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Whether pets or wildlife, animals are their beat

Arlington’s Diane Welch with her pets, great horned owl Nuala and English springer spaniel Smitty.
Arlington’s Diane Welch with her pets, great horned owl Nuala and English springer spaniel Smitty.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff/Globe Staff

As Arlington’s animal control officer, Diane Welch helps locate lost pets, referees neighborhood disputes about barking dogs, issues tickets to leash law scofflaws, and rescues stray animals.

But since assuming her role in July 2018, Welch has gone beyond such traditional duties of the job, educating the public about local wildlife through social media and public forums, visiting schools to discuss animal care, coordinating volunteers who rescue injured animals, and advocating for wildlife protection.

Her efforts have not gone unnoticed.

Last fall, just 15 months into the job, Welch was named Massachusetts Animal Control Officer of the Year for 2019, sharing the award with Milton’s animal control officer, Nancy Bersani.

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The Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Animal Rescue League of Boston jointly present the award annually based primarily on community nominations.

“For a newer ACO, Diane has accomplished an incredible amount and received numerous recommendations from Arlington residents and officials who praise her community-building and educational efforts, [and] her commitment to animals and people, as well as her proactive and caring nature,” Kara Holmquist, MSPCA’s director of advocacy, said of Welch in e-mailed comments.

Noting that she is still “a rookie” in her position, Welch said she was “floored” at hearing that she had won the award. “I was so honored and humbled and so grateful.”

Bersani, a nine-year veteran of her position, said she, too, was honored by the recognition.

“I feel I represent a lot of the animal control officers in Massachusetts who are just doing our job, doing it well and under the radar,” she said. “So for the townspeople, the MSPCA, and the Animal Rescue League to feel I was doing such a good job is really amazing. I so appreciate it.”

Said Holmquest of Bersani, “Nancy received many nominations about her tireless work for Milton residents and animals and her compassion, knowledge, dedication, and responsiveness. “We’ve been fortunate to know Nancy for years and know this award is well-deserved.”

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A lifelong animal enthusiast, Welch previously worked at the Burlington Science Center, a school-based facility that features more than 60 animals ranging from snakes to snapping turtles. She also had a dog-walking business, and was a school crossing guard.

For 25 years, she also has been a licensed falconer, and as a recognized specialist on birds of prey is often contacted by state and local police to assist in rescuing injured owls, hawks, and other birds.

But she said one of the most satisfying parts of the job is her interaction with the public.

“I love being able to help people, to calm their fears about a wild animal, or to find a lost dog and get it back to its owners,” Welch said. “I also love getting to see the good in the world.”

While part of her job is law enforcement, Welch prefers to give warnings to people who violate dog leash rules — unless they are repeat offenders.

“If a dog keeps getting loose running through the streets, you don’t want that dog to be injured,” said Welch, who also has little patience for those who neglect to pick up after their pets at a park or playing field.

“That infuriates me,” she said. “No one wants their kids to step in it.”

When it comes to human conflicts over dogs and cats, she tries to play a mediating role, seeking solutions all sides can accept.

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“I like to leave people as good neighbors,” she said.

A theme of Welch’s community outreach is that people and wildlife also need to be good neighbors. In forums and Web postings, she encourages residents to live in harmony with the coyotes, owls, hawks, raccoons, and other species inhabiting the town.

“There’s a disconnect for a lot of people with nature — we’re so plugged into technology,” Welch said. “Nature is very healing, especially for children. It inspires their imagination and sense of wonder. We need to treat all living things with respect.”

Bersani’s job encompasses not only the traditional duties of the animal control officer but responsibility for running Milton’s animal shelter, which cares for stray animals and seeks adoptive homes for them.

Among the greatest rewards of the job for her is seeing animals who came to the shelter in poor condition “come alive again and go into homes where they are loved and cared for,” she said.

A lifelong Milton resident, Bersani had a previous career as a school teacher and administrator. An animal lover, she was a longtime volunteer at the shelter and filled in periodically for the past animal control officer before assuming the job in 2011.

Like Welch, Bersani sees community outreach as important to the job. In addition to holding forums and visiting schools to discuss animal issues, she engages with the public through the shelter’s adoption program.

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“We have an amazing group of followers and adopters,” she said of the shelter. “Just recently, we adopted out a 16-year-old cat with kidney issues and a 12-year-old dog that had been neglected and had a medical condition.”

Bersani said she has learned that being effective in her role requires not only being responsive when residents contact her with concerns, but following up with them afterward.

“If you called to let me know about a stray animal, I’m going to inform you later what happened to that animal, whatever the outcome,” she said. “People have said that has meant a lot to them.”


John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.