PEKIN — The sign on the locked double doors that lead into the inner sanctum of the Tazewell County emergency dispatch center reads:
"TazCom Guard Cat on Duty
Please Open Door Slowly and do not let him out."
It's a legacy sign and not a reference to Tigger, the current feline occupant of the TazCom dispatch center who would rather live among Dobermans and pit bulls than sneak out into the great outdoors. The sign is a reference to the original dispatch cat, Crack, short for Crack Head, whose ashes rest in a wooden box near a bank of computer consoles and closed-circuit TV screens where the county dispatchers sit.
"Crack always bolted for the open door," said Abby Hobbs, who will mark her 25th year as a county emergency radio dispatcher in December. "Tigger? He likes it indoors."
Who can blame him? A bottomless bowl of food and fresh water. A perpetually clean litter box. An endless supply of Temptations cat treats, A comfy recliner in the break room for those morning, afternoon and evening naps before turning in for the night. And, perhaps most importantly, constant companionship (when he desires it) — as in 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year companionship.
"He's never alone," said dispatcher Karla Veatch, a 15-year dispatch veteran. "We're the perfect cat owners."
The cat story begins in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century. A sort of rough-around-the-edges orange tabby kept showing up, as cats often do, at the front door. Dispatchers, as humans sometimes do, started putting out food and water. Then they started letting him inside for increasingly longer visits. They named him Crack Head, for reasons that were never really intended for public explanation. They hid him from supervisors. Pretty soon, Crack was as much a part of the daily work life of dispatchers as the constant stream of 911 calls for police, fire and ambulance service that defined their daily shifts.
"We'd get a call from police passing by, 'Hey, the cat wants in,' when they saw Crack waiting by the door," Hobbs said. "Everybody knew Crack."
As any pet owner can attest, cats aren't necessarily trouble-free. Crack once got sprayed by a skunk. An alley fight once left him with an abscessed head and a $400 veterinarian bill. A stroke cost him his life in 2009.
"We were all a mess the day that Crack was put to sleep," Hobbs said. "People were crying. It was like a human worker had died. It was a terrible day."
Knowing that Crack was dead, a Pekin animal control officer brought a 6-week old kitten into the dispatch center. Like Crack, the kitty was an orange tabby. When he was set on the floor of the dispatch center, the kitten ran down the hall and into the boss's office, where he jumped up and knocked a fake tree onto his desk.
"We want him," the workers agreed.
Nine years later, Tigger has the run of the room, although at nearly 20 pounds, it's more like the waddle of the room. Day-shifters like Hobbs, Veatch, Roy Trotter (25 years on the job) and Chuck Melton (13 years) all attribute Super Cat tendencies to their feline buddy.
"He can tight-rope walk along the (narrow) tops of the computers," Trotter said. "Well, not so much any more."
"When he gets caught between doors in the entrance he'll jiggle the (door) handle to be let in," Hobbs said. "I swear."
"He's like a dog. He comes when called," said Veatch.
"He's just a part of the family," said Melton.
Emergency dispatching can be stressful. Dispatchers frequently deal with agitated callers who are in the middle of crisis and in need of rapid help. With a head butt, a leap in the lap or the motorized trill of a contented purr, Tigger helps smooth the jagged edges of the work environment.
"He's a morale booster," Veatch said. "He can be comforting."
With changes underway in the county's dispatch services, TazCom2 is being renovated. There was talk among supervisors that Tigger would have to find a new home.
"Roy was ready to take him to his house," Hobbs said. "Even though we never wanted him to leave."
Tigger, that is, not Roy.
Then came word that Tigger could stay.
"Whenever (Tigger's) giving me a hard time I'll remind him that he will always be the new cat," Hobbs joked. "Crack, the real cat, is over there in that box."
Scott Hilyard can be reached at 686-3244 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @scotthilyard on Twitter.