SWEETWATER COUNTY — At 4 a.m., with a wild badger as her only company, Chris Thomas felt the weight of the high desert darkness.
She stood in the sand, an hour from any sizeable town. She felt minuscule among the southwest Wyoming dunes and the endless sagebrush surrounding them, unprotected from the disgruntled juvenile badger she was attempting to relocate from the Rock Springs mall. In the dead of night, the hills seemed to have eyes, to be watching her. The small woman was deeply alone.
Solitude is nothing new for Thomas. Most days she enjoys patrolling wide-open spaces as Sweetwater County’s only animal control officer. But the work gets lonely sometimes, especially since the sheriff’s office eliminated the other animal control position earlier this year due to budget cuts.
“Now it’s just me,” Thomas said Wednesday, as she navigated her white sheriff’s office truck down County Road 85 toward a chemical plant west of Green River.
When Thomas took the job in April 2007, the sheriff’s office employed two animal control officers to pick up stray animals, relocate wildlife in precarious situations and work on cases of neglect and abuse. But the budget cuts forced the office to eliminate 10 positions, including one of the animal control officer jobs. The other animal control officer took another post within the agency, leaving Thomas to patrol the 10,000 square miles of Sweetwater County alone — a jurisdiction larger than the states of Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island combined.
The loss of the job hasn’t necessarily meant more work for Thomas, however. While she still responds to every animal-related call, the budget cuts mean she can’t bring all the strays into the shelter. The sheriff’s office has to pay to care for every animal its staff brings to the animal shelters in Rock Springs or Green River. The money’s simply not there. The cages in the bed of her truck are more empty than usual.
“We can no longer pick up simple strays because the money is just not there,” Sweetwater County Sheriff Mike Lowell said in August.
Unless the animal is vicious, elderly or appears sick, Thomas can’t bring it to the shelter. Often, she’ll pick up a stray and keep it in her truck, frantically making calls until she can find its owner or someone to take the animal until one can be found. So far, she hasn’t been forced to leave any animal behind. But she knows the day may come.
The inability to take every stray to a safe place is difficult for a woman who has spent her entire adult life caring for them. She feels like she’s letting down the public she serves.
“It’s a judgment call,” she said. “Is it right? Is it wrong? You can’t know until it’s all done. I do the best I can.”
Every morning, Thomas rouses her 3-year-old blue heeler rescue, Hoss, and loads him in the truck. They stop for coffee on their way on to the sheriff’s office in Rock Springs. The coffee shop employees always have a treat ready for Hoss, her unofficial partner on the job.
Each day is different for the pair, but it’s always just the two of them in the truck. Some shifts are spent solely responding to calls. Animal control officers with the Rock Springs and Green River police departments handle calls within those communities, but the rest of the county is Thomas’ responsibility. In 2016, the sheriff’s office responded to almost 700 animal calls. In the first eight months of 2017, Thomas had already responded to nearly 500 incidents.
Covering that expanse requires teamwork, she said. The agencies — from the local police departments to Wyoming Game and Fish — assist each other when needed. Like when that badger holed up outside the Rock Springs mall. Or when a herd of about 20 heifers suddenly disappeared from their corrals.
Other days give Thomas more time to patrol. She rambles around the outskirts of the two larger towns, then to the Little America rest stop, to Wamsutter, to Kemmerer. On an average day, Thomas puts between 200 and 300 miles on her truck.
She tries to respond as quickly as possible, but the reality of wide open Wyoming land means that the wait is not always short — especially when there are outside factors that make travel more difficult.
“We have two seasons out here: winter and construction,” she said. “I always tell people that I’ll be there the second I get there.”
On Wednesday, Thomas and Hoss started their afternoon with a trip to the Solvay Chemical Plant, 20 miles west of Green River. After a brief wait in the parking lot, plant workers brought out a cage containing two tiny kittens, no more than 5 weeks old. The plant had brought in some cats a few years ago to contain the rodent population, but now the feline population was becoming the issue.
Over the kittens’ plaintive mewing, Thomas explained to the workers how to most effectively catch the cats in a humane way. She instructed them to disable all traps over the weekend if nobody was around to check them.
From the window of her truck, Hoss watched protectively until Thomas sat back in the driver’s seat. He climbed up onto the center console to lick her face, tan even in early November, pressing the buttons that turn on the truck’s lights as he made his way.
“I’m glad I don’t have sirens because we’d have sirens going off all the time,” Thomas said, her black jacket covered in the blue heeler’s hair.
Thomas accidentally adopted Hoss from the Rock Springs shelter a year ago. At first, she just intended to teach him a few commands so he’d be more adoptable. Then she got attached.
Now, Hoss goes just about everywhere Thomas does. On Wednesday, he traveled in the back seat of the truck and gnawed on a one-leg Elmo stuffed animal as Thomas drove the kittens to the Rock Springs animal shelter. She talks to him throughout the day, as people do with their pets, calling him a “hot wreck” when he’s being good and a “turdblossom” when he misbehaves. All the deputies know Hoss. Even the sheriff shares his trail mix with the energetic dog.
Hoss also helps mitigate the stresses of the job. It’s been difficult to explain to the public why she can’t pick up every stray, she said. If she recognizes the animal, or finds one with a collar, she’ll simply take the pet home. But that’s not always the case.
“I do the best I can with what I’ve got and what I’m given,” she said. “Right now, I’m limited in what I can do.”
When Thomas was a girl, her parents forbade her from bringing any more animals home. She felt compelled to take care of the lost or hurt creatures she encountered around their Colorado home.
Now delivering animals to safety is her profession. Sometimes, that means she’s still taking animals home to her husband and two teenage children.
The Thomas household is home to three shelter dogs, one cat and a chinchilla — all rescues. In the past, they’ve also housed a pony that was rescued from a neglectful home.
“The joke of my house is that we’re ‘Chris’ Halfway House for Wayward Animals,’” she said with a laugh.
Thomas moved to Sweetwater County in 1994 and worked at the racetrack and as a veterinarian technician before the animal control officer position opened up. During her job interview, she was asked a blunt question: Did she think she was up for the job?
Thomas knew she would find dead animals. She knew she would have to euthanize others and deliver bad news to their owners. She knew there would be dark moments. But she knew she could do good as well.
For the past decade, she’s educated people on the responsibilities and realities of owning a pet. She’s implored potential pet owners to research the ordinances of where they live, the needs of the animal as it matures. Too often, she finds animals that were brought into homes only to be abandoned when they grew too large, or became too time-consuming.
A few years ago, Thomas helped rescue a boa constrictor from James Town, a community of about 500 just west of Green River. Someone found the snake, at least 4-feet long, curled on a sidewalk. The snake was likely seeking the warmth of the pavement as winter approached. Thomas will never know how the snake ended up on the sidewalk, but she assumes its owner didn’t realize how big it would become and released it as it matured, essentially sentencing it to death.
“They don’t survive well in the Wyoming winter,” she said. She sent the snake, named Sage, to a rescue facility in Utah, which was able to rehabilitate the creature.
Other moments on the job make her giggle. She’s spent an early morning chasing a pig that escaped from the truck bringing it to the butcher. She’s rescued ducklings from yards and pulled porcupines out of trees in residential areas. She’s repeatedly consoled interstate travelers who think the area’s wild mustangs are lost or confused domesticated horses.
But Thomas endures more difficult days as well. She once had to use a Taser on a dog after it charged her. She’s sent the cremated remains of animals lost and killed on the interstate back to their owners thousands of miles away. Like other law enforcement, she’s dealt with irate and dangerous people. Often, she’s dealing with these dangerous situations alone.
“I try to get in the truck every morning with a good attitude,” she said. “Every day I make it a goal to come home safe and sound to my family.”
The wide open land helps her navigate those frustrations. She’s come to know the seemingly inhospitable dunes and rocky crags, the imposing red stone structures that dominate the horizon. She likes being from a place where the pronghorn outnumber the people. Although she was born in Colorado, she considers herself a Wyomingite now.
The days get lonely, she admits, even with Hoss. But Thomas relishes the space, the time, the driving. It gives her time to ponder and process the day’s news, her own life.
She often muses on a society that, as far as she can tell, treats everything as expendable. She sees it in the dogs abandoned by owners who decided to move without the hassle of a pet, in the cats that are kicked out after they pee on the rug one too many times.
“Everything is so disposable now,” she said. “The reason we have animal control is because we have so many unwanted animals.”
Despite it all — the lonely drives, the constrictions on her ability to do her job, the isolation, the deaths of innocent animals — this is the life Thomas loves.
“I wouldn’t trade it,” she said. “It’s where I can do some good.”