One concerned caller thought Officer Stephani Johnson was wrestling with a wolf.
She was actually wrestling a dog, a large white Akita named Samson. Johnson, the officer in charge of the police department’s Robin I. Kroogman New Haven Animal Shelter on Fournier Street, was loading Samson into the back of her truck for a neutering appointment. Samson wasn’t about to give up without a fight.
“He put on the brakes and made it clear he was not going,” Johnson recalled.
Samson’s resistance eventually became so fierce that “it got to the point where we were actually wrestling outside,” Johnson said. Drivers passing the shelter began calling the office, expressing concerns about the bout taking place outside. One caller told Johnson’s co-worker, “I don’t know what’s going on outside, but it looks like your boss is fighting a wolf.”
In the end, Johnson won the battle. Samson was neutered.
Come June 30, Johnson will no longer wrestle with dogs for a living or be called on to chase wild coyotes roaming the city or to step into homes found to have 30 cats living inside. After 23 years on the force, including 10 as the department’s municipal animal controller officer, she is retiring, one of about 15 cops doing so this month.
Officer Joseph Manganiello will replace Johnson, a lifelong New Havener, in the animal control post. He will also take over management of the 81 Fournier St. building (pictured).
Looking back on her decades in the job, Johnson spoke as much about the ambiance she brought to the state’s second-largest municipal animal shelter as she did about animal battles or rescues.
Her first act as the shelter’s chief administrator was to hang up a giant poster that read “Customer Service ☺” near the entrance. At the time, “the staff, the morale was … I’m going to be blatant—unpleasant,” she recalled.
The shelter, built in 1955 and not renovated since, was overdue for an upgrade. Under Johnson the department invested in new roofs, a new H-vac system, and new kennels that prevented dogs from invading each other’s space (pictured).
Johnson dreamed of becoming a detective, not an animal control officer, when she joined the force. She spent 10 years patrolling Orchard and Henry streets in the Dixwell neighborhood, with an 18-month interlude serving temporarily in the department’s narcotics and juvenile units and as a liaison officer to the state drug court.
Twice she was passed over promotion; the dream of becoming a detective was slipping away. Then in 2003 a different opportunity opened: to run the animal shelter.
Johnson grabbed it. She had already been volunteering there on off-duty day. She gave birth to her son in November 2003, took the animal post in January 2004. The rest, Johnson said, was “great history.”
She said had always been “good with animals.” Still, she was surprised by how much the skills required for shelter work overlapped with the skills required for patrol work.
“I can compare it to going out into domestic disputes … figuring out in an instant how to stabilize the situation,” she said.
25 Pairs Of Eyes
Asked to recall some of her most memorable moments on the job, Johnson came up with no shortage of stories.
On a broiling hot July mid-afternoon in 2007, Officer Johnson was called to an East Shore home where neighbors had complained of an ammonia-like smell. It turned out that a psychologically unstable woman was hoarding over 90 cats. In the following two weeks of 90-degree heat, Johnson felt overwhelmed, having to relocate the cats and clean a house in which “each room was dedicated to a different type of trash” almost entirely on her own.
“There were only two of us that were capable of capturing cats,” she said. “It was horrible.”
Johnson said that her staff successfully put all of the cats up for adoption, save two that were feral and one that escaped. There were disconcerting moments along the way: After removing the mohair cushions from a decaying couch to examine the space beneath the crosshatch, she found 25 pairs of eyes staring back at her.
“All you see is the eyes of the cats,” she said. “There were 25 cats under that couch.”
In May 2012, Johnson was called to a house where a dog bought off Craigslist without proper supervision began to attack its owners. The parents and daughter were trapped in separate rooms because of the chaotic canine. The dog began charging Johnson and her assistant, Tammy Hewston, soon after they arrived.
The pair restrained the dog with a snare pole, while the dog “charged and pulled.” All the while, the 5-foot-3 Johnson had to maintain control of the pole so the dog neither escaped nor harmed itself. Despite eventually subduing the ferocious canine, Johnson paid a high price, sustaining a thoracic and cervical sprain. The disk herniated after four months. She had surgery on May 28.
Still In The Picture
“She came in when it was crazy and she has made [the shelter] a much better place,” Officer Dolly Ortiz (pictured with a recently rescued pug) said of Johnson, with whom she has worked for seven years.
Johnson has viewed her position “as really a calling,” observed police spokesman Officer David Hartman. “She is tenacious when it comes to getting these things done. She’s one of the most dedicated people I’ve ever known,”
Johnson said she doesn’t know what her future plans are. She teaches animal safety courses at the New Haven Police Academy; she said she would like to continue doing so.
Meanwhile, Samson (pictured), the dog who once engaged Johnson in a ferocious wrestling match, is now a neighbor’s pet.
“I get to see him every day,” Johnson said.
A goodbye party for Johnson will take place June 28 at 6:30 p.m. at Terminal 110. Entry costs $36.50; guests should RSVP by June 25.