From a building smaller than a lot of Homer dry cabins to a modern, heated animal shelter, Animal Control Officer Sherry Bess has seen the city’s pet-care facility grow. This Saturday, Bess, 66, retires after 22 years as the city animal control officer and 27 years working for or volunteering at the shelter.
The city-owned animal shelter is run under a contract. Last fall, Bess chose not to bid when her contract expired and it came up for bid. Amy Ware of Alaska Mindful Paws won the contract and takes over as animal control officer on Jan. 1. The animal control officer enforces Homer’s animal control ordinance, and the shelter offers refuge for lost, abandoned and problem pets in the city.
“I could write a book if I could remember all the stuff that happened at the shelter over the years,” Bess said.
Bess moved to Homer in 1977 from Twin Falls, Idaho, where she grew up. A phlebotomist — a health care worker who draws blood for tests — she first found work at the Homer Cleaning Center and at NOMAR sewing brailer bags. She later worked as a nurse’s aide and activities coordinator at South Peninsula Hospital.
In late 1989, Bess started as a volunteer at the Animal Shelter, then a 12-by-20-foot building. It had eight dog kennels and four cat cages in the dog building.
“The cats were always hunkered down in their little boxes peeking out,” Bess said.
With no heat, in the winter that meant kennel workers had to chip poop in the kennels.
Bess, her husband Tony, and Barney Ryan later worked part-time at the shelter, splitting 40 hours of work a week at $480.
In the 1980s, a Homer Police Officer acted as the animal control officer.
“It was the low man on the totem pole at the police station,” Bess said.
Eventually, Cindy O’Leary was hired as a civilian animal control officer. Bess took over from O’Leary in 1994, she said. O’Leary had announced she was leaving and Bess was at a meeting with Homer Police Chief Mike Daugherty to discuss who should take over.
“Out of the blue he said, ‘Sherry, you’d like to give it a try, wouldn’t you?’” she said Daugherty asked her.
Bess signed on and got certified at a class in Anchorage held by the National Animal Control Officers Association. As the only animal control officer, she’s on call 24 hours, 7 seven days a week, like last week when at 2 a.m. she had to round up barking Chihuahua dogs a neighbor complained about. Not every call has been a problem, though. Bess helped with some notable animal rescues, like the time when Homer Volunteer Fire Department rescuers went down into a storm drain pipe to save a dog that had wandered into the underground system. Another time she and HVFD rescuers saved a dog that broke through ice on Beluga Lake.
“A wet, very lucky dog was reunited with its owner,” she said of that rescue.
The old shelter was on the site of the current shelter next to Homer Public Works off the Sterling Highway near Heath Street. Volunteers with Homer Animal Friends like Ryan, Pat and Chris Moss and others expanded the buildings. Volunteers also will come in to brush and walks dogs, helping socialize them and make them more adoptable. Efforts like that have kept the shelter going.
“A lot of people have spent time here, scooping poop, scrubbing, bleaching and cleaning litter boxes,” Bess said.
At one point not even the old shelter office was heated and there was no running water or a bathroom.
“I had to do paperwork in my car. You’d freeze. It was uncomfortable,” Bess said.
In 2004 the city started construction on the new animal shelter. Since it would be on the same site, the buildings had to be moved out to the Homer Spit on the old chip pad during construction. The new shelter opened in 2005, and now has heated dog runs, indoor kennels and cat rooms. Paradoxically, with more and better space there have been fewer dogs and cats boarded at the animal shelter. In 1999 there were 1,125 animals taken in.
“We were dealing with boxes of kittens and puppies and pregnant animals,” Bess said of the 1990s
Now the shelter gets 300 to 400 a year. Bess credited spay-and-neuter programs and education in the schools and through Homer Animal Friends with the decrease in animals taken in. The city also quit handling animals from outside city limits.
“It’s really made a difference,” Bess said.
She also thinks that people use social media more to reunite lost animals with owners or to find homes for pets.
“I think a lot of animals are getting placed that way,” she said. “That’s been a huge change.”
Bess said she sees more abandoned cats than dogs. When people move or can no longer take care of pets, they won’t abandon dogs but will let cats loose.
“I think a lot of people move away and leave their cats,” she said. “There’s some kind of belief cats can survive — and they can’t.”
Winter can be especially hard on abandoned cats. A cat might roam a neighborhood, and people don’t realize the cat has been abandoned until they see a cat emaciated and frostbitten. Bess said cats will come in with missing ears.
The animal shelter attempts to find homes for every dog or cat that is adoptable, even senior pets, Bess said. Aggressive animals that are dangerous usually can’t be adopted. The animal shelter also works with nonprofits in Anchorage and Fairbanks to place pets.
“We find homes for everybody,” she said of adoptable animals. “We’ve euthanized very few over the last two years. We have gradually become a no-kill shelter.”
During her time running the shelter, Bess has come in at 9 a.m. daily and not leaving until 7 p.m. some days.
“I work every day. I have no days off. I have no vacation,” Bess said.
That will change Sunday. After her last day on Saturday, Bess said she will “sleep in. Take care of my own house. Give my own animals some much needed attention.”
But she’s not ready to retire yet from work. After a vacation Bess said she will look for another job, hopefully with benefits.
“One that will have steady hours — maybe an 8-hour day,” she said. “I don’t even know what that’s like.”
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.