Thursday, January 9, 2003

Chase over for animal control officer

Published in the Current

Cape Elizabeth Animal Control Officer Bob Leeman, a resident of Windham, will hang up his leash Jan. 10.

It will be his second retirement. The first was in 1988, after 27 years with the Portland Fire Department. Leeman was born in Portland and grew up in South Portland, the son of a town firefighter. He left high school to join the Marine Corps but was discharged shortly after entering boot camp, for medical reasons. “I fought it all the way,” Leeman said.

He headed for another public-service job: firefighting in the state’s largest city.

When he retired from Portland, Leeman worked briefly as a newspaper distributer before getting laid off. He entered a government unemployment program and learned a lot of new skills – everything from computers to business management.

“I was taking all kinds of classes,” Leeman said. In 1994, he was about to finish the program when the Cape job came up. He landed the job and then took his exams. What he most remembered, though, was the luncheon at the Black Point Inn, recognizing him as the student of the year.

“It was quite an honor,” Leeman said. He keeps the certificate framed on his wall at home.

In August 1994, he started at Cape Elizabeth. The job is both animal control and “utility officer,” which means custodial work, errands, making coffee and a variety of other duties.

“Anything needed doing, I did it,” Leeman said.

He did such a good job cleaning the old police station – now torn down and replaced with the new one – that he earned an award, the pin which he still wears proudly above his name tag.

He went to state classes on being an animal control officer, and specialized classes on rabies.

“It’s paid off out there,” Leeman said. “We’ve still got it in full force.”

Other towns, he said, don’t have a rabies problem as bad as Cape’s. In this town, “everybody’s backyard is woods,” Leeman said. There are a lot of wild animals, and they live near where humans live.

In the past couple of years, the raccoon and skunk populations have dropped, but the winter of 2001-2002 was a mild one, leading to large litters statewide. Cape’s populations doubled.

Unwanted domestic animals add to his troubles. “Everybody seems to think the Cape’s a good place to dump their cats or kittens,” Leeman said.

This year, he found two moms and six kittens dumped by the Rod and Gun Club, living on the back deck of a nearby house. He was able to capture them all alive and found homes for the kittens, but not the cats. “Cats are hard to place. Kittens are easy,” Leeman said.

With all his time handling a wide range of animals, Leeman is lucky. “I’ve never been bit,” he said. There’s no magic to it, he said, or perhaps there is. “They all like me, that’s all.”

His days have started early, with a 3 a.m. alarm. He had to be at work at 4:30 a.m., or rather, he chose to be.

“They let me pick my hours,” Leeman said. He cleans the fire station, which is easier done when nobody is around, and then heads over to the police station, where he puts on coffee for the oncoming shift and cleans the interior of the patrol cars during shift change.

It’s time for his shift to change now. He and his wife live with one of their sons in Windham, but are heading to Florida to see two of their other sons for a while.

They’ll take their fifth-wheel trailer and set it up on family land down there. There’s good fishing nearby, and work, too. His oldest son does swimming pool work and now keeps the business records by hand on paper. Leeman will computerize the record-keeping system and also integrate maps, so workers can easily find their way between pool locations.

He will miss his work in Cape, though. “I’ve enjoyed it,” Leeman said. “I’m one that loves animals.”

Leeman’s replacement, 19-year-old Kristopher Kennedy of Cape, a Cheverus graduate now studying business at USM, will take over Leeman’s duties Jan. 13, Police Chief Neil Williams said. Kennedy is a member of the fire department and also drives an ambulance.

Williams said the department is looking forward to having Kennedy come aboard, and wished Leeman well. “He deserves a retirement,” Williams said. “It’s always nice to see somebody enjoy their retirement.”

Leeman has advice for Kennedy: “If you treat people with respect you’ll get the results that you’re looking for.” Leeman said he has gotten a lot of satisfaction out of the job, from thank-you notes to waves on the street as he drives by.

“I’m going to miss it,” Leeman said.