Animal control officers rebuild program

The Island County Sheriff’s Office brought on two new animal control officers to restore the program.

After a year-and-a-half vacancy, the Island County Sheriff’s Office has brought on two new animal control officers to restore and revamp the program.

Whidbey Islander Tammy Esparza ran a farm for 17 years, she said. She was working 9-1-1 dispatch when the previous Whidbey animal control officer, Carol Barnes, left. She wanted to apply but not until they raised the pay rate.

For 25 years, the new Camano Island Animal Control Officer Dylan Shipley maintained the grounds of California state parks. When his wife accepted a job on Camano last year, they made the jump.

“I come with a deep respect for public service and public safety,” Shipley said.

The new officers have been onboarded in a unique situation, Sheriff Rick Felici said. He had very few applicants in almost two years, leaving the hires without a predecessor to guide them.

“We’re kind of building this as we sail it, or whatever the phrase is,” he said.

Esparza and Shipley will undergo animal control officer academy training this month, he said. Afterward, they will work toward 24/7 coverage.

Until then, the sheriff’s office has been “pouring tons of local training,” Felici said.

Esparza has spent most of her first month training, she said, but she’s already encountered a few serious dog bite cases in the field. One of which, to a food deliverer, may result in the dog being officially labeled as dangerous.

The job is called animal control, Felici said, but “animal services” is probably a better term. The new officers cover everything from dog bites and loose animals to criminal animal abuse and negligence cases. The program covers both law enforcement and community functions.

“It’s not, ‘Hey, Island County got a new dog catcher,’” Felici said. “It’s ‘Island County is training two new professionals in a field that is way bigger than people think.’”

Up until now, deputies have taken on this extra work.

“Everyone is excited about getting the program up and running and revamped, so everybody’s been really supportive,” Shipley said. “To me it seems like it’s going to be hugely beneficial to have a dedicated specialized department to work on animal control. Not only will you get the best outcome with the animal control issues, but it frees up the deputies.”

An animal cruelty case in late 2022 where a Whidbey woman allegedly starved her horses to death shined a light on the department, prompting the formation of the Animal Advocates of Island County.

The advocacy group, led by Donna DeBonis and Ansel Santosa, lobbied for a new animal welfare code in the county setting more stringent kennel licensing requirements, tougher penalties for violations and more power for officers to seize mistreated animals. The code went into effect last month.

Since the code passed, Santosa has returned to his “wheelhouse” he said, which is rescuing animals at his farm sanctuary, Ballydidean, placing them for adoption and educating the public on farm animal welfare.

The group is also coaching other organizations throughout Washington to get similar codes passed in other areas, he said. The Island County Sheriff’s Office has been “unusually responsive and caring” compared to other places.

“It’s great to have the new ordinances for sure, but they’re only as good as the people that enforce them,” Santosa said.

The animal cruelty case wouldn’t have been as hot a topic if the sheriff’s department had the ability to respond and meet community expectations, Felici said. Many times, these animal cases get more public attention than human ones.

The changing program will go through an adjustment period, Santosa said, and there will be eyeballs on it to identify blind spots. A current issue is the lack of reliable funding for animal confiscation. Santosa would like to see a dedicated pool of money, funded by animal licensing, for feeding and housing confiscated animals. This currently comes out of the sheriff’s budget.

Officers will use whatever tools that make sense — depending on the case — in confiscating animals, Esparza said, be it WAIF or the Ballydidean Farm Sanctuary.

The Animal Advocates of Island County have been great partners in pointing out weak points and providing shelter resources and training opportunities to the sheriff’s office, Felici said.

He’s looking forward to the department’s growth.

“We’re pretty jazzed about the vision going forward. We’ve got two great people,” Felici said. “I think a year from now we’ll look back at this and see how far we’ve come.”

Island County's new animal control officers, Dylan Shipley (left) and Tammy Esparza (right) pose in front of the animal control pick-up. (Photo by Sam Fletcher)
The animal control pick-up carries virtually the same equipment as a regular deputy vehicle. (Photo by Sam Fletcher)
Whidbey Island animal control officer Tammy Esparza displays a kennel from the back of the animal control pick-up. (Photo by Sam Fletcher)
The animal control pick-up, in addition to virtually the same equipment as a regular deputy vehicle, holds  a kennel and other animal catching and containment equipment. (Photo by Sam Fletcher)