Shirley Zindler: Animal Control Officer, Author, and Photographer Extraordinaire

Photo Credit: Shirley Zindler

I’ve met some truly extraordinary people in my life, and Shirley Zindler happens to be one of them. I know her from my California days, and have described her as a saint disguised as an animal control officer. Only recently did I learn that Shirley is also a gifted author and photographer.

Shirley’s book, The Secret Life of a Dog Catcher is an eye-opening, highly entertaining, and endearing read. Readers are treated to a wonderful variety of animal-related experiences, all told through the eyes of an animal control officer (ACO). Shirley’s descriptions of her day-to-day adventures remind me of James Herriot’s writing style in All Creatures Great and Small. Every story is captivating and, regardless of outcome, there’s little doubt that Shirley’s involvement has a profoundly positive impact on the lives of the animals she encounters.

Shirley and her own tribe of dogs (those who are permanent fixtures and others who are being fostered) are a Monday institution at Dillon Beach in northern California. The beach is an off-leash venue where Shirley captures some incredibly vibrant photos of dogs running, playing, surfing, chasing, and cavorting. If ever you need a psychological “pick-me-up,” I encourage you to pay a visit to Shirley’s Facebook page. Guaranteed, the photos you find there will put a smile on your face! Better yet, if it’s a Monday morning and you happen to live north of San Francisco, treat you and your dog to a Dillon Beach field trip. Just about guaranteed Shirley and her dogs will be there.

Shirley’s primary vocation is serving her community as an ACO. Here’s what I know about this profession. The work is exceptionally challenging, both physically and psychologically. Dealing with an injured deer requires a lot of muscle. Dealing with an animal neglect case requires abundant emotional strength and intelligence. An ACO is asked to endure exposure to animal suffering, emotionally charged people, middle-of-the-night calls to tend to animal-related emergencies, and, of course, a never ending stream of euthanasia procedures. This is exceptionally tough stuff, particularly for one who truly loves animals. It’s no wonder that many ACO’s burn out, leave the profession, or simply become numb to their work. Not true for Shirley Zindler. She somehow manages to remain incredibly connected, optimistic, empathic, and enthusiastic. What a gift! How does she do it? Here’s Shirley’s explanation:

Some people say that the longer they work in animal control or animal sheltering, the more they hate people. I’ve found the opposite to be true. In 25 years of shelter and ACO work, I’ve found that for every person doing terrible, unthinkable things, there are a hundred, or even a thousand people trying to make up for it. I picked up this beautiful Belgian Malinois recently as a stray. He had a chip going back to an original owner in Georgia who placed the dog with a bomb detection trainer three years ago. These high-energy working dogs are often happier with a job and the owner was truly trying to do what was best for the dog. Anyway, somehow, the dog ended up here as a stray. The original owner is willing to take him back and give him a great home but is also open to placing him in a fabulous home in California if there is a good match. The cost to fly the dog back to Georgia is around $500, which would be a challenge for the owner to come up with on short notice. I posted about the situation and have had so many people willing to help pay some of the costs, to give the dog a home, to drive him to the airport etc. One person even anonymously offered to cover the entire cost. The Malinois community, and people in general have been amazing! And that is why I love people. It also shows the beauty of microchips!

I encourage you to read The Secret Life of a Dog Catcher. Word has it that another Shirley Zindler book is in the works. I can’t wait to read it.

In your opinion, what is the most important role an animal control officer plays in his or her community? Post your response and your name will be entered into a drawing to receive a signed copy of The Secret Life of a Dog Catcher.

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at,, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

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12 Comments on “Shirley Zindler: Animal Control Officer, Author, and Photographer Extraordinaire

  1. I checked my library to see if they had the book and they didn’t but they are now ordering several copies. I can’t wait to read it! Thanks for telling us about it.

  2. The most important role an animal control officer plays in the community is to show suffering animals human compassion.

  3. The single most important job for any animal control agency and their employees is returning lost dogs to their rightful owners. While these agencies were instituted for rabies control many years ago, the task of getting lost dogs and cats back home is a mostly ignored option in the midst of the sheer numbers of lost animals in metropolitan areas. But models in other countries where dogs and cats who are picked up are scanned immediately, as well as officer to base contact to rule out reports of lost animal or repeat issues of animals escaping. All done PRIOR to taking an animal to the shelter in the hopes that the owner will redeem. Maybe we could utilize our rescue and community volunteers to assist in this effort.

  4. Thank you for this informative article.
    I feel like one of the most Important things an ACO can do & does is openly listen to the public when called upon to render help in an animal safety issue.
    Here in San Diego, I have discovered only 2 so far that we’re not open to listening. All the others listen. I advocate on a daily basis most days for all animals. Mostly it’s for dogs left in hot cars. I also have educated some SD Police officers as well re hot cars & dogs. It’s so hot here that I can’t fathom people still leave their animals in cars. Children too.
    Most ACO were very helpful. In 22 years, only 2 weren’t.
    They are so needed and most people do appreciate their hard work.
    I know I do.

  5. I have personally experienced the kindness and caring of our local (Transylvania Co., NC) Animal Control Officers. When they put the word out to the local rescue and foster community that an 18 month old neglected and abused Rottweiler had “run out of time” at the shelter, I volunteered to foster him and they delivered him to me personally with thanks. (They would not have released him to me if he had not been a sweetheart.) He was with us for another 18 months.

  6. Thank you, Dr. Kay, for putting your spotlight on this deserving woman. Shirley lives and works in my community (Sonoma County, California) and I’m grateful to call her my friend. She is an inspiration to all of us that follow her Facebook page and get to witness the countless lives she saves through her work. Her book, The Secret Lives of Dog Catchers, is a great read! And in Shirley’s fantastic style, she donates a portion of her proceeds to our local, low cost, spay/neuter program. She is loved and adored by so many of us <3

  7. I have been in this profession for about 20 years. Shirley is right in saying that you meet many more wonderful folks to offset the slime of the animal world. It is a profession that you never know what the next day might bring. Forrest Gump’s momma said it best when she said “Life is like a box of chocolates….you never know what you are going to get.” I hope Shirley’s books helps the world understand the life of an animal control officer… isn’t always easy.

  8. I can’t wait to read the book! I think they have so many roles it would be difficult to narrow it down to just one but definitely compassion is huge! One day a few years back as I was out walking my dog another dog who was loose from her yard came bounding across the road before I could yell “Sit” or anything else and she was hit by a car. The driver and I were able to move her off the road and we called the police who alerted the ACO. That saintly person came immediately (seemingly out of nowhere) and stayed with us until that poor little dog took her last breath and then stayed to comfort me as I sobbed for the tragic loss of this young do. Such generosity of spirit….such compassion for a dog and for a human. I know this was just another day in the life of the ACO but it changed me because I needed to see the compassionate side of the exhausting and often thankless job they do. So, thanks to Shirley and all those just like her working tirelessly to improve the lives of the animals.

  9. Hi,
    As Chair, of the Newtown CT Animal Control Advisory Board, I have first-hand knowledge of the day-to-day life of our Animal Control Officer Carolee Mason. Her patience and understanding of the emotional trauma suffered by the abused and or neglected dogs and cats passing through our municipal shelter, insures that these dogs and cats receive the care and love to make them trusting companions that are ultimately adoptable. After years of working with these transient residents, she has not become hard and callous, her compassion still reigns.

  10. I think the most important role of an ACO is compassion combined with good reasoning. They see the cruelty the world has, at it’s worst and it takes great fortitude to be able to deal with that on a daily basis. Their jobs involve strength (of both character and physical), psychology and a huge dose of realism to determine what is going to be best for that animal. We can’t save them all and I’m sure those day to day decisions on what will be best for the animal weighs heavy on them. If they can do that and still hold back some of the hatred, that for any of us, would naturally come, their job will have it’s rewards. It sounds like Shirley has definitely found that combination. It’s not a job I could take on so I very much respect those who do, and who do it well.

  11. Shirley sounds like she has the absolute perfect qualifications of what everyone would want an animal control officer to possess. She appears to love her chosen profession, knows her job inside and out and has a realistic mindset to balance the job expectations, rationalizing the negatives with even higher positives and still maintaining an inner compassion of care and concern. I have made note of the title of her book for it would be a great gift suggestion for me to pass along to my kids, for their always short of gift ideas for me. Definitely a book I’d enjoy reading.

    I think a good community animal control officer has to be able to balance many different aspects of their job equally along with possessing a very real mentality of humanity. Communication, understanding and compassion all rolled into one would seem key. Verbal communication in educating the public about the responsibilities of owning and properly caring for pets and animals. Knowledge and compassion represented by their observed actions of how they go about accomplishing their job when dealing with animal issues and by exhibiting understanding and controlled interaction with individuals they may encounter that might be less than cooperative, while upholding their job duties as dictated by their community’s laws and enforcement codes.

  12. Thank you for introducing me to Shirley’s work. I think the most important role of an ACO is education.