A Dog’s Best Friend

When I was growing up, one of my favorite movies was Annie. It's a film about a quirky, street-smart orphan who steals the heart of an industrial tycoon named Oliver Warbucks. Eventually, Mr Warbucks adopts Annie, saving her from the orphanage and its gin-loving overseer, Miss Hannigan. It's a feel-good movie/musical where the portrayal of the true underdog of a kid conquers her circumstances and comes out on top. And who doesn't love to cheer for the underdog?

One of the most memorable scenes in the film is when Annie escapes the orphanage and is happily wandering the streets of New York. While strolling along, she witnesses a group of mischievous boys bullying an innocent stray dog, and her otherwise jovial disposition turns to an angry one. Annie corners the bullies in an alley, and after an old-fashioned fistfight, the boys run away, and she rescues the dog. Finally having a companion to call her own, Annie's happy mood returns and she and her new dog begin to joyfully roam the streets again. With no warning, the New York City dog catcher arrives. As the movie watcher, you can tell that the dog catcher is indifferent to the animals he captures and takes to the pound. He apathetically puts a leash around the dog's neck in an attempt to haul him away. Catching stray animals is just a job to him. He is not an animal lover by any stretch of the imagination. After some begging and a few white lies, Annie convinces the dog catcher not to haul the dog away. Giving in, he tells Annie, "You've got yourself a dog, kid. Now go home and get him a collar and a leash." It's the quintessential representation of the modern animal control officer, but that's the job, right? Catch the dog. Take it to the pound. What happens to the animal next is not the dog catcher's problem. Typical, but may I introduce you to Mitzi Francis.

Born and raised in Cass County, Mitzi Francis became the Animal Control Officer for Queen City, TX, nine years ago and the Animal Control Officer for Bloomburg, TX, five years ago. She is also a public works employee for Queen City. Mitzi is in charge of the city's wastewater treatment plant. Sometimes, she even manages to sleep! Anyway, to say that she wears many hats is an understatement, but as a lifelong animal lover, she admits to absolutely loving her job as the animal control officer. Mitzi has a vested interest in the dogs that she catches. She cares about what happens to them and has had much success and some help in re-homing the animals. "It's a job of many highs and lows," she says, "but somebody has to do it." Her stories of tragedy and triumph in dealing with animals could go on for days.  

For the past 15 years, the city's kennels have consisted of four separate kennels on a concrete slab with a tin roof surrounded by a high fence. Mitzi says that the owners of Quality Building in Queen City donated the supplies to build it, and she is thankful. Last week, as I talked to Mitzi, there were four healthy puppies that she had housed in the kennels for the past several months. "They came from a litter of eight. The lady said she was going to keep all of them. I knew that would never work, so I tried to get her to give me all of them when they were small. I would have had a better chance of finding them homes. "As the puppies grew, they started digging out, and neighbors got mad. "I knew it was going to happen. I've seen it too many times." Finally, after some complaints from the neighbors, the lady relented and gave Mitzi four of the eight puppies.
Per city ordinance, the kennels can only house the dogs for so long. If not adopted, the dogs have to be euthanized. Mitzi has cared for these dogs at the Queen City kennels since December, and time is up. With nobody volunteering to foster any of them or nobody to adopt, Mitzi is the one who has to take them to be euthanized. It probably wouldn't affect your regular dog catcher, but it was very evident that Mitzi Francis was dreading the next day like the plague. She doesn't just drop the dogs off to be put down. She stays there with them at the vet's office until they are gone. "I won't sleep a wink tonight," she said.  

 Several months ago, the sheriff's department called and said a German Shepherd was lying at a roadside park on FM49 at the edge of Cass County. At first glance, the deputy thought the dog was dead, but upon further inspection, the German Shepherd was determined to be alive but too weak to walk. Some animal control officers might have said that a dog in that condition didn't have a chance, only to haul it off for euthanasia, but again, Mitzi's not your run-of-the-mill dog catcher. Certain that the shepherd had been dumped there to die, Queen City's Animal Control Officer picked up what was left of the shepherd and took her to the vet. It turns out that the animal was 13-14 years old with heartworms, arthritis, and hip dysplasia to match. With vet care and some old-fashioned TLC, the dog walks and lives the good life at her rescuer's house. Because of where she was found, Mitzi named her "Miss 49," and Miss 49 definitely hit the jackpot.

Mitzi reiterated over and over that the key to "helping control the pet population," as Bob Barker used to say, is to spay and neuter your animals. "I wish I had a dollar for every time a dog owner tells me that their dog accidentally bred with another dog," she said, rolling her eyes. "They're dogs. They don't accidentally breed. It's what they do." Whether it's people who only have dogs for the puppies they reproduce or dogs that aren't fixed and can't be contained on someone's property, the stray pet population is an epidemic in our part of the world. It is an overwhelming task for the woman who catches these dogs or finds them dumped. It is a day-in, day-out labor of love for Mitzi.  

To aid in her efforts, Mitzi has a group of helpers that assist her in loving these animals. Michele Clompernik and Carissa Clark head up the Atlanta Spay and Neuter Project. These women heavily promote the necessity of spaying/neutering pets and, at times, assist with vouchers. They also try to recruit volunteers to foster dogs. Mitzi is often called upon by the police when an arrest is made, and the perpetrator has a dog, sometimes in the middle of the night. The dog has to go somewhere. So, she will call Michele & Carissa to foster or help find fosters. Currently, there are only five fosters in all of the Atlanta/Queen City area—Michele, Carissa, Tara Clark, Kaci Hartsell, and Heather Roach—and there are a lot more dogs that foster. The women depend upon donations from the community, private donors, or local businesses for dog food, veterinary expenses, etc. Just this year, Price Hardware in Atlanta gifted the Atlanta Spay/Neuter Project with two pallets of food. Students of Bloomburg ISD also did a fundraiser that resulted in a $600 donation. It was much appreciated by the women and dogs alike.

 These women and their love for dogs spur them on to re-home the stray and unwanted animals. Through PetFinders.com and other legitimate online organizations that people use to adopt pets, the re-homing team vets (no pun intended) the prospective adopters and have pets adopted out. The ladies usually re-home all the dogs from Cass County to people in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois, Colorado, New York, and Massachusetts. Why up north? Michele says that to own a dog in these states, you must license your dog. Owning a dog without a license results in fines. Plus, animal cruelty laws are heavily enforced in these states. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for most of the southern states. In other words, when pet owners have to go out of their way to pay a licensing fee, they tend to take better care of their animals. 

 Every two weeks, the women take turns driving approximately 30-35 dogs per trip to any one of these northern states, with them already adopted by the time they reach their final destinations. As a rough estimate, Michele says they found homes for 784 dogs up north, all from Cass County alone. Some of these dogs were dumped, some abused, and some starved, but they are now living their best lives with loving families. Just like Mitzi & Michele, Carissa Clark admits that this can sometimes be a defeating passion project but also extremely rewarding. So, with that in mind, the re-homing team is encouraged to keep finding suitable owners for these dogs.

Mitzi, the Atlanta Spay/Neuter Project directors, and the fosters all praise Atlanta veterinarian Dr. Bert Ellsworth. He makes every effort to help them with injured dogs, sick dogs, and dogs that need to be immunized, spayed, or neutered. "We could not do any of this without Dr. Elsworth. He is for these dogs as much as we are and tries his best to give them a fighting chance, "says Michele. As grateful as they are for their vet, the ladies repeatedly say that the take-home message is that they need people to take the responsibility of spaying and neutering their pets. However, once people recognize the importance of that, the team will always need people to volunteer as fosters. It is an overwhelming need in all the surrounding counties. There will never NOT be a time when people are needed to hold dogs until they can be re-homed.

Though Michele and Carissa head up the re-homing efforts, both continually hearken back to the opinion that Mitzi Francis is an extremely humble human being who never gets the credit she deserves. So much of her work goes unseen, yet she continues for the love of the dogs she's trying to save. Again, not your typical animal control officer. She is the champion for the literal underdogs of our area. I asked Mitzi if she'll be sad when the time comes to give up her job. She sheepishly grinned and said, "Oh, they'll find somebody to replace me." When I drove away, I looked back to see her enter the fenced kennels. The four puppies she had housed there for months surrounded her and wagged their tails, showing genuine love for the woman who had taken such good care of them. No, Mitzi Francis, nobody could ever replace you and your heart for animals. I'm pretty sure there are a few hundred dogs that would agree with me.

To volunteer as a foster or to donate, click here​​​​​ to contact the Atlanta Spay/Neuter Project. Monetary donations can also be made to the Mitzi Francis Rescue account at The Ark Veterinary Clinic in Atlanta, TX. 


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