Bobby Arthurs bent down on one knee and stretched out a hand to a tiny, black puppy that hadn't stopped screaming since another shelter worker tried to pick it up off the concrete floor.
“It's all right,” Arthurs said in a soothing voice. “I'm here. It's all right.”
The dog, a victim of animal cruelty that was impounded to the shelter, quieted and regained itself.
Arthurs patted his knee, and the dog hopped into his lap, letting Arthurs, a 6-foot-2-inch gentle giant by comparison, carry it back to its cage.
Responding to an animal cruelty complaint an hour later, Arthurs flexed some muscles as he and another officer hoisted an emaciated horse back to its feet, with little help from the animal itself.
It was a routine day for Arthurs, seemingly cast into his ideal role as the Aiken County Animal Control's chief enforcement officer, a job that requires a stern hand and a big heart.
Doing the dirty work
Arthurs, 46, starts his workdays at 8 a.m. and often doesn't leave until after 5 p.m. He became the chief enforcement officer in 2007, putting him in charge of the Aiken County Animal Shelter and the County's four animal control officers.
A stack of paperwork usually awaits Arthurs when he arrives. There are bills to pay, calls to answer and a whole staff, not to mention volunteers and inmate labor, to supervise.
But Arthurs gets his hands dirty, too. It's common to see him cleaning the cages, working with the animals or fixing whatever goes awry around the 11,000-square-foot facility.
While he spends the majority of his time at the shelter, Arthurs' job also entails going out on animal control calls.
Arthurs and his four officers investigate cruelty to animals, including livestock, responding mostly to complaints and anonymous tips.
Though they don't have arresting powers, they can impound animals, issue tickets and call in the Aiken County Sheriff's Office to make arrests.
Often, people aren't happy to see Arthurs on their property. Arthurs said a woman once came at him with a brick.
“I've had people bow up at me,” he said, “but they thought better of it as they got closer.”
It can be frustrating to see people neglecting or abusing their animals, Arthurs said, adding it's also rewarding to be the one stepping in to do something about it.
It's all part of the “emotional roller coaster” of the job, he said.
'Emotional roller coaster'
When Arthurs took over as chief enforcement officer in 2007, the Aiken County Animal Shelter euthanized about 98 percent of the animals it took in. Among Arthurs' initial goals was reducing that number by 25 percent in his first year.
After a year of hard work, they'd reduced it by 10 percent. Arthurs was discouraged, but they kept chipping away at the rate over the next few years.
Moving to a new, larger shelter, working with other organizations and starting several adoption and foster programs helped.
The shelter's euthanasia rate last year was around 70 percent, Arthurs said. He expects it to be in the 60s this year.
Arthurs is happy to see progress, but it doesn't make the tough parts of his job any easier.
Arthurs, an animal lover who enjoys interacting with the shelter's dogs and cats, said it's difficult leaving them in their cages every day, knowing that some might not make it out of the shelter.
“That dog just looks at you and wants to be wherever you're going,” Arthurs said. “And you can see that confusion set in when you leave them in the cage. What's happening? What's going on?”
The law requires the shelter to hold animals in the intake wing for at least five days, Arthurs said. After that period, Arthurs and the staff have to try to find a place for them.
Sometimes, they can be transferred to the adoption wing. For others, a transfer program will step in and move them to a less-crowded shelter up north, where they have a better chance of being adopted.
But sometimes, Arthurs has make the dreaded walk from the cage to the euthanasia table, feeling like he's betraying the trust he's built with the animal.
“You can see it in their eyes,” Arthurs said. “It's shaking. You're trying to soothe this animal, and then it looks in your eyes, and you know it knows. It's tough.”
Even at the table, Arthurs and the shelter's staff try to think of ways to save the animal. A few times, they've come up with new plans at the last minute.
More often, they're left without any other options, something Arthurs still struggles with.
“You're not human if you don't take it home,” he said, adding that running, jogging or punching a bag often helps after a tough day at the shelter. “I don't think it comes any easier, but you have to accept that it's the reality.”
It's not all doom and gloom at the shelter, though. Arthurs' job is filled with plenty of happy moments, like interacting with the animals and saving ones that would probably have died without Animal Control's intervention.
Arthurs smiled when talking about eight puppies that were recently moved from the shelter's intake wing to its adoption wing, greatly increasing their odds of getting adopted and making it out of the shelter.
“It's up and down, but it's rewarding,” Arthurs said. “Sometimes, you look back and you say, 'Wow, I get to do this.'”
Avery Wilks is an intern at the Aiken Standard.