Saturday, September 26, 2015
By James Lomuscio
In 1958, Peter J. D’Amico came up short when the 5-foot-5 native of Saugatuck applied to become a Westport police officer.
But 22 years later after a Supreme Court ruling that a police height requirement was discriminatory, he realized his dream and became a Westport special police officer. The job led him to become the town’s animal control officer in 1989.
Now having turned 80 in June, after a career that has made him Westport’s No. 1 animal friend and advocate, he is retiring Nov. 1.
One night this week, D’Amico reflected on his career as Jasmine, a 7-year-old German shepherd abandoned by her owner, sat comfortably nearby on the floor of the Westport Animal Shelter, chewing a rawhide.
“She’s a sweetheart,” D’Amico said, a term he uses for many four-legged friends who have come under his care.
“This is my office, but I call it my rehabilitation center,” he added, saying that separation anxiety for German shepherds in particular can be severe.
He pointed to a bed Jasmine can sleep in and a box of chew toys.
“I’ll have a home for her soon,” D’Amico said confidently.
Today D’Amico, known around town for his signature smile and garrulous nature, was ever the optimist. Still, there was something bittersweet behind the smile.
“I’m over 80, and my wife wants me home,” he laughed, adding that he and Irene have been married 50 years.
Childless, he says the animals he cares for and his family dog, are his children. One of the dogs at the shelter is Loretta, a pit bull-terrier mix that has been there 12 years since they cannot find a home for her.
She was one of five dogs that D’Amico took in following Fairfield Police Department raid of a home where a woman had 135 dogs and other pets living in squalor.
“I remember bathing her when she came in,” he said. “We found homes for all the others. She’s our mascot.”
Jill Epstein, a shelter volunteer, was quick to point out that strays or abandoned pets that wind up at the shelter do not risk being euthanized.
“This is a no kill shelter,” said D’Amico, proud that he started the policy. “There are other kill shelters, and this was one when I got here.”
Another thing he instituted is “the walking system.”
“We walk the dogs out of the cages three or four times a day,” he said, adding that he, Assistant Animal Control Officer Joseph Saponare, and volunteers go in shifts.
He also started a program using volunteers at the shelter. There are currently 10.
D’Amico’s dedication to animals is also credited with helping to form Westport Animal Shelter Advocates (WASA) in 2008. It was established as a spay-neuter program and funds life saving, veterinary care for dogs impounded at the shelter.
While the shelter is too small to take in cats as well, D’Amico said he has established a network for placing injured and displaced cats.
“There are times it has a happy ending,” he said pointing to a “cat log” he keeps in the office.
D’Amico described how his role broadened from dogs to wildlife, too, hence his current title. He gets calls about deer, raccoons and most recently, a bear sighting on Newtown Turnpike. The bear was gone when he got there.
“I rescued a great horned owl,” he recalled. “It came down for a rodent and got caught in a soccer net at Staples. I had to cut the netting with a knife to get him out.”
He took the broken winged owl to Wildlife in Crisis in Weston. For his service over the years, he has been honored by the organization. One time he even performed CPR on a woodchuck found floating in a swimming pool.
“I didn’t use mouth-to-mouth,” he recalled. “I used a hoe.”
After 10 compressions, the woodchuck spit out the water.
It was not the first time he used the life saving technique. As a special police officer, he saved the life of an infant who was choking, and again used CPR on an 18-year-old who had overdosed.
Looking back on his life with the Police Department, D’Amico recalled the difficulty he encountered trying to realize his dream.
One of 11 children in family from the town’s Saugatuck section, he had always wanted to be a police officer, he said.
So in 1958, he and his buddies, including John Anastasia, who would rise to deputy chief, and the late George Call, who became inspector, went down to apply at the police station. D’Amico got some sobering news. He was too short.
“The uniform policy was 5-foot-8, and I was 5-5,” he said.
He later became an auxiliary officer, a job that did not have the height restriction, or the role he wanted. Things changed with the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a police height restriction was discriminatory.
In 1979, the late Chief William Steffan approached D’Amico and asked him to apply. A year later, after training at the academy in Stanford, he became a special police officer, a badge he wears proudly.
Recently, D’Amico said he broke the news to Police Chief Dale Call, son of his childhood friend, that he would be retiring.
“We embraced, and I teared up,” he said. “He couldn’t have been nicer. I was very much indebted.”
Posted 09/26/15 at 05:12 PM Permalink
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Congratulations Peter!. I treasure the memories of days when we rode patrol together when you were an auxiliary patrolman. They were fun times. Your dedication to professional law enforcement could serve as an example to police officers everywhere. Enjoy the days ahead. - Dick Alley
Retired Inspector - WPD
Congratulation Peter! I know you are a dedicated officer and the community of Westport will miss you.
Enjoy your free time, stay active and healthy.
Fred Barr -retired Police Captain WPD
Congratulations Pete !
The wildlife, the pets and the residents of Westport owe you so much for your ‘TLC” over the years. Enjoy your “2 Feet Out the Door” status. Youv’e earned it. Knowing you, just remember the more time off you have the more you will need.
A great loss for the town!
A well earned retirement for Peter - who has served this town with honor through many years.
I can only pray that our next ACO is as dedicated and kind as Peter has been.
Let us hope that Pete’s successor will be half as dedicated to the important job of animal rescue in westport.
Peter is an exceptional caregiver to animals in need, often buying the best of food for dogs under his care with his own funds when the towns’ budget for animal control fell short of being able to provide such.
Good luck, Peter as you go forward. We will miss you almost as much as will the dogs currently in your care.
Angela and I have had the pleasure of knowing, working with and being good friends with Peter and his lovely wife Irene for more than 30 years.
Peter exemplifies the best in what Westporter’s are all about ... he has always been one to give back to the community, unselfishly!
Animal Control and WPD won’t be the same places without him, but Peter, you go enjoy your well deserved retirement with “sweetie”!
You will be missed. Thank you for your service to the town.
Great article, but they forgot to mention you love to sing!
Loretta & Bob
Peter, you’re absolutely amazing! I wish you well in your retirement, you were so kind to me, years ago, whenever my dog would escape. Between you and Dara, WIC, you’re two of the most generous people I’ve had the good fortune of meeting. You exemplify a tremendous kindness to animals that have been mistreated and abandoned. I was fortunate to have adopted a pup from the mess in Fairfield that you helped out in. Again, your generosity has touched so many of us in countless ways over the years. You’ve made an enormous impact on the town.
Peter; Congratulations on a job well done!!! Many great memories and laugh throughout the years. As Tina Tuner said in her song, “You’re simply the best!!