The 12-hour day for Fairfax County Animal Control officers starts at the crack of dawn.
At around 6:15 a.m., while the vans are warming up outside 4500 West Ox Road in Fairfax County, Admin Sergeant Eric Powell sips coffee and reads the Police Department's latest internal news and messages to five Animal Control officers.
Animal Control officers respond to dozens of daily calls, from 6 a.m. - 12:30 a.m. Four-to-five officers generally work a shift, and each must cover roughly two police districts worth of activity. The operation is part of the Fairfax County Animal Services Division, which includes the county Animal Shelter and the county Wildlife Biologist position (all of which fall under the Fairfax County Police Department).
The Vienna Police department also utilizes the county's animal shelter.
There are 32 officers and 14 vans, Powell said.
"Our average response time is 45 minutes to an hour depending on the call. And according to the numbers, we're fully staffed. Now, adequately? I would say not," Powell said.
Just how busy is Fairfax County Animal Control?
Domestic other (rabbits, turtles)
Total Calls for Service
The First Call - A Rabid Raccoon
Lugo's first call came at around 8:30 a.m. - a report of a sick-looking raccoon hanging out under a large evergreen near a row of townhomes.
Lugo, a 47-year-old single mother of two, is a native of Puerto Rico, and has been on the force for eight years. She was a Physical Education teacher for the Department of Defense Schools, and then made a career change when her family moved to Fairfax County. Like other officers, she works 11.5-hour days, 14 days a month (overtime is nearly always available).
"It's a lot of lifting, running and climbing. It's an excellent job for a 21-year-old, but when you get close to your 50s you feel it," Lugo said.
The raccoon swayed, without alertness in its eyes. But it could potentially lash out and bite a person, a dog on a leash or another animal and most likely infect it with rabies. Lugo walked over to the evergreen with a metal trap in one hand and a long snare pole in the other.
Lugo deftly looped the end of the snare pole around the raccoons body, hoisted it up and dropped it in the cage. She thanked the neighbor (who waved in appreciation from a distance) and then carried the animal back to the truck.
"This is definitely my least favorite part of the job," she said.
Each Animal Control officer is certified in euthanasia, and the prescribed lethal injection is made with an overdose of sodium pentobarbital. It looks like Windex — its nickname is "the blue juice" — and the effects are immediate when properly applied.
The townhome on Braddock Road in Alexandria looked ordinary next to its neighbors. Three months ago, before the county intervened, the doors and windows of the home were open to the elements and an army of feral cats.
County code compliance officers declared the structure unsafe, and dozens of cats were taken by Animal Control. The house still has the pungent odor of cat urine, despite a new carpet and paint, and there are still rooms piled to the ceiling with books, newspapers, stuffed animals, a piano and boxes full of knickknacks. Wild cats still patrolled the outside of the home, yet are prohibited by court order from being allowed in.
The townhome is just one example of these kinds of cases officers see each year; nearly all of the County's Animal Control officers have stories to tell about hoarders.
"And you always hear the same thing when you walk in with a court order," Lugo said. "You hear people say, 'A friend of mine is coming to help me get rid of a lot of this stuff.' And they always apologize for the mess."
Lugo owns a Shih Tzu that was rescued from a hoarding situation - along with 31 of his brothers and sisters - in 2005.
"Hoarding is a disease, and I feel sorry for these people," Lugo said.
Reuniting Pets and Owners
Less than 2 percent of missing cats and 15-20 percent of dogs are returned to their owners. Most are identified with tags, tattoos or microchips, according to the ASPCA.
"The good day is the day when you find the dog and you get to take it back to it's home," Lugo said. "And it's all worth it when you see the looks on the faces of the family."
But the person who once owned Biscuit, a Shih Tzu of undetermined age, is dead. The Amberleigh neighborhood of Alexandria has been looking for the dog for the past two years. He's stayed alive by eating food left out for wild cats, and he's become wild himself. But rumor has it that he's getting ill, and that he's losing his eyesight.
It was nearing the end of the day when a neighbor called over the fence: "Hey! Y'all looking for Biscuit?"
"Yes. Have you seen him?" Lugo asked.
The neighbor pointed over the fence. "He's right there," she said, and sure enough, there he was - brown and grey, his hair overgrown and tangled into a dirt-filled carpet of a coat.
Lugo, who hadn't time to set a trap earlier or had any of her equipment ready, ran across the yard to cut off Biscuit's line of retreat. This Patch reporter tried to slowly creep up to him as well, but in an instant, Biscuit was off.
Patch's time with Animal Control also included tramping through the woods to check on a family of foxes, which ran away as we approached, two bat calls (this one wasn't found - they can crawl anywhere, apparently) and reporting a hit-and-run of a parked vehicle.
"I love this job because I get to be the one to go and help people and animals," Lugo said. "About 85-90 percent of people will tell me, 'Thank you, officer.' I try to be positive and give people the benefit of the doubt, and it turns out that a lot of people just want to be heard.