Longtime Orange Cove resident Bertha Del Bosque thought she knew everything about her city.
But a year ago, while serving on the Orange Cove City Council, Del Bosque learned that for decades the city had been picking up stray dogs and euthanizing them, sometimes within a few days.
“It was horrible,” she said. “They were putting good dogs down for no reason.”
Since then, Del Bosque and a group of volunteers, called Friends of Orange Cove Animal Shelter, have been working at the city’s animal shelter with one goal in mind — build a no-kill shelter for man’s best friend.
They face an uphill battle.
Orange Cove, a city of about 10,000 in southeastern Fresno County, is one of the poorest communities in the Valley, and Mayor Victor Lopez said there’s no money for a new animal shelter. In fact, the city is operating at a deficit of more than $1 million a year, he said.
“I know they care a lot about the dogs,” Lopez said. “But I have to do what’s best for the community.”
The idea of volunteers taking over a city’s animal control is novel, but not new. In Selma, a group of volunteers formed a nonprofit called Second Chance Animal Shelter of Selma to take over animal control.
The nonprofit opened for business a year ago and the city pays it $5,500 a month to cover the cost for a trained animal control officer, food for the dogs and supplies, said Mayor Scott Robertson.
“It’s a great investment because there’s such a need,” he said, noting that for five decades in Selma, the city ran the shelter and dogs were housed in not-so-hospitable conditions at an abandoned sewer yard on McCall Avenue near a vineyard. Large dogs were housed outside in the dirt, getting bit by insects and getting baked by sun in the summer and freezing in the winter. Smaller dogs were packed in a 600-square-foot space, Robertson said.
Today, they live in comfortable digs at Floral Avenue and Front Street.
“It took the entire community to make it happen,” Robertson said.
Selma was fortunate — California Water Service, the local utility, donated an acre of land for the shelter. The City Council approved donating framework for a large metal building that had sat unused for 10 years. General contractors, electricians, plumbers and other skilled laborers donated time and money to erect the building, said Robertson, who is a volunteer and a board member of the nonprofit.
“It’s still a work in progress,” Robertson said, noting that the nonprofit’s metal shed has heating and cooling for the dogs, but needs donations to pay for insulation and other supplies.
Del Bosque said the Selma story has inspired her and her volunteers. Seven months ago, Friends of the Orange Cove Animal Shelter applied for nonprofit status.
Del Bosque, 54, served eight years on the City Council before losing her seat in November. She said animal control was not even on the city radar until someone told her to check out Orange Cove’s animal shelter in December 2013.
She said it was an eye-opener: Dogs big and small were living in squalor. Any animal not picked up within a week (sometimes sooner) was euthanized, Del Bosque said.
“It broke my heart,” she said.
Then she learned of what the city of Selma had done, and wondered why Orange Cove couldn’t do the same.
“We are not a rich city,” said Del Bosque, who has lived in Orange Cove since she was 5. “But what we do have is a great core of volunteers who really care about dogs.”
The volunteers have gotten a foot in the door. The council has allowed Del Bosque and others to clean the shelter and take care of the dogs. The money the city saves is supposed to go into a special account to pay for shelter supplies and veterinarian services, Del Bosque said.
That arrangement could change: The November election swept in new city leaders, and Del Bosque said she doesn’t know whether Lopez and the new council will continue to support the volunteer group.
“We want to work with them,” Del Bosque said.
Lopez, who owns two dogs, is noncommittal: “I will do what’s best for the community — not what’s best for Victor Lopez.”
It’s no secret that Lopez has wielded great power since first becoming mayor in 1978. After nearly three decades, he lost his 2010 bid for re-election to Gabriel Jimenez, the city’s former public works supervisor. Two years later, Lopez launched a comback, winning a seat on the council as vice mayor in 2012 after beating the incumbent.
In November, he was elected to the city’s top spot.
To his credit, Lopez, 71, has been instrumental in getting millions of dollars in grants for Orange Cove. The city’s dog shelter, however, hasn’t benefited from the windfall.
Dogs live in 16 kennels inside an old building in the rear of a city yard. The building has no heating or cooling, Del Bosque said.
There also are four outdoor pens that are covered by a makeshift wood roof and tarps.
“It’s not a nice place,” said volunteer Jeanette Salazar, 18, of Orange Cove who attends Fresno State. “These dogs deserve a better life.”
Del Bosque said a recent storm flooded the outdoor pens, so she and volunteer Denise Salazar improvised by getting wood pallets. They put the dog houses on top of the pallets.
“It’s not the greatest situation, but it works,” Del Bosque said.
The shelter was nearly filled Monday when it received four puppies that were living in a field.
“Our work never ends,” Del Bosque said.
Lopez said he sees value in good animal control. The City Council plans to talk about it on Jan. 28.
“One of our biggest complaints from residents is stray dogs roaming the city and scaring children as they walk to school,” he said.
Lopez said he also fears that the city could be held liable if a stray dog bit someone.
“I love dogs, but everyone has to be more responsible,” he said. “We have to work together.”
Del Bosque agreed, saying the volunteers have been effective in caring for the stray animals and finding homes for them.
“We want a good relationship with the city,” she said. “We hope they continue to let us help them.”
Though the work is sometimes frustrating, Del Bosque said she gets inspiration from her volunteers and supporters. There’s Jolie Wiggins, for instance. She lives in Fresno, but comes to Orange Cove often to check on the dogs. Wiggins, who was elected president of the nonprofit, works with animal shelters and rescue groups to find homes for Orange Cove’s stray dogs.
There’s Don Smith, 64, and his son, Shane Smith, 34, who come to the shelter every day to feed the dogs.
There’s the Family Pet Hospital in Clovis which came to Orange Cove a few months ago and donated vaccine shots.
There’s the SNIP Team which has helped Orange Cove residents get their dogs spayed and neutered at a low cost at HOPE Animal Foundation in Fresno.
There’s Ernie Luna, a Reedley High teacher who brings students every Monday to the shelter to do volunteer work.
Most of all, Del Bosque said, it’s young volunteers like Eric Padilla, 19, Itzel Avila, 18, and 11-year-old Denise Calderon, who clean the kennels and take the dogs on long walks.
“It’s a dirty job cleaning the kennels, but very rewarding,” said Raemee Anderson of Visalia. Anderson and her 20-year-old daughter, Kennedy, have been volunteering at the shelter for the past eight months.
Del Bosque said the arrangement has already paid dividends: many of the shelter’s dogs have been living there for months.