Haven Humane Society's Captain Lee Ann Smith
11/25/2015 09:18AM ● Published by Brandi Barnett
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Captain PawsomeDecember 2015
By Laura Christman
Photos: Erin Claassen
It's 6:30 AM and Capt. Lee Anne Smith is about to begin her day with a 65-dog meet-and-greet. She enters Haven Humane Society’s Morgan Adoption Center in Redding to a chaotic chorus of barking, and then walks along the kennels, acknowledging each dog and offering a biscuit.
“You’re a new dog.”
Some body-slam the kennel gate or bark frantically. One hangs back fearfully. But most know the routine: The treat is gained when all four paws are on the ground.
Smith, chief of operations at Haven and captain of animal regulations for the city of Redding, starts every work day that way so shelter dogs learn good things happen when they are calm. The morning ritual also lets her see how they are doing.
After the canine hello, Smith heads over to Haven’s older building – the first stop for lost, dropped-off and stray animals. She counts 18 dogs in the queue for temperament testing, a tool to help match a dog with the right home. She’s the tester.
First up is an 8-year-old Australian shepherd cross fixated on leaving
the room. The Aussie shrugs off a battery-powered blue octopus skittering across the floor, ignores a tossed tennis ball and doesn’t want her teeth checked, but likes being petted.
Next is a 6-month-old squirmy Lab-mix puppy. He chases the tennis ball, isn’t bothered by an umbrella that pops open and tolerates Grabby Baby, a life-size doll Smith walks across the room to pester the pup. The puppy stiffens and gives a cold stare to the fake baby. His body language says: “Back off!” But Smith’s improvised baby doesn’t get it and continues to grab for the chewie treat. The pup relinquishes it.
“Why are you in here, dude?” Smith asks the easy-going dog.
Smith’s job is not all puppy play, of course. A California humane officer, she oversees four animal regulation officers and goes on some calls. The work includes vicious dogs, strays, animals in traffic and cases of neglect or cruelty. She also heads Haven’s adoption center and kennels, does educational outreach and administers Camp Love a Pet, where children socialize shelter dogs.
“I love working with the animals. I love the joy they bring me,” Smith says.
Smith, who has two grown daughters, shares her Redding home with border collie Chase (a canine officer whose role is being a calming presence to other dogs), German shepherd Tess, terrier Viva, Australian shepherd Ché and Chihuahua Emmy. Baby raccoons, ducks or owls sometimes live there too. Smith is a state-licensed wildlife rehabilitator, and she coordinates a small group of volunteers who work under her license to help fawns, squirrels, opossums and other rescued creatures in the North State.
Smith has been with Haven 27 years, the longest of any employee.
“She’s seen everything – at least once,” Haven CEO Mark Storrey notes.
He praises her compassion, skill in reading animals and confident manner in interacting with them. “This is a very, very difficult career field to be in. It has a lot of ups and downs – high highs and low lows. It takes a very special person to do it any length of time. I respect that she continues to do as long as she has, and at such an amazing level.”
The unflappable Smith enjoys problem-solving. “Our job isn’t to say, ‘Your dog is barking. Shut it up.’ Our job is to say, ‘Your dog is barking. What’s going on? What can we do to fix it?’”
Smith grew up on Okinawa, Japan, where her father managed a U.S. Army store.
“We had an Akita cross named Chip. He was an incredible dog. I always felt safe with him,” she says.
Her first job was high-speed check sorter at a Federal Reserve bank in Texas. But she wanted a career with animals. She moved to Redding in 1981 and worked as a veterinary technician before switching to animal control.
She enjoys being at Haven with colleagues who share passion, compassion and respect for animals. The toughest part of the job is euthanizing an animal, Smith says. Increased collaboration with rescue groups is reducing euthanasia rates at Haven.
“Dog euthanasia is down more than half in the last three years,” Storrey says.
“We’re really making a difference, and I’m loving it,” Smith says.
But animals now stay longer – sometimes months – and it is especially difficult to euthanize an animal who has become well known to staff.
“That’s like tearing part of your heart out,” Smith says.
Overpopulation of dogs and cats is an overwhelming problem, she says. And the way to solve it, Smith stresses, is spaying and neutering pets.