Delaware Republican senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell lost her election bid Tuesday against Chris Coons. During the primary, the state’s GOP chairman said that O’Donnell “could not be elected dogcatcher.” Is “dogcatcher” ever an elective office?
No. While the unofficial job of dogcatcher has existed for centuries—towns would often hire someone to round up stray dogs and shoot them—it was only incorporated into state and local government operations as “animal control” in the 19th century. Since then, the job has almost always been filled by appointment. For example, in Rehoboth, Massachusetts, the job of “animal control officer” is appointed by the town’s Board of Selectmen. In Louisville, Kentucky, the director of Metro Animal Services is appointed—and sometimes removed—by the mayor. Iowa City hired its animal-services director after a nationwide search. The Explainer has come across rumors that certain American jurisdictions elect their dogcatchers, but no concrete evidence to back up these assertions.
The insult that someone “couldn’t be elected dogcatcher” appears to have originated in the late 1800s. In 1889, the Weekly Courier Journal in Louisville noted that then-President Grover Cleveland was “so unpopular in Washington that he could not be elected dog catcher for the district.” A year later, a letter to the New York Times attacked a politician who “could not get elected on his own popularity and without the aid of his ‘machine’ to the office of dogcatcher were it an elective one” (emphasis added). Dogcatcher is also sometimes used as shorthand for the lowest-level political office. For example, in 1979 National Journal wrote about the collapse of a magazine “designed to appeal to elected officeholders from U.S. Senator to dogcatcher.”
The dogcatcher dig implies that rounding up canines is an easy job. In fact, it takes extensive training to become an animal-control officer. The National Animal Control Association requires new officers to undergo at least 80 hours of training—which can include workshops on euthanasia, chemical immobilization, and how to wield a “bite stick.” Officers then need on-the-job training, much like police officers, before they are fully prepared to catch wild animals.
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Explainer thanks Misha Goodman and Todd Stosuy of the National Animal Control Association.