For Animals, Campus Passes Test

Times Staff Writer

The scene at Pierce College on Thursday was worthy of Noah. Potbellied pigs, llamas, alpacas, horses, mules, a blind pygmy goat and a yard-long African spur thigh tortoise took up residence on a pastoral swath of land amid strip malls, office buildings and town house developments.

All were evacuees from the Topanga fire, which roared through the canyons of the San Fernando Valley and Ventura County on Wednesday and Thursday.

Some had been let loose by their fleeing owners and rounded up by the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services. Others were brought by their owners or anyone who had room in a livestock trailer.

“It’s better to [have the animals] hitch a ride with a passing trailer then burn to death in a locked stall,” said volunteer Annie Desha, a Pierce student who had helped tend the animals through the night, catching only an hour nap in the back seat of her Ford Focus.


About 150 horses and several dozen other large animals had taken refuge at Pierce, in the Warner Center area of Los Angeles, over the past two days, either in roomy barns or tied to posts in the agricultural college’s corrals. A bevy of volunteers and Pierce students fed and walked the animals, or simply petted and soothed them. Some contributed feed, supplementing the more than 200 bales of hay provided by Animal Services.

“Strangers are coming off the streets with carrots,” said Beth Smith, who was visiting her two horses.

“The community really comes together, especially the horse people,” said Troy Boswell, an animal control officer on hand at Pierce.

Some horse owners stayed by their animals’ sides for most of the night, as the fires ravaged thousands of acres nearby.


Stephanie Haney of Chatsworth brought her dozen show horses, including Gunsmoke, Chili Tomato, Dee, Stacy, Harvey, and Wiseguy -- “the biter,” she warned. A warning was taped to his stall: “Do Not Touch.” Haney stayed with her horses from 5 p.m. Wednesday to 2 a.m. Thursday, then returned at 5:45 a.m.

The fire got frighteningly close to her barn before firefighters beat it back. “I could have barbecued off the barn door,” she said.

Haney’s show thoroughbreds are accustomed to traveling in trailers or cargo planes.

Though the other animals seemed calm to a visitor, owners and volunteers said most were at least as traumatized as residents who fled.


“They’re anxious and aggravated,” said Lory Ventura, 23, a volunteer who is studying equine science at Pierce. “They don’t like to stand around like this. A lot of these horses are old.”

“Don’t let those horses rub noses,” Ventura called out, as a horse being walked close to another whinnied. “We don’t want any incidents -- horses that don’t know each other get loud and obnoxious and can rear up.”

Nearby, the blind pygmy goat, with a tiny bell around its neck, ran in circles in its stall.

Phil DeCardo was doing his best to pamper his picky potbellied pigs, Wilamina and Rusty.


The 250-pound-plus pets lolled in a stall as DeCardo coaxed them to eat the sliced apples he had picked from his 12.5-acre farm in Dayton Canyon, which he had evacuated late Wednesday. Wilamina refused. (She eats only figs and grapes, he said.) Rusty eats only what DeCardo hand-feeds him.

“They are a little mad at me right now because I had to get them out of the house,” he said.

The fire, he heard, had gotten to within a quarter-mile of the family’s home. “Too close for comfort,” he said.

Wilamina knocked over a bucket of water to make a mud puddle, a poor substitute for the swimming pool the animals have to themselves on the gentleman’s farm that DeCardo tends when he is not running his swimming pool contracting business.


With its animal science, natural resource and equine programs, Pierce is an ideal animal emergency shelter, several volunteers and horse owners said.

Among the courses in its catalog is Large Animal Nursing.