Something Wild Lurks in Suburbia

It wasn't a police report you see every day: "Animal Control helps police subdue out-of-control cat."

You've heard of wild dogs. But crazy cats?

It turns out to be a little less dramatic than first impressions might indicate. This cat in a Los Alamitos neighborhood earlier this month was more hiss than hellion.

Most cats that frighten neighbors by hissing simply feel trapped and respond defensively, said the county's Animal Control interim director, Mark McDorman.

But the police log item made me wonder just how often people in Orange County fear for their safety because of dogs or cats--or more--wandering into their yards.

The county's Animal Control staff has reported that about 300 people here each month suffer from animal bites.

McDorman says responding to calls is an around-the-clock job for his field staff; they had to handle 46,000 animals, both dead and alive, last year alone.

Yes, it's mostly dogs and cats. But McDorman says it doesn't stop there: iguanas, bats, skunks, horses, coyotes, mountain lions, snakes, opossums, and once a team had to capture an ostrich in the wild. Just about any animal that exists here, someone has called the county out of fear for his or her safety.

And Animal Control responds to most calls. But here's a warning:

Do not waste your time--and the county's--by calling because a strange cat is in your yard looking at you suspiciously.

"Dogs, yes, we respond to all those calls, because dogs are supposed to be on a leash," McDorman said. "But cats are wanderers by nature. Besides, by the time we could get there, the cat is most likely gone."

The exception, of course, is with a cat bite. Any animal that bites someone must be quarantined until Animal Control's veterinarians can determine that the animal does not have rabies.

Orange County is fortunate; we haven't had a human case of rabies here since the first half of the century. And the only rabies reported in animals in recent years has been in skunks and bats. But McDorman says all bite incidents are treated as potential rabies cases, because the disease can be fatal.

If you do have a stray animal in your yard and feel you must call Animal Control, here's the number: (714) 935-6848.

But McDorman offers a tip on how to avoid the problem: "Animals have three reasons to seek you out: food, water and shelter. If you feed and water your pets in your backyard, you might very well get visitors you didn't expect."

If you suffer an animal bite, McDorman said, immediately wash it with warm water while someone is calling Animal Control.

By the way, here's another animal Animal Control rarely will roust for you: the opossum. If you've observed a day's road kill, you know that opossums are thick in Orange County, even in urban areas.

An opossum happens to live permanently in my backyard, and I confess I despise the bugger. When I asked McDorman if his staff rounded up opossums, his response was:

"Why? The opossum is nature's garbageman. It eats the snails and other living things in our backyard we're glad to get rid of."

But what of the risk of an opossum bite? McDorman again defended the ugly varmints: "A possum is so docile, about the only way you could get a possum to bite you is to stick your hand all the way down its throat and stomp on its head."

Readers may reach Jerry Hicks by calling (714) 564-1049 or e-mail to

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