Ride Along

The Life of a Sarasota County Animal Services Officer Is Way More Complex Than You Might Think

We recently spent a day with animal services officer Jeffrey Henry to find out what it's like to corral critters for a living.

By Sylvia Whitman February 19, 2024

We’re heading to the scene of a pet rabbit on the loose on a Wednesday afternoon when the laptop positioned between Sarasota County Animal Services Officer Jeffrey Henry and me chimes with a new message: “injured otter laying on stomach, lethargic.” Henry glances at the digital map of all the officers currently on patrol; his zone partner is working a bite. Henry calls dispatch to mark the case of the runaway bunny as pending while we investigate the otter on Longboat Key.

“This is only the second otter call I’ve had,” says Henry. “Wow.”

Henry and I are spending the day together because other people’s jobs fascinate me. What’s it like to work as a modern-day dogcatcher? By the time the otter call comes in, Henry and I have been driving around for more than five hours in an Animal Services van outfitted with cages, capture tools and heavy-duty Rescue disinfectant. I’m discovering that Henry’s pretty low-key, so his “wow” registers as over-the-top excitement.

Does he slam on the brakes and pull a sudden U-turn, siren howling? Nope. Henry just flicks on his blinker, and we head in the direction of the lethargic otter.

Since Henry lives in his patrol zone, he usually starts his shift from home. But on our day together, at the direction of his lieutenant, we both show up at the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office Animal Services Shelter at 0800. Although an arm patch identifies Henry as a civilian, he looks like a sworn officer in uniform: black pants, a gray shirt with the Sheriff’s Office insignia and a tool belt with a badge. He carries Mace and a baton, but no gun.

Later he tells me he has an optional bulletproof vest, which he wears now and then. Animal services officers sometimes respond to crime scenes and suicides to clear them of animals.

We say hello, I hop in the passenger seat, and we’re off.

Henry drives to an apartment complex where a white and gray pit bull attacked another dog more than a week ago and then bit the victim’s owner when he tried to separate them. Although Henry didn’t respond to the original call, he has photos of the puncture wounds and a history of the case. The perpetrator and its owner disappeared, and a tip led to the wrong apartment.

Nonetheless, Animal Services follows up for 10 days, the usual quarantine period. We park, eyes peeled for a tall man and a pit bull.

The radio crackles, and Henry checks in. He explains that dispatch tracks vehicles and expects contact within five minutes of an officer arriving at a scene. If an officer doesn’t respond, dispatch sends another officer to make sure nothing’s amiss.

We circle the complex. After a bite, Animal Services runs the offender’s tags. If the dog has an up-to-date rabies vaccine, it can serve out its quarantine at home. With expired tags, the victim can choose where the offender quarantines—at home or in a shelter. An unvaccinated animal gets impounded.

Sarasota averages two or three bite calls per day, Henry says—usually dog on dog, sometimes dog on human. Many happen in dog parks, and a county bite coordinator keeps tabs.

Owners must register dogs deemed vicious or dangerous under Florida law, which means they have inflicted serious injury on a person or several domestic animals. Animal Services posts mug shots of miscreants on its website, searchable by ZIP code.

I look up my neighborhood and find Juno, Kraytos, Tequila and Slicky, a forlorn cocker spaniel mix.

“That label will follow that animal for the rest of their life,” Henry says with a tinge of regret. Owners have to post signs, maintain fences, muzzle the dog and check in with the bite coordinator every month.

On his laptop, Henry types in an update on our patrol. No pit bull located.

Sarasota County Animal Services Officer Jeffrey Henry

On his screen, Henry notices a new 69 call, which means it’s animal-related. There’s a loose dog. On the digital map, he checks his zone partner’s location. We’re closer, so he claims it—“attaching” to the call.

Even though Henry, 35, moved to Sarasota in 2021, he already knows the turf almost as well as his native El Paso, Texas. After graduating from high school with no particular career ambitions, he worked with his stepfather, who ran a hospital mailroom courier service, and then joined hospital security. Listening to the stories of the police officers who were moonlighting or escorting prisoners and psych patients, he decided to pursue law enforcement.

Henry applied everywhere—police, sheriff, fire department. It was onerous: paperwork, background checks, written and fitness tests, and the polygraph, which makes him so nervous that he sometimes sends the needles shimmying. He’d fail one test or another and undertake the whole application process all over again, often qualifying but then missing the cutoff for open positions.

Along the way, he took courses at the community college and worked for a year as a dental assistant—his wife’s career. But he didn’t like it.

After training for months with a weighted vest, he passed all the firefighter tests on his second try, only to learn that El Paso didn’t have enough money to send a class to the academy that year. After funding troubles pushed back his start date three times, Henry looked around for another route into public service, and he eventually took a part-time job as a kennel attendant at the El Paso animal shelter.

On Richardson Road, we scan the shoulders for a loose cinnamon-colored dog. A mailbox matches the address given, so we turn down a long drive, past tan goats grazing behind a wire fence. Could the caller have mistaken a goat for a dog?

We turn around. Henry pulls into a church parking lot and types a note. Callers don’t have to leave a name, but officers always document the outcome. Out of 1,135 Animal Services calls logged in October, Henry responded to 104, which included three backups, nine citations and 20 follow-ups. He says there’s some friendly competition among the officers to top the stats.

With nothing pressing from dispatch, Henry phones a complainant to follow up on a barking dog. Then the laptop chimes again: “cat stuck under a vehicle.” The animal is hemorrhaging from the mouth but still alive.

Another officer has attached to the call, but Henry does, too, as backup. Dog bites and aggressive dogs take precedence, as well as loose dogs in traffic. Sick or injured animals rank next, with domestic animals above wild ones.

When we arrive outside the Family Dollar on Washington Boulevard, the wounded white cat has skedaddled under a bush beside the sidewalk. Henry’s colleague is positioning a carrier as a couple onlookers offer advice. Wearing potholder-thick gloves that extend up his forearm, Henry pulls a pole net from his van and corrals the cat into the container. It hisses mightily.

Henry’s colleague drops the gate, loads the cat into her van and heads for Blue Pearl Pet Hospital. Vets there will assess and stabilize the animal, Henry says, administering pain meds before sending it to the Animal Services shelter to recover, or euthanizing it. Henry isn’t sure what the outcome for this cat will be. Although it was able to twist and bite and hiss, adrenaline can temporarily mask debilitating injuries.

Henry narrates more of his job history as we drive south to follow up on the excessive barker. In El Paso, he needed six months of animal-handling experience, not including a family pet, to apply for a full-time position. He started part-time, moved up to full-time and then rose to kennel supervisor. But he was still feeding animals and shoveling poop, because when staffers called off work, he didn’t feel it was fair to load extra work onto the kennel attendants who did show up. Shelter work is tough “because you're down in the nitty gritty where you're caring for the animals,” Henry says. “You get emotionally attached to them.” Turnover runs high.

Henry prefers patrol.

In the beginning, Henry adopted “everything,” he says. “Before I knew it, I had like five animals.” Now his family is down to three: two rescue dogs (a miniature dachshund and a Maltipoo) and a senior tabby. He’s learned to separate pet owning from work. “I built a callous,” he says, “in a good way.”

Even as he was being promoted, Henry was still applying for law enforcement jobs and taking Saturday shifts at the post office. Someone once joked to him, “You're chasing dogs during the week, and then on the weekend you're getting chased by dogs.”

Eventually, his wife’s employer offered her a job in Sarasota, and Henry landed an animal services job in Hillsborough County. They moved from El Paso with their two kids, now 11 and 6, first to Ruskin, and then to Sarasota, when Henry transitioned to Animal Services here.

Smaller Sarasota County makes for a more manageable job—fewer miles to cover, a less crowded shelter, a shorter backlog of complaints. When on call in Hillsborough, Henry had to venture out two or three times at night; in Sarasota, he’s been called out once or twice in total. And one of the night supervisors here told Henry that several Animal Services officers have transferred into law enforcement. At first, Henry worried he’d have to return to college for more credits, but he’s close to meeting the requirements, so now he’s preparing to apply to the Florida Law Enforcement Academy at Suncoast Technical College, perhaps sponsored by the sheriff’s office.

We weave into a small neighborhood south of Clark Road. Much of Henry’s work involves rescue or removal, including the occasional alligator, as long as it’s shorter than 4 feet. (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers wrangle the big guys.) Henry shows off a photo on his phone of his first gator capture. Recently, he brought in an injured bald eagle, the subject of another photo. The wild animals in Sarasota seem a bit more glamorous than the skunks rampant in El Paso.

But the majority of Henry’s work involves domestic animals. Summer’s busy, with calls about dogs left in cars. (Henry’s van has climate control for any animals in the back.) Animal Services employs more than 40 people, both civilian employees and sworn officers. Agricultural deputies work mostly in eastern Sarasota County, supporting ranchers and large landowners and investigating heavy machinery thefts, hunting and fishing violations, and animal cruelty. Once, Henry got called to help with clearing cats from an unhealthy household. That day, he stacked 19 carriers in his van.

Henry tells me that when he first started with animal services in El Paso, he saw it only as a stepping-stone job, but the work grew on him. He says he likes being “that voice” for animals, especially in situations of neglect or cruelty. “They can’t tell somebody they’re being abused,” he says.

He’s also a code enforcement officer, reminding people that most Sarasota beaches don’t allow pets, for instance, and that excessive noise can constitute a public nuisance. The barking citation he’s about to issue has been in the works for months. Animal Services has previously warned the dog’s owner. A citation requires complaints from two people, not in the same household, with recorded dates and times. Henry collects the clinching statement, and then we pull up outside the offender’s house.

The next hour underscores the importance of people skills in community service. We come upon a coffee klatsch of older women who speak only Spanish, which Henry doesn’t, but the youngest of the group is bilingual, so he doesn’t have to use Google Translate. Henry listens, explains, repeats. I imagine the women think of him as a nice young man, so respectful, so polite. Henry seems to have all the time in the world for them.

We meet Cheetah, a 2-year-old American bulldog barking in a fenced part of the yard. She’s deaf, and Henry emphasizes that Cheetah might not hear how loud she’s being. Even though the dog doesn’t belong to the woman at home, she’s caring for it, which makes her responsible, Henry explains.

Since the woman doesn’t have Cheetah’s health info, Henry uses his laptop to check county records. The dog’s rabies vaccine is up to date, so there’s no concurrent violation. He prints the citation in the van and delivers it. Again, he spells out the woman’s options: Pay the $113 fine or contest it in court. She can “face her accusers,” Henry tells the translator, “and that way the judge can hear her side.”

Sarasota County Animal Services Officer Jeffrey Henry rescues an injured otter on Longboat Key.

After a pit stop at Publix, Henry attaches to the loose rabbit call, which he trades up for the injured otter. His first otter, originally misidentified as a dog, turned out to be dead. But he hears otters can be aggressive.

I ask about people. “Sometimes they’ll boil your blood, and you have to just keep your composure, stay calm,” Henry says.

Patience, he says, is key. “And compassion.” He carries a shovel, for instance, so he can help people dig a grave for a pet if they can’t afford a disposal fee. Recently, Animal Services received a call about an elderly man who couldn’t care for his nine dogs. Turned out his wife was dying in the intensive care unit at the hospital. Usually, the county charges to take in animals—if the shelter has space. But the dogs were small and the situation compelling, so Henry and his supervisor worked out a fee waiver to house seven of the dogs. The man could manage the two remaining pooches.

Henry adds one more essential quality for an officer: listening. “I guess listening would fall under compassion,” he says, “because everyone wants to be heard.”

It’s a long drive to Longboat Key. Henry guesstimates that he travels about 4,000 miles a month. When dispatch is quiet, he’ll patrol places like the Celery Fields (a gathering spot for illegally unleashed dogs) rather than park and wait for a call.

The lethargic otter has been lying in the grass beside Gulf of Mexico Drive for hours, or even days, until a jogger spotted it and called 911. Often, police contact the Wildlife Center of Southwest Florida about injured wild animals, and the center sends volunteers to pick them up. But today no one was available, so the call eventually made its way to Animal Services.

Henry pulls into a driveway. Several first responders from the fire station across the road stand around the otter, stretched out long and sleek.

“It's got maggots in the wounds in the back,” a woman in uniform says.

Although the animal isn’t moving much, the otter swivels its head and opens its mouth, baring teeth. Henry returns to the van for a carrier, gloves, a pole with a loop, and a towel.

He decides against the pole. Moving quickly but steadily, he throws the towel over the otter’s head, as much to calm it as disarm it. Then he lifts it into the carrier.

The underside reveals deep wounds, which silence the circle of rescuers. A leg dangles. Did a car hit the otter and throw it onto the shoulder?

Henry tells the concerned onlookers that he’ll transport the otter to the Wildlife Center for treatment and evaluation. If there’s a chance of rehabilitation, they’ll pack the wounds with antibiotics and give pain meds. If it heals, many nature centers welcome cute disabled animals.

“Appreciate you,” the woman says.

We begin another long drive to Venice.

Henry says officers receive training on statutes more than techniques, but they learn from and help one another. He knows now that sandhill cranes go for the eyes and anhingas have sharp serrations along their pointy beaks.

When I ask about the hardest part of his job, Henry mentions a North Port child mauled to death last July by the family dog. But he didn’t work that case.

At the Wildlife Center, Henry hands the caged otter to a staffer, who returns the empty carrier in a few minutes. Henry washes and disinfects it. I ask the staffer about the prognosis on the otter, but it’s too early to tell.

I ask Henry if he’ll call later to learn the outcome.

“Probably not,” he admits. He’s done his job.

We drive back north for lunch—Culver’s. Henry’s health-conscious wife wouldn’t approve, he says, but at least it’s not McDonald’s.

The last 69 call of the day takes us south again. An Osprey woman reports that two cats attacked her midsize mutt on a walk the previous evening.

We stop first at the house of the complainant. “I mean, my dog is, like, running for his life,” the woman says.

She describes the lifestyle of the cat family disparagingly. Writing in his notebook, Henry pursues facts. He speculates that the cat might have been nursing and offers advice to the woman: Walk elsewhere, watch for signs of infection near any scratches on the dog and take a photo if you see the cats off property. He leaves his card and promises to text her the case number.

I sense that she feels heard.

Next, we visit the scene of the alleged attack. Henry searches the system—no previous Animal Services calls, a point in the cats’ favor.

He steps into the driveway, and a woman comes out of the house.

“Hi there. How are you doing today?” Henry says.

Wary, the woman says, “I'm OK.”

“We've gotten a report of an incident that occurred yesterday. Are you familiar with it?”

The owner wasn’t home at the time, but she heard about it—a different version of events. The dog, on a retractable leash, crossed into the driveway. That spooked the two cats, who are nursing litters in the outdoor laundry room.

Henry says that confirms what he thought.

The house and the stories suggest hardship. Henry asks if the woman has heard of the Animal Rescue Coalition’s free Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Return program for feral cats. He drops a statistic: A fertile female cat can deliver almost 5,000 kittens over a seven-year period.

Henry keeps talking up the program as he collects the woman’s information. “As long as you let us know, we can help transport,” he says. “We've done that before.”

The woman says she’s been wanting to get them fixed.

He suggests rabies shots, too, since the cats spend time outdoors.

The woman asks for the number of the Animal Rescue Coalition. Henry writes it down and gives her his card.

We drive back to the shelter on Bee Ridge. After he finishes writing up the last case, Henry plans to pick up his kids at the Boys & Girls Club. They’ll arrive home before his wife, so he’ll cook dinner. He always checks the back of the van before he goes off duty, though. Forgetting an animal under his care—that would be a nightmare, he says.

In December, I call the Wildlife Center of Southwest Florida. The otter we rescued died of its injuries. But it didn’t suffer.

Filed under
Show Comments