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Jenny Zahler cares for Island’s natural residents

Jenny Zahler has no set hours in her full-time job. The Shelter Island animal control officer — she works in a division of the Police Department — can get a call any time of day or night, 24/7. It can be a lost dog, or wild critters in houses, or caring for animals from turtles to deer in distress, or investigating a case of cannibalism (more on that, later). 

Officer Zahler sat down to talk at Stars Café one day recently, and as often happens, she was greeted by friends of the two-legged and four-legged variety. She had said hello to John Ray, a little dog sitting outside the café, all bright eyes and wagging tail when he spotted her going up the steps. She said she had regular clients, not necessarily John Ray, who get loose and she’s called to find them and bring them back to their owners. “One, when he sees me coming, it’s like he’s saying, ‘Oh, good, here we go again.’”

That’s one of the joys of her work, but she even finds happiness when she’s called to get a wild animal out of a house, like a raccoon recently. When she arrived, the raccoon was standing in the middle of a grand staircase, “Posing, like he was ready for a fashion shoot.” 

Summer is a slower season than others, Officer Zahler said, because fewer wild animals are around, staying to themselves with the influx of humans on the Island. But dogs still get loose, raccoons are found ill from distemper virus — get your pets vaccinated, she said, to prevent them getting sick and/or dying from the virus — turtles are injured, or deer have been struck by vehicles or get stuck in fences and have to be cared for.

The cannibalism case came her way when she started getting reports from several people. Police Officer Sean Clark also weighed in, starting his conversation with Officer Zahler by saying, “You’re not going to believe this.” A turkey was eating dead members of its flock — technically “rafter” — in and around Klenawicus Airfield.

Officer Zahler went by one evening and saw the bird, chowing down on a turkey wing. She said that it was a hen, and it was further strange that it was alone on the ground, with the rest of the rafter roosting in trees, which turkeys do at night. It was one of the most baffling things Officer Zahler had seen in her three years on the job. She got in touch with the Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center in Hampton Bays, which she works closely with, to ask if anyone had come across the phenomenon. “I started to tell the person, and she put me on speakerphone so others could hear,” Officer Zahler said. No one had seen or heard of turkey cannibalism.

But no harm, no foul, so to speak. Letting nature take its course is an absolute goal of Officer Zahler, who said one of the most difficult parts of her job is people having no understanding of wildlife. “People think wildlife make good pets,” she said. “No, they do not make good pets.” Bringing that box turtle or adorable bunny home will only hurt them, and cause problems for the would-be owners. 

“You can’t replicate a wild animal’s environment,” she said.  

Also, thinking you can help an animal that’s injured or in some kind of distress will almost always make the situation for the animal much worse. Call a professional: 631-749-5771, or email [email protected]

Working with her colleagues at the department has been one the most satisfying aspects of her work, Officer Zahler said, praising their work ethic and respect for what she and they do. “They’re all really great people,” she added. “My only real problems are working with people, not animals. There are no bad dogs, for example, just owners who are less than ideal.” 

Which leads to Officer Zahler’s main pet peeve — literally: “People leaving dogs in hot cars.” 

Another problem, and one of the most heartbreaking, is the act of “dumping” a pet, which means a pet that has grown old, and feeble, or one that has been taken in during the summer season and then abandoned on a roadside. One cat that is old, blind and needs thyroid medication was found on the side of the road after someone made a call. But the cat has found a home for now. “She’s with me,” Officer Zahler said.