It was hot and the street dogs on East 49th in South-Central Los Angeles were restless.
Norma Gooden, 36, was riding her bicycle to the store when she made the mistake of turning onto the block. A pack of three dogs took pursuit. They knocked her to the ground and bit her on the leg.
Not far away, the same kinds of loose dogs were making 95-year-old Thelma Kaiser feel like a prisoner in her own house. She put a coyote trap on her front lawn--a favorite canine congregating spot--and nabbed nine strays in a week.
Kaiser and Gooden live in a square-mile section of South-Central where residents have been tormented by roaming packs of stray dogs. It has grown from a mere nuisance to something bordering on a public health emergency, almost beyond the imagination of suburban communities.
Thousands of dogs once owned for a variety of reasons--from protection to companionship to fighting ability--get lost or abandoned each year on the streets of South-Central where missing-dog signs are rarely posted. The dogs mingle with the dogs of owners who prefer to let their pets roam at night. They breed, fight and scavenge in the trash for food. They become infected by diseases and hobbled by injuries. Sometimes they attack people.
The effect, authorities say, is like having a new gang in the neighborhood.
"It starts with one dog, then another joins, and then another and pretty soon you have a pack of dogs . . . terrorizing a community," said Gary Olsen, general manager of the outmanned city Department of Animal Regulation.
In parts of South-Central the dogs are so numerous that they have become fixtures, demanding their space, forcing residents to drive or walk around them. From dusk to dawn, while the streets are cool, the animals are out and about, rummaging or strutting across the street indifferent to traffic, or limping along. At midday they disappear into the shade, lying under cars or resting on someone's porch.
"They walk around like they own the place, like they are daring you to hit them, daring you to say something," said Gooden, the mother of three children.
Gooden's neighborhood suffers from a greater tendency of poor people to keep aggressive dogs for security and a parallel tendency to let the dogs go when the owners can no longer afford them. So overtaxed is the system that most loose animal complaints go unanswered and only the sickest of dogs are taken off the streets.
In just two days in June, animal control officers picked up 60 dogs in sweeps focusing largely on the square-mile section of South-Central where Gooden and Kaiser live.
Lost and abandoned dogs are creating havoc for animal control officers everywhere. Budgets cuts have hampered the department's ability to deliver services.
But Councilwoman Rita Walters, whose inner-city district office has received hundreds of complaints, is convinced that South-Central is hurting disproportionately.
"They have abandoned areas like South-Central as far as services go," she said.
Acknowledges Gini Barrett, president of the city Animal Regulation Commission: "It's been a major problem for a long time and it's getting worse."
Barrett said animal control officers in South-Central have a different experience than their counterparts, say, on the Westside, where owners letting their dogs run off the leash may be the most common problem.
"There are parts of the city where you have dogs, some of whom have been bred for fighting and dumped, some have been shot," she said. "These are issues that involve public safety, individual responsibility and animal cruelty."
The city's South-Central shelter, on 11th Avenue near Exposition Boulevard, operates out of cramped, makeshift offices that once served as a spay and neuter clinic. Officials were forced to relocate there after their dilapidated headquarters were declared unsafe following the Northridge earthquake in 1994.
Even in its limited surroundings, the shelter took in nearly 16,000 animals last year, making it the second busiest--behind the east San Fernando Valley facility--among the city's six shelters.
"If we had a proper facility and resources, South-Central would be the busiest shelter in the city," Olsen said. "We just don't have enough space."
Nearly $5 million is available to build a South-Central shelter, but the project has been stalled for more than a year because funds to relocate to a temporary shelter have been slow in coming, officials say.
The shortage of manpower and lack of kennel space mean that more than 90% of the animals brought into the South-Central shelter are destroyed--many to make way for new animals hauled in off the streets. By contrast, the citywide proportion of animals destroyed is about 65%.
"It's like signing their death warrant," said Lt. Willie McDaniel, the officer in charge of the South-Central shelter.
On one typical day, an animal control officer brought in seven dogs--four from one location--after three hours cruising the streets. His catch included two pit bulls, three mix-breed German shepherds, a mixed Labrador and a mongrel. One of the pit bulls, a 5-month-old puppy, was picked up after wandering the streets howling in pain. Its owner had wrapped rubber bands tightly around the dog's tail in an effort to crop it.
"Whoever owned the dog tried to save some money from the vet by cutting the dog's tail himself," said Marcial Evangelista, an animal control officer. "He dumped the dog after he botched the job."
The pup licked the animal control officer's hand as he loaded the animal into the truck. The dog, also suffering from a respiratory infection, was destroyed minutes after it arrived at the shelter. Unhealthy dogs can be destroyed immediately, but healthy ones are kept for up to eight days at city-run shelters in Los Angeles.
Frequently, there are two and sometimes only one animal control officer working the streets of south Los Angeles, which stretches more than 60 square miles from Alameda Street on the east to La Cienega Boulevard on the west, and from Wilshire Boulevard on the north to 135th Street on the south. Other areas have similar staffing shortages, but the problem in the southern part is worse because of the huge stray dog population.
The one-man patrols frequently run into difficulty. McDaniel recalled one incident in which an officer was attacked by four dogs when he visited an abandoned house to investigate strays.
"The dogs came charging out from under the house," he said. "One of the dogs knocked the officer down, and when he fell he was at their mercy." After fighting off the dogs, the officer was taken to the hospital, where he was treated for his wounds.
Gooden said she felt the same sense of helplessness when a pack of dogs chased her down while she was riding her bicycle on 49th Street.
"There are dogs everywhere," she said. "I was terrified. I felt all the strength go out of my body. I was yelling for help, but nobody came." Later, she said, a doctor told her that she was lucky the bite had not penetrated the skin.