Anita Gomez named Animal Control Officer of the Year
by Kellen Moore
Anita Gomez, a 12-year animal control officer for Watauga County, was named this week the North Carolina Animal Control Officer of the Year.
The award was presented at the annual meeting of the N.C. Animal and Rabies Control Association and caught the humble worker by surprise.
“This is not really my cup of tea, but it was exciting, and I am very flattered,” Gomez said.
Gomez was an animal-lover from a young age, but she said her job is as much about human interaction as it is animal interaction.
Gomez lived in the High Country until she was in fifth grade, when her dad got a new job and moved the family to Wyoming. There she was surrounded by cattle and horses at her uncle’s ranch.
After graduating high school, Gomez lived in Texas before deciding to move back to Watauga County to be closer to family. By then, her parents also had returned to the area to help her grandparents, lifelong residents of Beech Creek.
About a year after moving back, Gomez said she spotted an ad in the newspaper for an animal control officer position and started the job in 2000. With a resume that included operating room technician — for humans, not animals — as well as veterinary assistant and employee of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Gomez was well-equipped for animal care and control.
As a Watauga County animal control officer, Gomez picks up stray animals, deals with public nuisances and dangerous dogs, quarantines animals to prevent the spread of rabies and mediates animal problems between neighbors.
She said she also investigates about three cruelty or neglect reports a week and on occasion has to enter the court system to rectify those situations. But Gomez said she prefers to work with residents through education and support rather than step into the courtroom conflict.
“A lot of people think our customer is animals, but our customer is humans,” she said.
Joanne Nelson of Vilas, a Watauga Humane Society board member who has fostered several dogs from animal control, said she met Gomez years ago and quickly recognized that she was “the absolute opposite of the dog-catcher stereotype.”
“She really cares about the animals, and she really cares about the people, too,” Nelson said.
Proof of Gomez’s care for all living creatures came about five years ago, when she stumbled upon an elderly, blind man living outdoors in a lean-to that had been his home for almost two decades. She found the man in mid-winter while setting traps for feral cats.
Gomez took him sandwiches and built up a rapport with the man before offering him a chance to stay in the bedroom of her son, who was gone to college.
The man ended up living with Gomez for five years.
During that time, he became part of the family, traveling with Gomez some Saturdays to volunteer at the shelter. They got his cataracts fixed before he moved into Deerfield Ridge Assisted Living, where he still gets visits from Gomez.
In recent years, Gomez’s work has included assisting heavily with the merger of Animal Care and Control and the Watauga Humane Society for animal sheltering. That involved intense planning and outreach to increase spaying and neutering so that the Humane Society could keep its euthanasia totals low, she said.
“It’s not the work of me; it’s the work of the community,” Gomez said. “It’s a joint effort.”
Nancy Coffey of Boone said she used to walk dogs and volunteer when Animal Care and Control operated a separate shelter. She said Gomez would do anything in her power to get an animal adopted, including contacting rescue groups, arranging transports and calling friends to foster the pets.
Coffey said she felt so strongly that she bragged about Gomez in a letter to the governor, who responded with a letter of commendation for her outstanding work.
“She can go into a situation where people are so angry … and she can calm them down so easily,” Coffey said. “You couldn’t find a better person. That is not an easy job, and she has a heart of gold.”
Gomez said her work has been a hard and sometimes thankless job, but she is proud to be part of a community that cares.
“I’m blessed that I’m able to work in a community that is an animal community, that is full of people who are very supportive of animal control, of the Humane Society, of giving good care to animals, of trying to make a difference,” Gomez said.