WILLIAMSTOWN — On a recent Friday morning, animal control officers from all over the state gathered at Bonnie Lea Farm to learn the fine art of handling horses, cattle, and other livestock.
The officers were inside a barn on May 17 listening to Roger Lauze, an equine rescue and training manager for the MSPCA, as he explained the best way to get a horse to walk alongside them.
“People say horses know if you’re scared or not,” Lauze said. “No, they don’t. They know if you’re tentative. They can’t read your mind. But if you’re tentative, they can pick up on that.”
Appear confident, Lauze advised them, and move purposefully.
“When you lead a horse, walk like you got someplace to go,” he said.
This class in the Berkshires was just one small part of an intensive training academy conducted by the Animal Control Officers Association of Massachusetts. It’s where animal control officers go to learn about all aspects of the job, from providing CPR to pets and investigating cruelty complaints to corralling creatures of all sizes.
Such instruction is invaluable to animal control officers, who are responsible for answering all kinds of animal-related calls. One day they might have to respond to a deer running rampant inside a high school. Another day, they could find themselves staring into the eyes of an alligator, or rescuing a pet iguana from a tree.
Most of the classes, which are held every Friday for 12 weeks, take place at the Boylston Police Academy. But the hands-on workshop with large animals in the Berkshires is one of the program’s highlights.
On that recent Friday morning, the officers led horses around outside, interacted with Highland cattle, and played with friendly goats. They received advice and tips on evaluating the health of horses, wayward cows, and assessing the “flight zone” of different animals.
“The flight zone is how close you can get to animal before it takes off,” said Lauze. “What we want to do is be on the edge of the flight zone, so they’re moving away from us, but they’re not panicked.”
Lauze said dairy cows operate on a set daily schedule and being familiar with that helps an officer know what to do when pursuing a runway. The cows typically get milked twice a day, and that’s when they get fed, too.
“So if it’s morning and they’re loose, they’re coming away from home, so turn them around,” he said. “If it’s evening and they’re loose, they’re going home, so let them go.”
The 36 animal control officers in this academy class hail from communities all over the state, including Cambridge, Kingston, Rutland, Foxborough, and Martha’s Vineyard.
“Most have less than six months on the job,” said Joseph M. Chague, the president of the Animal Control Officers Association of Massachusetts, who’s spent the past three decades working as an animal control officer in Pittsfield.
And adding to the challenge, said Chague, 56, is that “every municipality is a little different.”
Chague said some animal control officers work for police departments, while others report to a board of selectmen or board of health. Some are sworn officers; some are not. Some handle one town, while others are regional, responding to calls from several communities.
“We’re a mix-match bunch,” Chague said. “This training puts everybody on the same page.”
Those differences aside, all of the officers have a tough job. Dealing with sick and injured animals, hoarding cases, and cruelty complaints is not easy.
“We see the worst of the worst,” Chague said. “The burnout rate is high.”
Jules Sanborn, 58, an ACOAM board member who works as an animal control officer for Springfield, Chicopee, and Holyoke, said she has seen her share of heartbreaking cases on the job and understands why some animal control officers don’t stick around for long.
“When I stop crying, then I’ll know I’m done,” she said.
Kate Hoffman, 44, assistant animal control officer in West Tisbury, is originally from Swampscott and used to be the assistant animal control officer in Everett. Martha’s Vineyard is a big change from those urban settings, she said.
“It’s all farms,” she said. “This is something I really need. ... I’ve learned a lot.”
But sometimes no amount of training can prepare an animal control officer for a call that comes in.
Hilary Cohen, 46, an ACOAM board member who works as an animal control officer for the town of Norfolk, recalled one of her most interesting cases.
It began when a man walked into the station about 15 years ago and was less than forthcoming about the living situation at his home.
“He said, ‘I have something I need to tell you. But I don’t want to get into trouble,’” she said.
“I said, ‘OK.’ ”
“I have an animal at my house, and I want it gone.”
“OK. What is it?”
“I’m not telling.”
“ ‘OK,’ I said, ‘I’ll be right up. I’ll follow you back to your house,’ ” she said.
When she arrived, she couldn’t believe her eyes: Inside the house was an alligator.
The man’s son had raised the creature from an egg he had bought in Rhode Island. His son had since gone off to college, and the animal was growing bigger and more aggressive.
Cohen wrangled the alligator into a long box, which she placed in the back of her Crown Vic and brought it to the police station. When she arrived, she radioed dispatch to open the door for her.
“They’re like, ‘what do you have in your car?’ I said, ‘I have an alligator,’ ” she said.
The alligator ended up in Rainforest Reptile Shows, a nonprofit organization in Beverly that works with exotic animals.
“It’s been a trip, this job,” she said. “I love it.”