

S-R: How much does licensing cost?

Hill: Spayed or neutered cats are $15 a year. Spayed or neutered dogs are $25. Unsterilized pets are more, but it seems the majority of people who license are the responsible ones who have sterilized their pets.

S-R: What’s the penalty for not licensing a dog or cat?

Hill: It’s a $200 fine.

S-R: How would you characterize your management style?

Hill: Teamwork.

S-R: What’s the best management advice you ever got?

Hill: Listen to what your employees are saying.

S-R: Are there misperceptions about SCRAPS?

Hill: I don’t think people appreciate how many animals we save. Ninety-three percent of the dogs we handled last year were either returned to their owners, adopted or transferred to one of our partner rescue groups. The only dogs we euthanized were either extremely aggressive or had severe health issues, such as cancer.

S-R: How about cats?

Hill: We finished the year at 78 percent, which was an improvement. Our goal is to hit 90 percent on all species.

S-R: What’s the right reason to keep a pet?

Hill: They lower your blood pressure, give you unconditional love, and they’re there for you every day. They complete us.

S-R: And the wrong reason?

Hill: As a status symbol. Or protection – just leaving a dog in the yard and not doing anything with it.

S-R: What’s your busiest time of year?

Hill: Summer.

S-R: Because?

Hill: Dogs in hot cars.

S-R: What’s your typical workday?

Hill: Long, usually. A lot of emails, meetings, developing policy, dealing with dangerous-dog appeal hearings, legislative changes.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Hill: The fact that every day I get to help a person or animal in some way.

S-R: What do you like least?

Hill: Pet owners who don’t get it.

S-R: What has this job taught you?

Hill: That usually the commonsensical approach is best. But you need thick skin and can’t give up.

S-R: Any big changes on the horizon?

Hill: I’m retiring this spring.

S-R: Who will take your place as regional director?

Hill: My shelter operations manager, Lindsey Soffes. The county commissioners agreed with my recommendation to promote her, and she has accepted the position.

S-R: What’s next for you?

Hill: I’d like to say travel, but my 94-year-old mother needs a lot of help. So I’ll be spending more time with her, more time with family and more time exercising. I was a gym rat until this job took over.

S-R: Reflecting on your tenure as regional director, is there anything you would do differently?

Hill: I would carve out a little more “me time.”

S-R: During 32 years with SCRAPS, how many pets have you adopted?

Hill: Five – all dogs. After the fourth one passed away, we adopted Zoey, a 5-week-old Lab-shepherd mix because my husband wanted a dog that would fetch a ball.

S-R: Aren’t puppies a lot of work?

Hill: Yes! (laugh) You’d think I’d know better, but the cuteness factor destroyed all my brain cells.

Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at mguilfoil@comcast.net.


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