Animal Shelter Loses A Devoted Cop

David Blumenthal PhotoOne 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.

Stephani Johnson PhotoMeanwhile, 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.

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posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on June 20, 2014  4:23pm

Aw, Godspeed, Officer Johnson.  I wonder if you remember June, the little bitty beagle who was cowering in the last cage when I brought my Sunday school kids on a tour of the shelter in 2005 as a finale to their Lenten project that year, raising money for the shelter and donating pet food and newspapers? 

My own kid fell in love with June, and you helped us adopt her.  We renamed her Luna and she’s still with us, though now a rather cranky old lady. 

Thanks from all of us.

posted by: fastdriver on June 20, 2014  7:52pm

Congratulations Officer Johnson! Enjoy your retirement! I am sure your peers are going to miss you. I remember that house in Morris Cove with the 90+ cats. I was walking my 2 year old Rhodesian Ridgeback down the street when all that was taking place. I haven’t been by there in a while, but I often wonder whatever happened to that lady. I assume she still lives there because the house looks the same on the outside as it did in 2007. I figured if someone new bought it, they would do a little landscaping. Then again, with that mess inside, how do you EVER get rid of that stench without knocking the house down and building a new one.

posted by: wendy1 on June 21, 2014  9:10am

I love this story.  New Haven should give her a house.

When I did my rescue research, I read that New Haven has the largest animal shelter in CT.  When I went there with 2 rescues, I was told no room at the inn by another officer not ms. Johnson.  NH is burdened by “strays” of all kinds because we are the only city of compassion.

posted by: getyourfactstraight on June 23, 2014  10:22am

Thank you for your service and the dogs and cats thank you also!

posted by: BenBerkowitz on June 23, 2014  11:35am

Stefanie Johnson was recently written about for her thoughtful response to a neighbor on SeeClickFix in the book ‘the Great disconnect’ by Micah Sifry

posted by: Marsha on June 27, 2014  4:40pm

Stephani, you have made a world of difference to the animals, your staff, and the volunteers at the Robin I. Kroogman New Haven Animal Shelter. I and so many others hate to see you go and would love to have your continued expertise and support in the future. Best of luck to Officer Manganiello. You’re a tough act to follow, Stephani. I’m sure you’ve given him plenty of sound advice.

Good luck with everything, Stephani. Be well. And thank you!

PS If we can judge by the photo above, Samson has forgotten and forgiven. Good dog.