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Jenifer’s Journal: The uninvited

The headline doesn’t refer to that swell old (1944) black-and-white mystery starring Ray Milland. 

No, the “uninvited” in this case was a lot scarier. I’ve had “intruders” over the years — squirrels in the attic, birds down the chimney — but last week something very rambunctious was banging around in the heating ducts down in my basement. My cats and I went on high alert, but by evening all was quiet.

Escaped?  No. By seven the next morning it was redoubling its efforts, throwing things down my basement stairs. I wasn’t waiting for it to open the door. I called 631-749-0600 and the police sent over Animal Control Officer Jenny Zahler.

I’ve known Jenny for years, or so I thought, a lovely young woman with the face of a 14-year-old, but I didn’t know that she had an official title nor that she handled anything but dogs and cats.

Oh, but she does. Making comforting conversation, she donned her big gloves and, with net in hand, practically skipped into the basement while I hid in the bathroom. I heard her cooing to whatever it was, and a few moments later she called to me from outside: “All clear.”

It was just a sweet little woodchuck, she told me, and then regaled me with some woodchuck fun facts. Who was this calm, courageous, compassionate, consummately professional wild-animalwhisperer? I arranged an interview with her this week so we could all find out. 

I asked first how she came to be the animal control officer (ACO) on Shelter Island. “Well, I worked for a long time at the North Fork Animal Shelter and then in the medical department at ARF in Wainscot. Then my friend, Beau Payne — definitely on my Top 10 Humans  list — contacted me in early 2019. He was becoming a Bay Constable and they needed somebody for animal control. I said, ‘I gotta think about it because I’m not a person who ever thought they’d work for a police department.’ That’s all I’m going to say about that. My parents, however, thought I should give it a try, so I interviewed  with Chief Read. I think I did most of the talking, but I got the job. Guess I was one of those fortunate people who had a mom who told me I could be anything I wanted to be. When you’re a kid you change your mind all the time. Like you see a firetruck, you want to be a firefighter. I probably changed my mind 1,000 times, but the constant was my love for animals. I’ve always felt more comfortable with them than with humans — my particular awkwardness is perfectly suited to my profession.”

What’s it like, being an ACO? “Not what you might think, working for the Police Department. Certainly it’s not what I thought it would be. They’re the kindest people I’ve ever worked with. I mean genuinely kind-hearted.  Sgt. Anthony Rando is my direct supervisor. I’ve never worked in a place where the supervisor has said to me, ‘Is there anything you need that would help make your job easier or better?’ I didn’t know that kind of consideration existed on Planet Earth. Everybody is so supportive, working together as a team. I’ve never worked anywhere where I loved all of my co-workers!”

Helping an osprey fledgling to fly. (Credit: Eleanor P. Labrozzi)

What are some of your memorable cases? “The number one thing that stands out for me, the one that I’m most proud of is, a few years ago, rescuing 18 dogs from a really bad situation. Another one that was super fun was that I rescued a woodchuck — probably no relation to yours, Jen — that had an overgrown front tooth in its bottom jaw that was growing up into where its nose was. I immediately brought him to my very good friend and right-hand human, Kim Cannon, who is here on the Island, thank goodness. We wrapped him in a towel, and I held him while Kim clipped his over-sized tooth.”

Our interview was over much too soon, but before it ended, I asked Jenny if she had any advice for us about animals in general. “Don’t leave dogs, or any pets, in a hot car with the windows up, or even cracked, in the summertime. We say this every year, and every year we get calls about people who have done just that. Remember,a car gets hot very quickly. And, in general, 24/7, 365 days a year, if you see something involving an animal that just seems weird to you, you can always call me. You are never ‘bothering’ me. Call 631 749 5771 and it goes straight to my cell. I’ll always answer.”

I think I speak for all residents of this island, animal, and human, when I say, thank goodness for that.

(Courtesy photo)