On a recent afternoon, longtime Senior Animal Control Officer Rick Van Vleet searched for a stray dog.
“He was chasing a mail carrier,” he said.
The call was a relatively routine one for Van Vleet, who retired last week after a 40-year career as an animal control officer, nearly 25 of them with the La Habra Police Department.
Besides stray dogs, Van Vleet helped thousands of residents deal with wild cats, raccoons, coyotes, and snakes, especially during summer.
He also fielded the occasional unusual call.
“This fellow had two South American caymans,” he said. “One was about five feet long and another about two feet long. And he had 12 snapping turtles. He dug out his backyard and made a nice pond with tropical plants. They were all swimming around happy as can be.”
Then one day, the neighbor boy’s ball flew over the fence. When the boy went to retrieve the ball, he saw the caymans, which are part of the alligator family, sunning themselves in the backyard. The boy told his parents and Van Vleet got the call and approached the owner.
“So I went out there and walked up to the door and I said ‘we had a report that you have alligators in your backyard.’ And he said ‘get off my front porch or I’m going to get my shotgun,’” he recalled.
Van Vleet reported the incident and returned a couple hours later with the SWAT team who then subdued the caymans’ owner. The fire department came out, knocked down the fence, and pumped the water out of the pond.
“Guess what was left for me to address?” Van Vleet said. “Two alligators and 12 snapping turtles!”
Van Vleet said he sort of fell into his career, after his brother asked him to come help one day because his animal control company was short-handed.
“He handed me a leash and citation book and away I went,” he said. “I discovered I have a knack for this. Not everyone can do this job because there are difficult aspects. We have to put animals to sleep or we find animals mangled on the road. It’s hard. Probably one of the hardest thing to do is euthanize small kittens.”
But it’s not all bad.
“We do locate people’s pets for them,” he said. “We reunite a lot of owners with their pets. We intervene in cruelty cases and step in on a dog’s behalf. It’s very much like being a policeman or a fireman. It’s a calling.”
Van Vleet arrived in La Habra in June of 1990, after spending 15 years as an animal control officer in Downey.
By working in one small city, he’s made a lot of friends.
Van Vleet lives in Chino Hills with his wife and is near his six grandchildren. He is very involved in his church at Calvary Chapel Chino Valley and believes his stint in La Habra has been a career and a ministry at the same time.
“Looking back in hindsight, I realized that God placed me here,” he said. “I know that because of all the opportunities that I have had to minister to people and pray with them, even police officers. I’ve had a very good career.”