PATERSON, NJ - How many people actually know what animal control officers do on a day-to-day basis?

Well, for starters, contrary to popular belief, animal control units are not responsible for removing dead animals from the side of the road. That job is actually reserved for the Department of Public Works.

John DeCando, who has been head of Paterson’s Animal Control office  since 1975, said his primary job is to protect and rescue animals.

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House pets, like dogs and cats, are the sorts of animals DeCando usually encounters, but over the years he has definitely encountered some pretty unique cases during his 37 years on the job. For example, one time he had to rescue an 18-foot snake that someone had been keeping as a pet. The snake escaped and was slithering its way towards the Great Falls.

Another case involved an alligator that was found in an upstairs bathtub during a house fire. As wild as those stories are, that’s just scraping the tip of the iceberg in terms of the tales DeCando has to offer.

“One time, I think it was about 1995 or ’96, Paterson hosted a carnival.  Long story short, an elephant got loose on 11th Ave and East 34th Street,” DeCando recalled. 

“We got a call that an elephant was roaming down the street, so of course we’re dumfounded,’’ he continued.  “Thankfully, the elephant’s trainer quickly made it to the scene.  He grabbed the elephant by the ear, and just walked him back to the truck.”

In about the same year, DeCando recalled, a 1,400-pound bull escaped from the slaughterhouse.

“This was a situation too big for Animal Control to handle on our own,” DeCando explained.  “So we got the help of the Paterson Police Department.  After following the bull briefly, two police cars cornered him in a “V” formation.”

But the bull wasn’t ready to let a couple police cars slow him down.

“The bull just muscled his way right through the police cars,’’ DeCando said. “Thankfully, we managed to get him down after using some heavy duty tranquilizers.”

DeCando’s favorite tale is that of Champ the dog. Champ was just three months old when he was found in Paterson on October 15, 2007, the animal control officer said.  The puppy had suffered burns on 90 percent of his body. 

DeCando’s had to decide whether to put the dog out of its misery. DeCando was unsure of what to do, that is, until one day when he visited Champ’s dog pound cage. 

“When I saw him that day, he had a ton of energy,’’ he recalled. “When he licked my hand and looked at me affectionately with those eyes, I knew this was a dog that needed to live.”

As it turns out, DeCando’s instincts were right. Champ is now a top-notch therapy dog in New Jersey, visiting schools and hospitals to inspire and entertain injured and disabled children.

In recent years, DeCando said his office’s caseload has gradually gone up. Why?

“In this economy, people can’t feed themselves. How can they feed animals?” he said.

Many times, DeCando has dealt with cases in which people have tried to unceremoniously get rid of their pets.  Just recently, for example, animal control rescued a handful of dogs from the Great Falls with the help of the Paterson Police Force.

Donations, including $15,000 contributed by Mike’s Feed Farm last year, help the animal control office feed the animals at its pound.

DeCando said his department’s budget is about $250,000, there are just six employees on staff.  Needless to say, they are animal lovers.

“Watching those kids come in and get their dogs, that expression on their faces, that’s just happy.  You can’t beat that feeling,” said Animal Control Officer Angel Martinez, a 12-year veteran.

DeCando and his staff patrol the streets in addition to responding to calls from the public.

In a given week, DeCando estimated that city animal control officer  rescue “100 to 125 dogs and 60 to 70 cats.”

“There’s not such thing as bad animals in the world, only bad people.  That’s one of my favorite quotes,” DeCando said.

Martinez shared that sentiment.  “You love the people you work with; you have a great time with each other, and you get to help animals,’’ he said. “What else could you ask for?”