Early on Labor Day morning, Laura Olivas heard a scream from outside her bedroom window unlike any she’d heard before. She rushed outside to find her orange striped Tabby cat in the mouth of a loose husky.
The husky shook the cat in its mouth, and when the dog dropped the cat, a stray German Shepard it was with also attacked the cat. After a brief standoff, Olivas was able to shoo away the dogs and watched them look through her neighbors’ yards.
Her cat was so terrified that, despite his injuries, he used his claws to crawl away and hide under a bush.
Olivas’ neighbor called animal control, which in the city of Fresno is handled by the Central California SPCA.
“I told them, ‘I have a cat with a broken back. There’s dogs running around my neighborhood and they attacked my cat. I need help,’” she said.
But, the operator said since it was a holiday weekend and all the animal control officers were busy, no one could come to take a report from Olivas until hours later.
Olivas rescued the cat about 18 months prior to the attack when it was just 8 weeks old. She nursed it through various health problems and grew attached, despite not really being a “cat person.” Now, she calls the cat Sunshine.
“I spent a lot of money, time, love and effort taking care of this cat,” she said. “It was a lot of work, I got attached to him, and he got attached to me and our family. I have a special needs child who saw bits and pieces of what’s going on, and I had to explain it to him.
“We have all these animals running around Fresno, and no one will go out and patrol. You call SPCA and don’t get a response. …To me, that kind of response to an emergency situation when vicious animals are involved, it’s inexcusable. It’s ridiculous.”
Since then, Olivas had two other incidents she reported to animal control. They weren’t emergency situations and she was put on hold.
She grew so frustrated she went to the Fresno City Council meeting on Sept. 20 to share her experiences. District 7 Councilman Clint Olivier, who represents Olivas’ neighborhood near First Street and Olive Avenue, invited her to return and present possible solutions to the council.
Olivas’ experience isn’t unusual.
“Obviously if there is one person like this, there are more people like this in all of our districts who are dealing with this problem,” Olivier told his council colleagues during the Sept. 20 meeting.
For weeks, two dogs terrorized neighbors, joggers and Gazebo Gardens customers in the Fresno High neighborhood. Joy Harvell, who lives across the street from the dogs’ owners on East Fountain Way, kept a running tally of people the dogs attacked on her street or near Gazebo Gardens. She and other neighbors watched the dogs escape from their backyard while their owners showed little concern.
One of them was Jay Tucker, Harvell’s next door neighbor. One of the dogs bit him on his thigh in late August as he was walking out to his truck. The attack was “totally unprovoked,” he said. Previously, his wife was trapped inside her car in front of their home as the dogs circled the vehicle, jumping up on the windows.
“These dogs can be powerful,” he said. “I was worried for my family.”
An animal control officer from the SPCA arrived within 20 minutes to take Tucker’s report, but since it was the first official report on the dogs there wasn’t much the officer could do, Tucker said.
Not long after, a jogger was attacked by the same dogs, one brown and the other gray and white. Harvell heard the woman scream and called 911, hands shaking.
The dogs were put in quarantine and the owners eventually surrendered them to the SPCA, where they were euthanized, an SPCA spokesman confirmed.
“I cannot even tell you what a great weight has been lifted,” Harvell said about the dogs being gone. “I don’t have to run into my gate anymore. I don’t have to look over my shoulder as I’m getting into my car.”
Council President Esmeralda Soria, who represents District 1, referenced the Fountain Way problems with dog attacks during the Sept. 20 meeting, calling the SPCA’s response “unacceptable.” She said her office regularly receives complaints about the SPCA’s response to calls.
Dog bites on the rise
California laws require cities and other public entities to provide animal shelter services.
The city’s contract with SPCA is nearing $4 million. That accounts for animal intake and animal officers and humane investigators. Since the contract’s inception in 2013, the city has regularly granted increases for minimum wage increases and cost of living adjustments.
In the five years since the city and SPCA contract began, the number of dog bites has doubled, from 480 in 2013 to more than 950 in 2017, according to SPCA numbers.
All reported dog bites are looked into, whether or not the reports are credible, Walter Salvari, a spokesman for the SPCA, said in an email. Biting animals are either quarantined at the SPCA or at their homes, depending on the situation. California laws prevent the SPCA from taking an owner’s pet right away because the pet is considered property, he said.
In cases where a dog has a history of biting, the SPCA investigates to make a determination to remove the dog and declare it dangerous. If an owner appeals a declaration, an independent hearing officer makes the final decision.
Salvari said the SPCA also weighs the severity of the bites when dogs are quarantined. If the dog mauls someone, compared to a bite that results in puncture wounds, the dog likely won’t leave the SPCA.
Salvari attributed the increase in dog bites to the increase in population, which is a direct result of dog owners failing to spay and neuter their animals. In Fresno, reports of dog bites mostly involve Chihuahuas or pit bulls because those breeds are more common throughout the state.
“The public needs to spread the word and get that main thing out there: that we need to get animals altered,” he said.
Many dog bites happen when a resident tries to help a stray animal, Salvari said.
“Animals can be unpredictable,” he said. “People take a chance when they pick a dog up off the street. We need to teach kids that all dogs can bite.”
City leaders want more oversight
During the Sept. 20 Fresno City Council meeting, both Soria and Olivier expressed displeasure with animal control services in the city.
“I am concerned with the CCSPCA’s ability to continue to meet the city’s current and growing needs for animal services,” Soria said in a statement earlier this week. “I hear it regularly from our constituents that there is a lack of adequate response from them.”
Soria said the SPCA reported to the city it can’t afford to hire more people and is nearing capacity in its shelter space.
“This is a serious problem for many of our neighborhoods,” she said.
The city’s current contract covers 13 animal control officers plus a supervisor, seven customer service agents at the shelter, one intake coordinator, a veterinarian, animal care assistants and more, according to a June presentation made to the city council. Two animal control dispatchers receive anywhere from 300-500 calls a day, Salvari said.
Olivier said the issue has troubled him for years, and many agree more can be done, but few speak up. He believes one possible solution is to give city officials more say in the SPCA’s operations.
“For all the money taxpayers pay the SPCA for animal control, there is no oversight of these operations,” he said.
“As of right now, the SPCA is not a priority for many others in this organization, but I do believe that in the future, it will have to be addressed by everyone.”
Paul Caprioglio, who represents District 4, said it’s easy to complain about an issue, but he’d like to use his energy to address solutions.
“It’s something we all have to work together to resolve,” he said.