Like many millennials, Christina Stainbrook, ’06, is still searching for a career. And her path hasn’t been easy.
Initially, she wanted to work in livestock, like cattle ranching.
But after graduating from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in animal science, Stainbrook found that due to her small size (a little over 100 pounds), gender and high GPA, she was unemployable.
“Being told that I was born the wrong gender was irritating, especially when I had been an effective livestock intern as a freshman,” Stainbrook said.
At one of the workplaces she applied to, the employer was particularly blunt.
“He said that due to my GPA, he would be obligated to make me a manager; however, he was looking for some ranch hands only,” Stainbrook said.
“He (also) said that he employed many men who would not be comfortable working under a female manager.
“As much as I protested that I wanted to work my way up from the bottom, he made it clear that I was too small to be of use.”
She also encountered problems because she wasn’t raised in the livestock industry.
“I’ve since realized that a lot of these ranches are a family/friend affair,” Stainbrook said. “It’s a lot about who you know.”
Luckily, Stainbrook had already worked out a backup plan: animal control.
Her interest in animal control started in her childhood, when she often watched “Animal Cops.”
While in college, Stainbrook worked at Happy Tails Kennel in San Luis Obispo for two years and also did a few ride-alongs with the local animal services officers.
After she was recruited to work as an animal control officer in Clovis, she was “thrown in the truck with other field officers to learn on the job” but received little officer training.
Stainbrook started as a field officer who worked in the adoption center in the afternoon.
“(I’d) get calls from anything like, ‘Hey, we found a dog; it’s loose. Can you come pick it up?’ to ‘There’s a dog running crazily, and it’s biting people, and we need your help.’”
But some situations were scarier.
A few months into her career, her boss brought her to the house of an armed, mentally unstable man who was known to threaten officers.
“I didn’t know anything (about the situation),” Stainbrook said. “There were something like 30 police department officers there, including the Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) team.”
“And I’m like, ‘What am I doing here? I’m not a cop.’ And they’re like, ‘Well, all we know is that they have dogs in there.’”
Stainbrook and her boss found out they had been called in because the officers believed those dogs were between them and the allegedly armed man.
“We’re hiding around the sides of the buildings, and (the officers) are like, ‘Go, go, go!’” Stainbrook said.
“You’re standing between a guy who you don’t know if he has weapons – you assume that he does – and officers who have weapons behind you,” Stainbrook said. “You’re in the middle trying to get the dogs out of the way so the officers can do their job.”
After the SWAT team confirmed the man was not in the back of the house, it sent in Stainbrook and her boss to take about 12 pit bulls and puppies out of the chained areas of the yard. The guard dogs had never seen people before, and it was a struggle to remove some of the larger dogs, according to Stainbrook.
“We (went) in with basically a catch pole, so we’d have to catch them and then lead them out,” Stainbrook said. “You’ve got an 80-pound animal on your catch pole, and if you’re like me, it’s not a good size difference.”
Stainbrook said she and her boss removed the dogs and brought them to medical professionals before sheltering the animals.
“It was our job to make sure that those animals were safe and cared for while (law enforcement) decided what to do with the people,” Stainbrook said.
“And that’s often what we do; we end up sheltering the animals during that period when something else is going on.”
After working in the field for a year, she and her department decided she was better suited for working at the adoption center and doing behavioral modification for the animals there, according to Stainbrook. So she became an “as-needed field officer” and was called mainly for situations that fell within her livestock training specialty.
To work in the adoption center, Stainbrook received training at conventions and group trainings called “Dogs Playing for Life.” The latter helped her develop a playgroup system for dogs to help them release energy and stress, thereby improving their social skills and immune system.
But about three years ago – four years into the job – Stainbrook said she was thinking about leaving.
In fact, seven years is the longest her employer has had an animal control officer stay, with the exception of Stainbrook’s boss.
Due to the difficulty and stress of the job, there is a high turnover rate, she said.
Stainbrook was on call not only for the adoption center 24/7, but also for the police department on Thursday nights, making the work never-ending.
“So you’re out there with a dog hit by a car at two in the morning; you haven’t slept, and then you’re at work the next morning trying to take care of the same thing,” Stainbrook said.
As a result, Stainbrook said she wasn’t able to “shut off” mentally.
“If you care about your job as much as I did – I mean, I put my heart into that job – you constantly wonder if you made the right decisions during the day,” Stainbrook said.
“It’s not like putting a cereal box up and walking out in a grocery store. Your inventory doesn’t just sit there all night.”
Like her time as a field officer, work at the adoption center also had its dangerous moments.
Since animal control is a part of the police department, Stainbrook had access to criminal records. A few times per week, a prospective adopter would have a history of animal cruelty, according to Stainbrook.
“So let’s say a neighbor called on them for animal cruelty: a dog was chained with no food, no water,” Stainbrook said. “You go out, and you find (the dog) emaciated. I’m going to take that information and say, ‘That was two years ago. There is no way in heck I’m giving you a new animal.’”
But some adopters wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.
“I had to call the cops a few times because I had belligerent people in my lobby,” Stainbrook said. “They would say things like, ‘I’m going above your head – I’m going to get you fired!’”
Although Stainbrook said she was never threatened with violence, some people behaved aggressively – even if they didn’t think they were.
“If somebody is standing over you, and you’ve just told them, ‘No,’ and they refuse to leave, that’s a threat (because) they won’t respect you enough to get out of your space, (and they might) follow you,” Stainbrook said.
Additionally, as a part of the police department, Stainbrook – whose uniform was similar to that of a police officer – faced general threats against officers.
“I was told when I moved (to Clovis), ‘Be careful. Don’t go just to any gym; they might know who you are because you’ve made a call on them,’” she said. “So they have a police gym and that sort of stuff. They warn you constantly to protect yourself around being careful about your identity and who knows it.”
As a result, Stainbrook often covered up her uniform before going home.
“(Let’s say) I read a report one day that says that there are threats against officers, and I recognize the address (as) an apartment a few doors down,” Stainbrook said. “I may not know the individual, but if I wear my badge home, I become a target.”
All of this left Stainbrook feeling as if the career had become her entire life. Since she will be getting married in October, she said she also wanted to be able to have a home life.
Although she said she doesn’t really miss Clovis – which she called the “armpit of the valley” – she does miss the animals after moving back to Sacramento.
“It was a pleasure to nurse kittens that had been thrown in the garbage like trash or give care to an animal that had never seen the inside of a home,” she said. “Changing their lives was so fulfilling. I have to settle for changing the lives of my pets now. I want them to be the happiest darn pets ever!”
To satisfy her need for caring for abandoned animals, Stainbrook said that she will foster animals.
“I used to foster while I worked at the shelter, and I know it makes the difference for so many animals while they recover either emotionally or physically,” Stainbrook said.
Nevertheless, she said she doesn’t regret the time she spent as an animal control officer.
Her parents, former physical education teacher Bill Stainbrook and former Spanish teacher Lucinda Ashby, are supportive of her trial-and-error career path, she said.
“I never know where I’ll end up,” Stainbrook said. “If my zig-zag path thus far is any predictor, it means I need to enjoy being flexible and take what I find, as it makes me happy.”
Originally published in the June 6 edition of the Octagon.
—By Larkin Barnard-Bahn