Saturday, February 28, 2015

Windham welcomes new animal control officer Trista Comtois - By Elizabeth Richards

Windham’s new animal control officer, Trista Comtois, is settling into her new role after coming on board full time in December. Prior to being offered the full time position, she had been working on a part-time trial basis since October. 
Comtois is originally from Vermont. She has been involved with animals from a very young age, and was raised to be very compassionate towards both people and animals, she said. Her mother raised six kids on her own and worked in the nursing field, but also found the time to help animals in the community. “If someone had an animal they couldn’t take care of, we would take it and find where it needed to go,” she said.

Comtois first came to Maine for college. She earned a degree in psychology at Saint Joseph’s College, then moved back to Vermont to get married and start a family. Last year, her husband’s job brought them back to Maine. 

After working in the mental health field for close to ten years, Comtois said she had a “life awakening” and realized she would prefer to work with animals as well as people, rather than continuing on the path she was on. “I knew that I could use a lot of my education and experience in the mental health field while working with animal welfare,” she said. She attended training academies through the National Animal Control Association in both Connecticut and Idaho. Then, she began pursuing opportunities in the field.

Comtois worked as the animal control officer in Buxton for close to a year before the Windham job became available. She applied for the job in Windham because it was both closer to her home in Standish, and a full time opportunity, rather than part time as she was working in Buxton.

Animal control is a developing field, and there’s more to the animal control program than catching stray dogs, said Comtois. “It’s evolved a lot,” she said, adding that Maine has particularly good animal rights laws as compared to many other states.

Her job as Windham’s animal control officer means that she must uphold all state laws pertaining to animal welfare, as well as any town ordinances. While she deals with typical dog at-large issues and barking dog complaints, she also conducts investigations into possible animal cruelty cases. When someone has a concern about the welfare of animals in their community, a call comes in and Comtois does an investigation the same way any law enforcement officer would. She has to follow all the same procedures in obtaining information to move forward to protect the animals.

Another facet of her job is to do community outreach and education programs. In Buxton, for instance, she did a presentation on animal safety for students in the summer recreation program. While she hasn’t been on the job long enough to start these programs in Windham, she is planning on offering the same type of outreach, with the goals of reducing dog bites and raising awareness about safety issues in the community.

Officer Comtois said it’s important to let people know that a dog bite doesn’t automatically mean the dog will be euthanized. Sometimes, she said, there is that misconception which leads to people not telling anyone if they get bitten. But that is not the first step in the process, and it’s important for people to let someone know if they have been bitten. This is partly so that it can be verified that the dog has had a rabies vaccination, and also to ensure that the family, and the dog, get support if needed. Additionally, if there is an ongoing issue with a dog, but no one has called to let animal control know, there isn’t much they can do. “If we don’t know, then we can’t help,” said Comtois. 

Another thing that is important for people in the community to know, especially at this time of year, is that it is not illegal to leave a dog outside. “As an animal lover, I would love for everyone to keep their dogs inside, but they don’t have to legally,” said Comtois. As long as state laws are being followed and the dog has proper shelter, tethering, water and food available, they can be outside. It’s still important for people with concerns to call, she added, so that she can check and be sure the dog is being properly cared for. 

Another thing to understand is that in most states, pets are property rather than being seen as living creatures with rights. So if someone sees a dog outside and takes it, thinking they are doing the right thing, that person can be charged with theft.

While she believes it is ideal for cats to be indoor pets, Comtois said there are no laws restricting the movement of cats. This means that if a cat is in your yard, there is nothing the animal control officer can do about that. It is up to the property owner to keep the cat off their property, and in a way that is safe for the animal. 

Feral cats can be an issue, and Comtois said if people know of feral cat populations, they should call for support from animal control. Though the cats won’t necessarily be removed, animal control can help ensure that these animals have rabies vaccinations, are neutered, and have shelters. It’s important for people to know that they should never touch a stray or feral cat, due to the risks of disease if they are bitten or scratched.

Comtois said that everyone in Windham has been very helpful in getting her acclimated to the position. She feels fortunate to be a part of the police department, and said that the officers are very supportive of the animal control work. In some towns, animal control is not affiliated with the police departments, which means less access to resources, training and equipment. 

Comtois lives in Standish with her husband, two children and two dogs. She said she loves being back in Maine. They are a family of skiers and snowboarders, and spend time at Shawnee Peak every weekend in the winter.

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