Creature Comforters : Laguna Animal Control Officers Put in Tough Days Helping Beasts

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

So far, Joy Lingenfelter had counseled a woman with a stray dog, fielded a call about a deer with two broken legs, scooped a dead dove off Laguna Canyon Road and accepted a snake in a shoe box.

And it was only 7 a.m.

"Mondays," Lingenfelter said, shaking her head. "Every week."

One of two animal control officers in this city, Lingenfelter never knows what surprises await her when she arrives at the Laguna Beach Animal Shelter to begin her 10-hour shift.

Sometimes, the day revolves around concerns as common as barking dogs and injured wildlife. Other times, she winds up pursuing an escaped llama, python or potbellied pig.

Then there was the time a lion checked into a local dog kennel. As most people in this coastal community do when they have a pesky animal problem, the kennel worker gave Lingenfelter a jingle.

"She called me and said, 'I think we have a problem,' " Lingenfelter said. "In the background, I hear this African lion, and I said, 'It sounds like you have a problem.' "

As she arrived at the shelter on this recent Monday, stepping from a truck with the words "Proudly Serving Our Community" emblazoned on the side, Lingenfelter was greeted like a wayward mother come home to her young.

"Whitey," she called, and a pale-feathered pigeon waddled across the pavement to her side. She tossed a handful of seeds and two dozen more birds quickly clustered around.

Inside, Lingenfelter made her rounds, stopping to pet a spaniel which pushed its nose through a cage and a Yorkshire terrier which, despite a recent surgery for kidney stones, bounded upward as if spring-loaded at the sound of Lingenfelter's voice.

With the absent-minded movements of a mother at a 2 a.m. feeding, Lingenfelter then ran warm water into a bowl to heat a vial of egg yolks and vitamins for a cage full of rescued finches. Mouths gaping, wings fluttering, six small scruffy birds strained toward her.

"Basically, we just act like mom and go from one to the other," Lingenfelter said, dipping the syringe into first one tiny mouth and then another. Behind her, an indignant parrot squawked bitterly. "You don't even like egg yokes," Lingenfelter said over her shoulder.

If the scene was cozy, the stories that accompanied each animal to the red barn-like building on Laguna Canyon Road were far from heartwarming. Though the city forbids it, sick or unwanted animals are sometimes unceremoniously dumped at the shelter like baggage, Lingenfelter said.

One terrier actually was tossed from a moving car, resulting in head trauma that caused permanent nerve damage and deafness, she said.

"People think of them (animals) as disposable," she said. "It's hard to remain sympathetic and friendly when you see the underside of people all day long."

Still, Lingenfelter, 35, bustles about her day with a cheery enthusiasm, a Buck knife and a can of pepper spray hitched to her belt. Her most relied-upon weapon is the citation book she whips out at the sight of an unleashed dog or an owner neglecting to scoop up a pet's waste.

Logging about 65 miles on her truck each day, Lingenfelter cruises the streets of Laguna Beach, making about 30 contacts with the public each shift. Occasionally, she takes a blast from her asthma inhaler, never knowing when she will next be bounding down the beach after a scofflaw, two- or four-legged.

Once, Lingenfelter said, she chased down a woman and her dog who had hidden behind a hedge, thinking that they had outsmarted her. The six legs poking from the hedge gave them away.

In the eight years she has worked at the shelter, Lingenfelter has accumulated a library of stories, some funny, some sad. Once, she was called by a beach-goer who had been bitten by first a dog, then the dog's owner, she said.

"He called me just really bewildered sounding," she said. "He said, 'The dog bite isn't that bad, but the owner's bites, I'm gonna have to go to the hospital for them.' "

Her most vivid memory is of her first day on the job. She was called to a scene where paramedics were unable to attend to a heart attack victim because a huge German shepherd was standing astride its stricken owner, "barking and snapping."

"I've never seen anything like that in my life," she said. "He was so loyal to that woman. . . . He was shaking like a leaf, but still barking and protecting her."

The paramedics "were looking at me like, 'Well, go ahead,' " she said, adding that the dog "started to jump off the bed and you never saw so many people scatter. It was hysterical."

The favorite memory of animal control officer Keith Hall, who has been with the city 13 years, is of a frantic 911 call from a man who had trapped a snake in his living room under a trash barrel.

"He was deathly afraid of snakes and had books piled on the trash can and all kinds of stuff," Hall remembered. "I just took everything off . . . and carefully lifted up the trash can and looked under there and said, 'It's a shoelace. It's a gigantic 18-inch shoelace.' "

Police or paramedics commonly call Hall or Lingenfelter for help when an animal prevents them from doing their jobs, the animal control officers said. They may accompany police on drug raids or to car accidents when an animal is involved.

"We'll get control of the dog while they get control of the people," Lingenfelter said.

Often, if there's a problem with a pet, there are other problems festering in the home as well, and vice versa, the animal control officers say. For example, if a wife has been abused, the family dog may also have broken ribs.

"A lot of times we go up to these houses for investigation of dog bite or loose dog and it ends up these guys are big-time drug dealers," Hall said.

Lingenfelter has devised a variety of modes of nonverbal communication for dealing with different dogs, depending on the circumstances and the animals' temperament.

One day, for example, she was called by a merchant to an alley where a Saluki, an Egyptian hunting dog, was "baring its teeth." The nervous animal was a "fear biter," Lingenfelter said, so she crawled on the ground and made puppy sounds to soothe the dog.

"After about an hour and a half in the alley, I had the dog walking out glued to my leg for comfort," she said.

Perhaps the hardest thing for Lingenfelter to stomach is when people stereotype her as a "dogcatcher" with ominous intent. It's discouraging, she said, to be trying to pluck a frightened animal from a busy roadway with her catch-all pole and have a driver scream, "Don't kill it."

"That really gets upsetting after a while," she said. "You're standing out there and you feel like you just want to throw down the stick and say, 'That's it.' "

In general, however, Lingenfelter said the city and its residents have supported her efforts. Easily recognizable in her uniform, she said she can barely eat at a local restaurant without someone unfurling a series of pet pictures for her.

But with owners so emotional about their pets, Lingenfelter said, animal control officers must be prepared for, well, just about anything. Any time, she said, they could be bitten by an animal or attacked by its owner.

"It makes for an interesting day," she said.

Animals Impounded

The Laguna Beach Animal Shelter impounds more than 1,000 animals a year, mostly male dogs that have not been neutered. About 80% of the animals are reclaimed by their owners. A profile of this active animal shelter: * Collects cats, birds, rabbits, ducks; no wildlife is accepted. * Recovers 30 to 40 animals killed on roads monthly (all species). * Relocates possums, raccoons, skunks monthly; relocates snakes in summer. * Facility equipped with 12 dog runs. * Three full-time staff, 30 volunteers depending on season. Source: Laguna Beach Animal Shelter; Researched by LESLIE EARNEST / For The Times

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