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Long Beach California, 90815-0679
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Feature Stories

Helping the Animals

From Issue: Volume XXI - Number 19
9/20/2013


By Alex Campbell


Alex Campbell

The alley is dark and foreboding, the kind of dark that sends you running back indoors for the biggest flashlight you can find. It is eerily quiet too, save for the chugging of the truck’s engine and the distant bark of dogs. Bags of garbage and discarded objects lay in piles on either side, leaned up against the garage doors and fences, narrowing the alley even more.

A young woman steps out of the vehicle with a deliberate hastiness. She doesn’t want to stay here for long; the police escort she requested isn’t available.

Animal Control Officer Candice Wicker sees what she came for: a rotting dog carcass, discarded into the alley like a piece of garbage. The dog’s body is wrapped in old carpet, and has clearly been there for days. Wicker notes out loud that the dog had been hit by a car. Someone though, wrapped it up and dumped it in this alley.

As she unrolls the carcass, the smell hits. Wicker stops for a moment.

“Ugh,” she says out loud, putting the back of her wrist to her nose and turning her head away.

Wicker bends over the carcass as she puts the deceased Manchester terrier in a plastic trash bag. With a strong stomach, she picks up the bag and carries it to the back of the truck, where it will join two and a quarter dead cats in the “deads” compartment.
While she’s no weakling, her build isn’t as muscular as she appears in uniform. Her bulletproof vest gives her the appearance of having a large, almost masculine upper body.

The vest is a necessary measure for the animal control officers who, clad in khaki shirts and green pants, are often mistaken for sheriffs or border patrol officers.

At 22 years old, Wicker is the youngest of the 22 animal control officers at Long Beach Animal Care Services. A pretty typical girl in her early 20s, Wicker has shows like “The Walking Dead” in her Netflix queue. She has two pit bulls, Dot and Chance; both of whom were adopted from the city’s shelter. She also enjoys going to yoga.

“This is my first legit job,” she says.

Animal control officers are on duty 24 hours a day in Long Beach, though the dispatcher goes home at 5 p.m. After-hours calls are handled by the fire department.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that 5 to 7 million companion animals – cats and dogs – are currently in U.S. animal shelters. They also estimate that about 60 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats in those shelters will be euthanized, for a total of 3 to 4 million animals.

The odds for dogs at Long Beach ACS are much better. In 2012, 27 percent of adult dogs that were taken in by the shelter were euthanized. Nearly 60 percent of dogs admitted to the shelter were transferred to rescues or the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Los Angeles, adopted, or successfully returned to owners. Puppies fared better, with only 16 percent euthanized. Nearly 60 percent of puppies get transferred to SPCALA alone.

Cats do far worse than their canine counterparts. Nearly half of all admitted adult cats were euthanized in 2012, while 73 percent of all kittens were euthanized.

The Long Beach SPCALA, shares office space with ACS, and gives adoptable animals a second chance. SPCALA will transfer the animal to their facility if they have the kennel space to spare.

Sometimes, though, there isn’t space for the transfer, and the city has to put the animal down.

Both the ASPCA and SPCALA – not affiliated with one another – cite overpopulation as the reason behind the high numbers of euthanizations.

According to the ASPCA, the cost of spaying or neutering a pet is less than the cost of raising a litter of puppies or kittens for one year.

Providing free or discounted services to residents of low-income areas — the main source of stray and unwanted animals — reduces the demand for kennel space, which is in limited supply.

If Wicker returns to ACS with any live animals, she has to check each of them in. She will weigh each dog, administer vaccines, and takes a photo for their file. She also scans the dogs for RFID chips, which can lead to a successful reunion with an owner, or a prosecution for abandonment.

Chipping of an animal is the best method for identifying strays and is one of the services Long Beach officers offer to the community at a reduced price. The chips also prevent people from fraudulently dropping off their pets as strays at the shelter.

“We quite often have people come in to turn in an animal as a stray,” ACS Sergeant Louise DuBois says about the attempts. “We scan it for a microchip, and the chip leads them right back to that person. They’ve just lied to us.”

Wicker says it’s worth seeing all of the abuse and death at her job. Her reward, she says, is when she gets to reunite a lost animal with their family.

alex@longbeachcomber.com