Column: ‘We are in the presence of a saint’: A homeless man’s mission to feed L.A.'s cats and birds

Augustine Hurtado observes pigeons flying overhead at Santa Monica State Beach.
Augustine Hurtado observes pigeons flying overhead at Santa Monica State Beach.
(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)
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Augustine Hurtado slept in because, as usual, he’d been up for two hours in the middle of the night feeding neighborhood cats.

He popped his head out of his tent at about 10 a.m., and his Chihuahua mix Sparky appeared a moment later, both of them ready for another day of service.

Hurtado, 65, is something of a modern-day St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals. He believes his purpose is to feed and look after as many as he can. Especially cats, pigeons and seagulls.

“I didn’t choose this. I grew up with it in my heart,” Hurtado told me, saying it must be God’s will.

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Hurtado, homeless for about three years, pitches his tent against the wall of a warehouse several blocks south of the 10 Freeway and west of San Pedro Street. His first order of business the day I met him was to peel back the tarps that conceal many large bags of grains, cat food and dog food. He needed 10 pounds of grain to take to the parking lot of a nearby Church’s Chicken, where he feeds pigeons.

VIDEO | 04:33
Modern-day St. Francis

Augustine Hurtado earns tips playing harmonica at Santa Monica pier and spends almost all of it on animal feed. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Sparky, 11, knows all the moves. The pooch made his way to a spot several feet away from the feed bags, anticipating exactly where Hurtado would place a folded towel, so Sparky would have a comfortable spot in the shade while his master worked.

Hurtado moved his three-wheeled electric scooter into place for the first run of the day. It had a full charge, thanks to the generosity of his buddy Jose Damas, who lets Hurtado power his battery by plugging into the Mariscos La Doña food truck just down the street.

When the grain was aboard and securely strapped, Hurtado patted the perch near the handlebars and said, “My doggy goes here.” Sparky leapt aboard, and the dynamic duo, friends to creatures great and small, were on their way.

At Church’s Chicken, Hurtado scattered Nutrena Scratch Grains across the rear of the parking lot. No pigeons were in sight, but they’d be around, Hurtado said, adding that he had permission from the chicken restaurant to feed the birds.

Hurtado and Sparky then made their way to their second stop of the day — Superior Grocers on Central Avenue at 20th Street. Hurtado parked his scooter near the front door and laid out a towel for his trusty assistant, who seems to have grown quite accustomed to royal treatment.

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Augustine Hurtado rides his scooter along Central Avenue in Los Angeles with his dog, Sparky.
Augustine Hurtado rides his scooter along Central Avenue in Los Angeles with his dog, Sparky, an 11-year-old Chihuahua-terrier mix on board as he makes the morning rounds, feeding the pigeons and going to a local market to buy chicken franks to feed to the seagulls at Santa Monica State Beach.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Sparky laid out on the towel while Hurtado, who wears a full salt-and-pepper beard and shaggy helmet of hair, moved quickly through the store on his way to the deli case. It was time to buy some hot dogs.

For the seagulls.

I’m not sure the best policy is for wild animals to be fed by humans, and hot dogs are a curious choice. When I asked Hurtado about it, he said the gulls, and pigeons, regularly dine on Dumpster fare such as garbage, rats and maggots, so hot dogs strike him as much finer dining.

“If I don’t feed the animals, who will?”

— Augustine Hurtado

He buys only chicken hot dogs, he said, because in his experience, beef and pork dogs can break up in flight when he tosses them to airborne birds.

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“He bought, like, 20 packages of weenies yesterday,” said Chris, a store manager.

Augustine Hurtado tosses another chicken frank into the air while feeding the seagulls at Santa Monica State Beach.
Augustine Hurtado tosses another chicken frank into the air while feeding the seagulls at Santa Monica State Beach. Hurtado, who is homeless, feeds the seagulls and pigeons on a daily basis.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Augustine Hurtado tosses a bag of dry dog food onto the ground.
Augustine Hurtado tosses a bag of dry dog food onto the ground while feeding the seagulls at Santa Monica State Beach. He feeds them more than 30 pounds a day.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Hurtado inspected the offerings and pulled out 10 or 12 pounds of dogs. He also bought some bread for the pigeons and himself, and some fried chicken, so he and Sparky could enjoy a satisfying lunch at the beach when their work was done.

In the bakery section, baker Kevin Call said hello to Hurtado and introduced himself to me and Times photographer Mel Melcon. Call said he has a soft spot for Hurtado and other homeless customers — “they’re people, too” — partly because he himself once lived on skid row. Call said he organizes food giveaways on skid row and tells people that if he got it together, “there’s hope for them, too.”

But Hurtado isn’t looking for any transformation, nor does he aspire to move indoors. His daughter, who lives in Riverside, offered him free lodging at a cabin she owns in the high desert of San Bernardino County.

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Gloria Hurtado hugs her father, Augustine, at his homeless encampment in South Los Angeles after delivering a new scooter.
Gloria Hurtado hugs her father, Augustine, at his homeless encampment in South Los Angeles after delivering a new electric scooter to him with her boyfriend, Kevin Ritz, background. Gloria, who lives in Riverside, owns a cabin in the high desert of San Bernardino County and offered it to her father rent-free, but he declined.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

“I said, ‘Hey, the place is yours,’” said Gloria Hurtado. “He was not interested, and said what about his friends? I guess he was talking about the birds and the cats as his friends.”

Hurtado said he took his daughter up on her offer for two weeks, but it was cold and he was lonely, so he returned to his tent.

“If I don’t feed the animals, who will?” Hurtado asked.

Gloria said her parents had a rocky relationship in San Bernardino, and her father left for Los Angeles and got into the restaurant business in the area where he now makes his home. She said he seems to have shaken the demons that torpedoed the marriage, and she suspects his devotion to animals may be a form of atonement.

Augustine Hurtado washes his hair inside a restroom at Santa Monica State Beach.
Augustine Hurtado washes his hair while inside a restroom at Santa Monica State Beach. Hurtado, who is homeless, has been feeding the pigeons there for the past seven years. He just recently started feeding the seagulls as well.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

The job comes with certain risks. In July, while zipping along on his scooter, Hurtado was broadsided.

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“Someone ran a stop sign and hit him on his right side and dragged him across the street,” Gloria said. “He would not go to the hospital until we took him to feed the birds in Santa Monica.”

Feeding those birds has become such an obsession, Hurtado takes three 50-pound bags of grain to the beach every day, a ride that takes 90 minutes to two hours each way. When he got back from the supermarket, he began loading and strapping the grain onto his scooter, along with the hot dogs and about 30 pounds of dog food, which he feeds to beach pigeons.

Hurtado estimated that feeding so many animals can cost $150 or more a day, and Melcon once watched a truck pull up to Hurtado’s tent and unload a pallet of grain bags.

Augustine Hurtado, with his dog Sparky on board his scooter, exits a Metro train.
Augustine Hurtado, with his dog Sparky on board his scooter, prepares to exit the Metro train while riding the second of two trains from Santa Monica, back to his home in South Los Angeles, after feeding the pigeons and seagulls at Santa Monica State Beach.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Cesar Alvarenga, left, a deliveryman for Best Valley Feed, prepares to unload 60 bags of scratch feed for Augustine Hurtado.
Cesar Alvarenga, left, a deliveryman for Best Valley Feed in Pacoima, prepares to unload 60 bags of scratch feed for Augustine Hurtado. Right, Hurtado counts out the cash to pay for the feed.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

With the money he spends on feed, Hurtado could fold up the tent and get an apartment. Damas, the food truck friend, told me he even offered to help with the rent. But Hurtado told me he’d rather live as he does and have the means to feed his friends.

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“My brother said, ‘He prefers to feed the animals than care for himself?’” Gloria said. “I said, ‘Yes.’”

And where does he get all that money?

After his time in the restaurant business, Hurtado sold toys for a living, including cheap harmonicas. He began playing one of them and soon discovered he could make more by playing the instrument for tips than selling it.

More tips meant more bird food, and the business grew. Several years ago, Hurtado began playing regularly on Friday, Saturday and Sunday next to the Santa Monica Pier. He sets up there with Sparky at his feet and a sign that says, “Thank you for helping us, God bless you.”

A boy puts money into the tip container with a little help from his mother as Augustine Hurtado plays the harmonica.
Isaac Carbaja puts money into the tip container with a little help from his mother, Patricia, right, as Augustine Hurtado plays the harmonica next to the entrance to Santa Monica Pier. Almost all the money Hurtado receives goes toward buying food for the pigeons, seagulls and stray cats he feeds on a daily basis.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

To Hurtado’s amazement, the tips keep coming — sometimes in $5, $10 and $20 bills. Sparky’s charm may have something to do with it, but it’s not because of the music, in Hurtado’s opinion.

“I don’t play very well,” he admitted, and even Sparky has been known to wail disapproval now and then.

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Hurtado told me he looks around at nearby guitarists and violinists who know what they’re doing, and yet he makes more money than they do. He has a theory as to why.

“People, in their heart, want to help. God gives me the money,” Hurtado said. “If I need $300 and I don’t have it, I play the harmonica and I get $300. It’s a miracle every day. That’s the way I see it. It’s a miracle.”

Hurtado, Sparky and roughly 180 pounds of bird feed, dog food and weenies left for the beach at about 12:30 p.m. on the scooter, a pretty efficient little tractor. Hurtado wore blue trousers and a powder blue shirt with the name “The Breakers,” a luxury Florida beach resort. He said he shops at secondhand stores, $5 for pants, $2 or $3 for shirts, and he favors light-colored tops because the birds recognize him by the uniform.

Augustine Hurtado puts out dry cat food for strays on Wall Street in South Los Angeles.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Stray cats eat dry cat food placed there by Augustine Hurtado in South Los Angeles.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Hurtado drove the scooter onto a westbound Metro train and made it to his feeding spot, north of the Santa Monica Pier, about 2 p.m. Before he could unload the feed, a friend named Dyor Deneb approached with a wounded pigeon.

Hurtado took the bird in his hands and examined it, declaring that it had a rib injury. He put the patient into a cardboard box and the bird pecked away at some grain. Hurtado said he would take the pigeon home and nurse it.

“I’m telling you, he rehabilitates animals and brings them back to life,” Deneb said. “We are in the presence of a saint.”

Deneb said he lives in his vehicle and works as an artist near the spot where Hurtado plays harmonica. He said his only quibble with Hurtado is that he thinks he’s overfeeding the birds.

The birds don’t think so. They assembled in large groups in anticipation of the daily feeding ritual, pigeons in one spot, seagulls in another. Hurtado hoisted one 50-pound bag of grain after another and trudged through the sand to a spot 50 yards or so from the shoreline.

Augustine Hurtado tosses scratch feed to the pigeons at Santa Monica State Beach.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
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Hurtado is not a big guy but he’s got wiry strength, and he used a smooth, corkscrew motion to scatter the feed. Pigeons raced, fluttered, hovered and dive-bombed for their lunch, and St. Francis II was enveloped in a rush of flapping wings. When the grain was gone, Hurtado scattered Pedigree dog food — roasted chicken, rice and vegetable flavor — on a walkway, and the pigeons devoured that, as well.

The gulls, having waited patiently, then taxied for takeoff and took flight, circling Hurtado as he tossed chicken franks into the air. He tried to target a bird with a broken leg, but competition was stiff in the air and on the sand when some of the dogs fell back to earth.

A surprising number of birds caught the hot dogs in flight, like Cooper Kupp snagging touchdown passes from Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford. The birds swallowed the franks whole, straight down the gullet.

Bright sun, warm ocean air, birds tracing circles across blue sky.

Augustine Hurtado, who has been homeless for the past three years, sleeps inside his tent in South Los Angeles.
Augustine Hurtado, who has been homeless for the past three years, sleeps inside his tent in South Los Angeles. Next to him is his loyal companion Sparky, an 11-year-old Chihuahua-terrier mix.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Augustine Hurtado — yet another L.A. original — was at peace in a world of his own making, weary but content.

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And ready to do it all over again the next day.

Steve.lopez@latimes.com

VIDEO | 07:23
LA Times Today: A homeless man’s mission to feed L.A.'s cats and birds

Watch L.A. Times Today at 7 p.m. on Spectrum News 1 on Channel 1 or live stream on the Spectrum News App. Palos Verdes Peninsula and Orange County viewers can watch on Cox Systems on channel 99.