SIOUX CITY | Jack, a Shetland pony, trotted into Sioux City Animal Adoption & Rescue Center last month under sad circumstances.
The pony's owner had died. He needed a new home.
The sturdy little critter with the lush forelock and long, flowing tail may have seemed out of place in the dog run, but Jack was only the latest in a never-ending stream of nontraditional pets to arrive at the center on Hawkeye Drive. Officials say that's why animal control officers receive special training on exotic animals: They need to know how to handle whatever walks, hops, slithers or hoofs its way through the doors.
Over the years, they've handled mountain lions, lizards, snakes, horses, bears, pot-bellied pigs, a goat and a tiger.
"You never know what you're going to get, or if it is of a tame nature or a wild nature," said Cindy Rarrat, whose Hannah Inc. agency provides animal control services for the city.
Earlier this year, officers removed a baby American alligator and a snake from a home in Sioux City's Greenville neighborhood. Animal control officers learned of the alligator, which is not legal in Sioux City, when owners posted photos of the 10-inch-long reptile swimming with children in a bathtub. Though it was shorter than a grade-school ruler when animal control officers found it, mature American alligators can reach 10 feet in length.
Officers get training in exotic-animal handling from the National Animal Control Association. More experienced officers also mentor their younger peers.
Though the training isn't required for the state's animal-control officers, Rarrat believes it's important education. "They need to know how to handle a multitude of animals," she said.
Part of proper training is to understand the special health needs of exotic animals. Lizards, snakes and turtles have different nutritional and habitat needs than a puppy or kitten. Knowing that makes it easier to care for animals at the shelter and to spot signs of poor health or neglect, said Animal Control Officer Kenna Anderson.
Often, Anderson and other animal control officers must care for malnourished or abandoned exotic pets. For instance, one local resident found a terminally ill ball python in the backyard this year. Green iguanas are commonly discarded as they near maturity.
"People buy them for $10 or $12 at a pet store, and two years down the road they've got a 6-foot male with hormone issues," Anderson said.
In some cases, officers must provide emergency treatment.
Decades ago, Cindy Lou, a mountain lion, suffered a head injury in a car accident on Lewis Boulevard that killed her owner. A quick-thinking Sioux City Police Department canine officer found the dazed cougar in a ditch and quickly stashed her in the back of his squad car, Rarrat said.
The animal was taken to Popcorn Park Zoo in New Jersey. She died of old age at 19.
Animal control officers also tended to a black bear someone tried to trade in for a used car in the 1980s. It was nearly bald, suffering from a bad skin condition as a result of poor nutrition, Rarrat said. The bear recovered and also was taken to the New Jersey zoo.
In August 2010, police and animal control officers rescued a goat two men had stolen from a Sioux City yard. Police say the men tried to suffocate the goat and, when that didn't work, kicked it and tried to slit its throat.
Both men were arrested on criminal charges. The bandaged goat was rehabilitated and adopted. It couldn't return to its former home, since city code doesn't allow goats in areas not zoned for agricultural use.
The goat didn't give animal control officers any trouble, but knowing how to deal with exotic animals can be a life saver, as Rarrat herself can testify.
She recalled the time a 250-pound cougar named Sabbath pounced on her, grabbing her by the throat. Rarrat played dead, and the cat released her without piercing the skin. Sabbath later went to live at a sanctuary.
Jack the pony didn't stay long at the shelter, either, after the staff found a foster home for him.
“Each day is different here,” Rarrat said with a laugh. “You never know what you’re going to come across.”