Humane officer Ashlee Bishop has filled a long-needed role for the Wausau and Everest Metro police departments
There was a specific point when Ashlee Bishop knew she wanted to become an animal control officer—albeit not quite a typical moment of clarity for someone in that business.
Bishop was 18 years old, working for the Marathon County Humane Society, and out on her first call in the field since beginning as a volunteer when she was 13 and then becoming a staff member at 16. And this first call was a doozy.
Humane officers had heard about 80 or so feral dogs running around an 80-acre property near Edgar. To make matters worse, the property wasn’t well kept and the animals were agitated. The manure on the property was stacked so high there was only a four-foot gap between the crap pile and the barn door. The cattle didn’t have any hay or water. Some of the dogs were so starved that Humane Society workers had to prevent a few of them from eating a weaker dog.
Perhaps the most frightening aspect of this situation: The weeds and grass on the farm had grown so high they were over the heads of Bishop and the other humane society workers. It was like a scene out of Jurassic Park, as the aggressive dogs would emerge from this foliage and try to attack.
After this case, Bishop knew she wanted to become a humane officer and dedicate herself to the betterment of animals, even wild, decidedly un-cuddly ones like she encountered that day near Edgar.
In 2013 Bishop became an important addition to the Wausau and Everest Metro police departments as a humane officer and filling a long-observed void in both municipalities’ ability to enforce their animal control policies.
“There are cases of animal abuse and neglect where she has the knowledge to address them so much better,” Wausau City Council President Lisa Rasmussen says. “It’s a night and day comparison with our animal control program since Ashley’s gotten on board.”
A budget item here to stay
Wausau had for a decade struggled with the increasing number of animal-related police calls—hundreds each year that yanked law enforcement away from other duties in order to, say, respond to a stray dog on the loose, problems with feral cats, or an incessantly barking pet.
Wausau and Everest Metro both make money off of licensing, pickup, and pet fancier fees that largely fund their humane officer position. Everest Metro currently gives Wausau a payment of $16,860, and Wausau brings in about $132,000 a year in its animal control program. Some of that revenue goes to the Humane Society to shelter strays—Wausau pays on average $55,000 a year to house stray cats there.
But the pet licensing in both communities are enough to cover Bishop’s salary, and Wausau Mayor Robert Mielke considers this “extra” police position invaluable. “It’s already proven its worth. She really does fill a need,” Mielke says. “She took something that we had a lot of problems with and has made it not a problem.”
Bishop has a number of responsibilities, but her main jobs are to pick up strays; make sure pets are properly licensed, vaccinated, and micro-chipped; investigate animal bites and animal abuse and neglect; make recommendations on declaring animals dangerous; and refer pet owners to the district attorney for charges if necessary.
Before Bishop, police officers would respond to calls on animals and municipalities’ attorneys would get a report and make their determinations based on the report. Plus, police officers were responsible for transporting animals to the Marathon County Humane Society.
That’s more problematic than you might think. Besides the obvious staff time element, officers often had to clean out their squad cars after taking an animal to the shelter because of bodily accidents. Bishop has her own truck with multiple cages to transport animals, and her work position has streamlined the process of enforcing the Wausau area’s animal control policies.
“Even if officers know how to investigate these cases, they still might not know about the laws and ordinances that exist for animals,” Bishop says. “Officers need to figure out what they’re doing about their OWI numbers and such,” not spend time on animal issues, she says.
Declaring animals dangerous
Both Wausau and Weston adopted dangerous animal ordinances in 2013 with the goal of preventing aggressive pets from becoming a hazard in the community. Before that, Wausau was limited in what it could do to identify animals that had repeatedly bit people or attacked other animals and properly regulate them. Now there are numerous rules that owners must comply with in order to keep their designated dangerous pet within city limits.
Even regular animal complaints weren’t getting the consistent response they deserved before Bishop. “It was of no fault of the police department. Animal complaints just weren’t of the highest priority,” Rasmussen says.
In addition to the dangerous animal ordinance, Wausau created its animal control program in 2013, and that opened the door to multiple ways the city could more effectively manage pets living within its boundaries. Before Bishop, only about 10% of the 20,000-plus pets in Wausau were properly licensed and checked for vaccinations. Now, compliance in licensing and vaccinations is more than 90%. Bishop even hosts an event at Marathon Park right before the March licensing deadline called Paws & Protect, which allows people to license, vaccinate, and micro-chip their pets all in one stop.
Even since Wausau and Weston adopted their dangerous animal ordinances, there have been cries in the community that say the rules don’t go far enough.
After a high-profile pit bull attack in Wausau in June 2014, which resulted in the death of a Chihuahua and injuries to that dog’s owner, there was a call from some to ban the pit bull breed in Wausau. There is some basis for such a ban. According to nonprofit DogsBite, from 2005-2015, pit bull attacks in the U.S. caused 232 deaths, which accounted for 64% of dog-related deaths during that decade. In Wisconsin, 30 municipalities have an outright ban on pit bulls, including some in central Wisconsin such as Stratford and Antigo. Many more have restrictions on keeping the breed.
Bishop personally isn’t a fan of breed-specific bans. In fact, she hates the “pit-mix” distinction many dogs receive. “It’s very rare you find a true pit bull anymore. Many times the ‘pit bull’ attacks you hear about are dogs that are mixes of breeds,” Bishop says. “Realistically, how can you ban that breed? You’re just going to ban based on looks.”
Rather than going off appearances, Bishop does her own investigation into animal bites, talks with neighbors, vets, and dog trainers to determine whether an offending animal has a history of aggressive behavior. She interacts with the questionable dogs in person and more often than not, an animal bite does not result in a dangerous declaration. “Typically if you have family household type bites—like if you had a kid bit by the family dog—we’re not going to look at those that much,” Bishop says.
A day in the life
Bishop’s work days are much different from the time she stopped working for the Humane Society and started working at a memory care nursing home in the Wausau area. “I thought well, I’ve dealt with animals biting and things like that, I can deal with a nursing home,” Bishop says. However she worked third shift, and caring for humans was a far cry from working with animals.
That inspired Bishop to go back to school for her veterinary technician degree, and nearly six months after graduating, was hired to be the humane officer.
Bishop works out of the Wausau and Everest Metro police department buildings. This gives her access to things a typical humane society officer wouldn’t have: police reports and most importantly, a radio so she can call for backup. “If I’m ever in a situation where I need backup, I can just use my radio and a squad is there within a few minutes at most,” she says.
The typical day for Bishop includes a number of calls regarding animals. On a recent early November day, Bishop receives a call about a dying raccoon that was hit by a car and needed to be euthanized. She also searches for a dog that was reported running across Hwy. 29 near the Shopko in Rothschild. Then in the late afternoon, she responds to a call of a dog hanging outside a car window by the collar in the Wausau Center mall parking ramp across the street from McDonald’s in downtown Wausau.
She really just wants to make a difference, whether it’s all over the world or right here in the Wausau area. Working with animals is Bishop’s way of doing so. “I could have one ailment with an animal, and working at the nursing home, I might have had the same type of ailment,” Bishop says. “I had a very hard time dealing with the person. The animal? No problem.”
Stories from the beast beat
If there’s one thing Ashlee Bishop wishes she had, it would be more time. She picks up around 300 stray cats and 200 stray dogs each year. She has declared 10 dogs dangerous so far this year, which is higher than usual. Every year, she investigates nearly 30 animal bites, and has some interesting stories to share about the things she’s seen on the job.
• Her worst dog bite: Bishop says she’s been bitten four times in her life by dogs, but none as bad as the latest. Last month, a 35-pound dachshund put two holes the size of small bullets into her knee and thigh. “The dachshund surprised me because he charged out of nowhere. There was no provocation.”
And in case you were wondering, the dachshund was declared dangerous, proving there’s no size limit to animals that can get that distinction.
• The implementation of Wausau’s chickens ordinance: There was some concern that Bishop’s workload would increase when the city passed an ordinance legalizing urban chickens, but so far, so good. Everyone is getting their permits and the coops look good. There was one call Bishop received about chickens getting loose in the Aspirus parking lot, but that was taken care of before she even arrived. Bishop says she was “glad I didn’t have to play Rocky Balboa.”
• Dealing with reptiles: The only pet Bishop doesn’t care for are snakes. In fact, when she was studying to become a veterinary technician, Bishop would spend extended periods with snakes so she would grow comfortable being around them. So far as the Wausau-Weston humane officer, she hasn’t dealt with any cases involving slithering serpents. She did respond to a call of someone walking their two-foot pet alligator down the street in Wausau— which by the way is totally legal.
• Nearly declaring a cat dangerous: While Bishop declares about eight dogs dangerous every year, she has never declared a cat dangerous—but got close one time. She investigated a cat that had caused property damage and torn out a window screen on at a neighbor’s house, climbed through the window, and pulled a pet cat from that house outside. The victim pet was never seen again. “We were going to declare that cat dangerous but then it just disappeared and was never seen again.”
• Hoarding cases: One of the most common cases Bishop sees are those of hoarding, where an individual has too many pets. In January, Bishop pulled 54 cats out of a mobile home that was home to two adults and two kids.
• Working with the ASPCA: Bishop has volunteered twice with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, most recently going to Florida after Hurricane Irma to help with relief efforts. Bishop wishes she also could have gone to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria blew through in September.