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Feature Story

Dog's Best Friend

Table Spreads for every occasion

Photography by: Josh Marshall
Written by: Ashley Petry

Sometimes Michael Delp has nightmares about the animals he couldn’t save in real life — such as the scared, disoriented puppies that were dumped in the middle of an interstate and killed by oncoming traffic before Delp could reach them. As director of Johnson County Animal Control, Delp has seen countless examples of such cruelties. Dogs doused in gasoline and set on fire. Cats used as test targets for their owner’s new bow and arrow. A dog kicked in the mouth so many times that its teeth had begun to grow sideways.

Yet Delp keeps going, even if he sometimes has to put his head on his desk and cry. The Greenwood resident has been with animal control for nine years now, serving as director for the past four years — even though the average animal control officer stays in the job just three years before succumbing to compassion fatigue.

“This is an interesting job in law enforcement because I get to fall in love every day, but I also get my heart broken every day,” Delp said. “It really parallels officers involved in the sex-crimes units. It’s very difficult emotionally, and sometimes you have to approach horrific situations and view them through the eyes of an investigator and not get so emotionally involved.”
Delp, 53, was working in quality control at Eli Lilly nine years ago when he saw a notice in the newspaper that Johnson County was seeking animal control officers. Undeterred by the pay cut, he accepted the position because he wanted to make a difference in the lives of both people and animals.

“It sounded like it might be something different every day, and I liked the idea of the law enforcement aspect of it,” he said.

Delp was right: The job does present him with new challenges every day. He testifies in court about cases of alleged animal cruelty. He writes tickets for leash and vaccine violations. He speaks at local schools to kick off pet food donation drives. He mows the facility’s lawn to save money on landscaping fees. He assists in the kennel, giving the animals some much-needed attention or helping with the tough work of euthanasia. During his interview with South magazine, he had to pause to dispatch an officer to rescue a cat stuck in a drain pipe. (The rescue operation was a success.)

Through it all, Delp has focused on achieving the best possible outcomes for the animals in his care. Johnson County Animal Control takes in about 3,000 animals a year — about 1,000 dogs and 2,000 cats. Yet it hasn’t euthanized a dog for space reasons in more than three years, claiming one of the lowest dog euthanasia rates in Indiana among open-admission shelters.

Delp is “good about getting the animals out, finding homes for them and getting sponsorships for programs to keep them alive instead of euthanizing them,” said County Commissioner Brian Baird. “He has a passion for the animals that’s really neat to see. He works really hard, and I think that’s a great accomplishment that we’re not destroying animals like we used to.”

That success comes amidst many pressures. The agency’s budget has been slashed by 40 percent in recent years, despite its move to a larger facility. Animal adoption rates have plunged during the recent economic slump. And as the population of Johnson County increases, the agency must stretch its resources even further to cover growing needs.

Another problem is the increasing number of owner-surrendered animals coming into the shelter. Animal control isn’t set up to accept those animals; its priority is stray, abused and neglected animals, as well as animals seized during criminal investigations. Yet more than 60 percent of its intakes are owner surrenders, which it isn’t allowed to refuse.
“That places a huge burden on us,” Delp said. “Once (the animals) come in, my staff starts working immediately to get them out to the rescue organizations. Our adoption rate has gone down in the past five years, but our rescue rates have gone way up.”

Johnson County Animal Control has four full-time officers, one full-time kennel manager and five part-time kennel workers. Delp also as reserve officers on call for emergencies and relies on about 15 dedicated volunteers, some of whom show up nearly every day.

Although the agency’s resources are spread thin, Delp maximizes its effectiveness with new technologies — such as portable chip scanners that help officers quickly identify stray animals and reunite them with their owners. The agency also fills budget gaps with in-kind donations of food, toys, cleaning supplies and other items.

Items such as pig ears and chew toys keep the animals entertained, so they’re happier and more likely to get rescued or adopted, said kennel manager Bethany Fulps.
“You don’t think about a pig ear saving a dog’s life, but it could,” she said.

Like most animal control officers, Delp has struggled against the urge to adopt every needy animal that enters the shelter. He has made only one exception in nine years, for a chow now named Her Royal Highness Princess Panda Bear.

As a puppy, Panda was placed in a cardboard box and thrown out a car window on the interstate. The impact killed her two brothers, and Panda was so seriously injured that animal control officers scheduled her for euthanasia.

The night before, Delp decided to give Panda one night of comfort and happiness, so he took her home. But he couldn’t bring himself to return her, so he and his wife adopted her instead, gradually helping her recover from her injuries.

“Panda is the recipient of all the love I want to give to all the animals but can’t because I have to maintain some kind of distance,” he said.
Delp hasn’t always been so good at maintaining that emotional distance. In his early years on the job, he got attached to another dog — the one that had been kicked so many times that its teeth were growing sideways. The dog was understandably skittish when it arrived at the shelter, but he decided to show the dog that it was possible for someone to care about it.

Every day, when he walked past the dog’s kennel, he said comforting things, such as “I love you, and I’m not going to let anybody hurt you.” Eventually the dog let Delp sit with him in the kennel, then pet him and finally hold him on his lap.

But the dog had another problem — a painful form of terminal cancer. Eventually euthanasia seemed like the most humane option, and Delp insisted on doing the procedure himself.
“When I put my hand over his heart, he lifted his head and licked my hand,” Delp said. “That was a day when I went home and wept. If I can remember animals like that and never let them be forgotten, then I can make it.”

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