“I feel ready. I really do.”
by Melanie Jongsma
LANSING, Ill. (March 14, 2021) – Before John Witvoet, Lansing didn’t have an Animal Control Officer. It was the early 1990s, and it was the Lansing Police Department who handled calls about lost dogs and stray cats. But when a situation involved a less typical animal, then-Police Chief Dean Stanley would call Witvoet.
“I always had animals,” Witvoet explains. He has lived all of his 76 years on a large plot of land on the west edge of town. Over time his property has been home to cows, goats, a miniature horse, a llama, three emus (yes, emus), and various other wildlife. “So Stanley would call, ‘Is one of your goats loose?’ I’d say no, not mine. ‘Well, can you help us catch this goat?’ So I’d go help.”
Bill Balthis, who was Lansing’s Mayor at that time, offered to formalize the arrangement and hire Witvoet full-time. But Witvoet was involved in his family’s auto parts business and didn’t want another full-time job. After the Village Trustees voted to give him the job anyway, Witvoet agreed he would accept an on-call position as Lansing’s first Animal Control Officer.
A unique skill set
“Most towns don’t have an Animal Control Officer,” says Witvoet. “They use privates.” Private animal removal services can cost $200–300 per call, paid by the homeowner. As part of the Lansing Police Department, Witvoet’s services have been paid for by taxpayer dollars, so there’s no extra cost when he makes a housecall.
Towns that do offer some kind of animal control service tend to limit the service to “impounds” —rounding up stray dogs or cats and delivering them to a nearby shelter. Witvoet handled up to 250 impounds a year, but he also had the skills and personality to deal with wildlife situations—raccoons in attics, possums under sheds, coyote and skunk sightings.
He was on the job in 2016 when an appliance repairman discovered an alligator in the Lansing house where he was working and called Animal Control, though Witvoet doesn’t take credit for removing the six-foot beast. “DNR handled that one,” he remembers, referring to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
And he remembers the 2011 call about neglected monkeys in an elderly Lansing woman’s home, placed there by the woman’s daughter who didn’t have room for them. “People get these exotic pets, and then they don’t know what to do with them,” he says.
A COVID-induced decision
Witvoet might have continued indefinitely as Lansing’s Animal Control Officer, but in December he contracted COVID. His COVID experience included double pneumonia, a collapsed lung, a nine-day hospital stay locally, a nine-day hospital stay in Michigan, suggested Acute Care (“That’s basically Hospice,” he says), and an ambulance ride that ended in an accident. “I don’t remember that though,” says Witvoet. “I was pretty out of it.”
When he returned home, he was on oxygen and was 45 pounds lighter. He didn’t have the fatigue that many COVID patients experience, but he had no physical strength, and the slightest exertion left him winded. He hoped his breathing might improve so he could work on regaining strength, but his scarred lungs make that unlikely.
Of COVID he says, “It’s a real thing. I kind of played it down before. But it’s real.”
He knew he was no longer able to do the job he’d been doing for 30 years. “If I had to tussle with a dog now,” he says, “the dog would win.” There’s a physicality to the job that makes a certain amount of strength a basic requirement.
“I feel ready. I really do,” he says about retirement. Though he’s enjoyed the job, he’s matter-of-fact about recognizing that it wouldn’t be wise for him to try to keep doing it now. Plus, after 30 years of being on call, he’s ready for some freedom from the phone.
On March 10, the Lansing Police Department posted the Animal Control/Support Services Assistant job posting, summarizing in two brief paragraphs the skills, duties, and purpose that John Witvoet embodied for 30 years. A few resumés have come in already, and Witvoet has offered to sit in on those interviews. He understands that a good Animal Control Officer is not just “someone who likes animals.” There is little room on the job for sentimentality.
Witvoet’s approach has always been very practical, and he hopes the department will be able to find that kind of replacement.
Experience is important too. “I know what to look for,” Witvoet says. That downspout close to the fence is probably how that raccoon accessed your roof; that gap in the soffit probably became the entry point. Those twigs, leaves, and shreds of insulation mean you probably have a family nesting in your attic now. A good Animal Control Officer will understand that those raccoons might be cute, but they are not pets, and they have to go.
An experienced Animal Control Officer will use a wire trap to capture the raccoons, and she’ll know not to place that trap directly on the ground. “A skunk could get in it, and then you’ll have a problem,” explains Witvoet. A skunk in a raccoon trap will spray as soon as it feels anxious, so anyone approaching the trap to carry it away will receive a lasting reminder to place the next wire trap somewhere a skunk can’t crawl into it.
Rest and refuge
Witvoet had radioed in his final 10-42 (police code for ending a tour of duty), but then he did stop by the Lansing Police Department in person on Thursday, March 11. Deputy Chief Roberts posted Witvoet’s photo on the police department’s Facebook page and said, “John provided a level of service like no other and was a true blessing to our community for many years. He will definitely be missed by many.”
John’s wife Lorna is looking forward to his retirement as well. The two have family and friends out-of-state, and being on call 24/7 for the past 30 years made it difficult to travel and visit and relax. In addition, Lorna faced her own health traumas during the pandemic year—last spring she broke her femur, and she had to wait alone in a hospital room for three days until the only available surgeon could schedule the surgery she needed. Later, she too had COVID, though her symptoms were not nearly as severe as her husband’s. The two can now convalesce together in between visits with the kids and grandkids.
And John anticipates that he’ll still receive occasional calls from the Lansing Police Department when they encounter “some strange animal” that needs relocating. There’s room in his personal animal refuge, and, he says, the emus get along with anything.
To submit a resumé
Anyone who is “knowledgeable and experienced in the safe, human capture, restraint, transfer, and confinement of animals” is invited to submit a resumé to Deputy Chief Steven Roberts:
- Email [email protected]
- Or mail to Lansing Police Department, 2710 170th Street, Lansing IL 60438