AS I SEE IT: Adventures of the Dog-Catcher’s Wife From the Shotgun Seat

People either love my husband or hate him, depending upon the circumstances of their introduction. Doug has been the Ohio County Humane Officer and Dog Warden for over 20 years now, so plenty of local residents know who he is.

If he rescued your dog from 65 MPH traffic on the interstate, you probably rate him as a “10.” If he charged you with animal abuse or neglect, you may have similarly strong feelings about him, but much lower on the 1-to-10 numeric scale. When someone asks, “Are you Doug’s wife?” I instinctually hesitate for just a split second, attempting to deduce whether I’m about to be told a tale that makes my heart sing or one that leaves my blood pressure skyrocketing.

Doug’s on call around the clock, sometimes for several days at a time. Spending time with him on weekends or in the evenings often involves riding along with him on calls; otherwise, we may not see each other that day. Sometimes I can actually be helpful to him after hours, as he works alone and I, too, have experience working with animals.

Ellen and Doug in the Alley (photo by Bennett McKinley)

So I spend many an hour riding shotgun in his truck. The view from that passenger seat is never boring. Many calls, particularly in the summer, involve investigating routine situations where dogs are left in cars or yards without protection from the elements. The same is true in the winter when a good number of calls involve dogs left in the cold.

But often enough, the call is a bit more exciting than that.

For instance, I was riding along with Doug recently when I received a call about a large snapping turtle in the drainage ditch along the road near Wheeling Hospital. People who know me feel free to call or message me about animal issues, knowing I can get in touch with Doug at any time. I relayed the message to him that a couple of passing motorists had managed to encourage the turtle to move out of traffic, but were concerned that he would shuffle back into harm’s way if left unattended. The behemoth was a bit cranky and not at all convinced that Doug was trying to save him.

I assisted Doug with the turtle wrangling, while simultaneously attempting to both photograph the spectacle and Google “traits of common snapping turtles” in an effort to gauge its age and gender. Based on the results of my search, we guessed him to be a male who was likely at least 20 years old. After lifting him to safety, Doug estimated his weight to be between 30 and 40 pounds. We drove him to a nearby creek bank where he ran toward the water as quickly as a giant prehistoric creature can and swam merrily away downstream.

Doug works to snare a large snapping turtle near Wheeling Hospital.

Another call this summer involved a mama opossum and her brood of babies, who had managed to get themselves into a residential garbage can and were unable to get back out. According to neighbors, they had been in there without water for quite some time in the heat. None of the opossums was pleased to receive a helping hand out of the trash; even the babies were hissing and spitting at us in annoyance. In her haste to escape the humans circled around her, Mama O. gathered her young’uns on her back and scurried down an overgrown hillside. On the way down, several of the little ones fell from their perch and Doug had to scoop each one up and carry them to where mom waited, still angry, at the bottom of the hill.  All he got for his trouble was one final hiss. Talk about a thankless job!

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Mama Opossum wasn’t thrilled with Doug’s rescue efforts.

On a recent weekend “date,” my husband and I spent 45 minutes locked in a small, stifling-hot closet together, trying to gently capture a terrified cat whose owner had been hospitalized. I have accompanied Doug to the scenes of house fires searching for dogs and cats. We have picked up deceased pets from the interstate so their owners would have their pets’ remains for closure. Doug has taken dogs for safekeeping when their owners were arrested or involved in a car accident. He has searched for the despicable individuals who have tossed kittens from car windows on the highway or turned dogs loose at the I-70 Welcome Center at the West Virginia state line. He has been the first one into a meth lab to remove the pit bulls keeping the police at bay. He has been called to an active shooter situation where a dog was making it impossible for deputies to get close to the suspect. Though his job does not require him to deal with wildlife, he has captured and relocated raccoons, bats and snakes in addition to the aforementioned turtles and opossums.

Besides being thankless, his job can be both physically dangerous and emotionally exhausting. No one likes to think about euthanasia, let alone perform it. But unfortunately, that, too, is included in Doug’s job description. He still dreads it after all these years, and I can immediately tell by his demeanor after work if it’s been “one of those days.” I’m grateful that Ohio County Animal Shelter’s adoption rate is high enough that Doug has rarely been forced to euthanize in recent months. Bob Barker’s message was correct — everyone should help to control the pet population by having their pets spayed or neutered. It would make the lives of all shelter workers (and their spouses!) much easier.

Of course, there are positive occupational hazards of being a humane officer, as well. A major one is falling in love with an animal you rescue. Warning: being married to an animal control officer can lead to a house overflowing with four-legged children! When Doug and I first married and merged households, we had four dogs and three cats. All had found their way into our hearts through our work with animals. Now that we are older and looking toward retirement, we’ve decided to stick to cats as pets, as they are more self-sufficient than dogs.

We already had a charming clowder of four rescued cats when Dusty came into our lives. A sweet kitten about 3 months old, he was spotted last month along Route 2 by an eagle-eyed deputy sheriff who thought Dusty was a dead baby raccoon. However, as he drove past, the deputy saw movement and stopped to investigate. He found that Dusty had lacerations to his head and face and was covered in road cinders, including in his mouth and ears. We think he was tossed like trash from a passing car. The deputy called Doug, who retrieved the kitten and took him to KEY Animal Hospital for treatment. Dr. Karl Yurko handles all veterinary care for the shelter’s animals, and he and his staff truly enable Doug to do the work he does. Dr. Yurko was able to stitch little Dusty’s lip back together, and he has now fully recovered from his injuries. When a possible adoption for Dusty fell through at the last minute, we decided to bring him home to join our family.

Dusty’s lip is now fully healed. He has joined his siblings Cookie, Milo, Neko and Suki as an official member of the McCroskey family.

Doug has a dedicated shelter staff who provide the animals he rescues with daily care and TLC while he’s out on the road in his truck, with or without me riding along. I’m very proud of Doug and the work he’s done to ensure that Ohio County has first-rate animal control services. From my seat on the passenger side, the future for stray animals in the Wheeling area looks paws-itively awesome!

• A lifelong Wheeling resident, Ellen Brafford McCroskey is a proud graduate of Wheeling Park High School and the former Wheeling Jesuit College. By day, she works for an international law firm; by night, (and often on her lunch breaks and weekends) she enjoys moonlighting as a part-time writer. Please note that the views expressed in her writing are solely her own and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, including her full-time employer. Through her writing, Ellen aims to enlighten others on causes close to her heart, particularly addiction, recovery and equal rights. She and her husband Doug reside in Warwood with their clowder of rescued cats, each of whom is a direct consequence of his job as the Ohio County Dog Warden. Their family includes four adult children, their spouses and several grandkids.