As a small crowd of curious onlookers stepped back, Jesus Arroyo bent over a sheet-covered cage containing a frightened skunk. Maintenance workers at a huge Isla Vista apartment complex had trapped the skunk after it destroyed some stored mattresses and made a nest in an electrical cabinet.
Arroyo, a county animal control officer, whistled what could best be described as an improvised jazz melody – floaty, pleasant, without direction. He interspersed his song with soft kissing sounds. The people in the crowd took a long breath-the music was soothing them as well as the skunk.
A worker helped Arroyo slide a plank under the trap and the men-like Cleopatra’s slaves bearing a litter-
carried the cage to an adjacent open-space park. The goal was to release the small animal that, the day before, had sprayed the apartment employees but good. Among the other smells emanating from the massive Studio Plaza grounds-fried meat, high-quality marijuana, perfume-y dryer sheets-the lingering odor of skunk spray hung in the courtyard. This day, however, the skunk had been charmed, by one of the county’s finest.
Arroyo’s day starts at Santa Barbara County Animal Services headquarters on Overpass Road; the main office suite is being remodeled, so all the employees are jammed into a smallish room in one corner of the building. Arroyo, robust in stature and neat in his uniform, grabs his list of calls and climbs into his truck. First stop: a Goleta office building where he must pick up a dead gull. The carcass was in the middle of a juniper thicket, so he had to crunch his way to scoop up the bird with a giant plastic trash bag.
Like a police officer, an animal control officer must check in with the home office before and after each call. Using a two-way radio, Arroyo, 45, recites numbers and codes and scribbles notes in his log. His only weapons are a small baton, called a bite stick, and his wits.
The next stop is a “license check” in the Hope Ranch annex area. Not too sexy an assignment, but making sure dogs have licenses is one of the bread-and-butter functions of animal control. While Arroyo cruises down a narrow street, he spots a woman walking her dog with no leash. He slows down and calls, “Good morning.”
The woman groans something between “Ohhh” and “Hello,” realizing she’s busted. Holding a wad of tissues to her bright red nose, she explains she’s walking between her home and the horse stable three doors down. “I make this walk a hundred times a day,” she says, admitting to breaking the leash law that many times per day. “I’ve got the flu :” she trails off miserably. The happy Labrador wags his tail as Arroyo kneels down to examine the tags. He gives the woman a verbal warning to use the leash even on short walks.
Arroyo gets a little tougher with the next person, the license check on his call sheet. He writes the man a fix-it ticket, as he had several days to get a license for his miniature Doberman pinscher. How did Arroyo find out the little guy didn’t have a license? It had escaped from the yard and was picked up as a stray. Another way authorities find out a dog has no license: barking complaints.
Shaking his head, Arroyo said there are too many dogs in the county without a license. “It’s a lot easier if the dog gets lost or is involved in a bite,” he said. “We have the rabies information and can do a home quarantine, not at the shelter.”
A call comes in across the radio-a Montecito resident says a wild animal is trapped inside her stove. Arroyo hops on the freeway, this time with a sense of impending rescue.
Of Birds and Turtles
The guard at the entrance to the gated community knows Arroyo. “Another loose dog?” he asks jovially and waves in the truck. The woman is happy to see Arroyo and takes him into the kitchen where-it turns out-scratching noises can be heard coming from the large hooded fan above the stove. Could it be a bird? Is it a mouse? The space seems too small to accommodate a rat or squirrel.
Finally, there’s soft chirping, and Arroyo smiles. “It’s a bird,” he says. “Hear that?” He climbs onto the counter and removes a couple outer panels, but he can’t get to the inner section without tools. Arroyo explains to the disappointed woman that he’s not allowed to take apart appliances or machinery. He’s happy to come back and grab the bird when she has secured a handyman to take apart the fan.
“I just don’t want it to die,” the woman says. Walking Arroyo to the door, she tells him there’s an owl that has made a nest in one of the chimneys. The family never lights that fireplace anyway, so they let the owl live there.
In his truck, Arroyo is frustrated he couldn’t get to the bird. There are things he simply can’t do; for instance, climbing on rooftops or crawling under houses.
Back on Sheffield Drive, Arroyo decides to pay a visit to Turtle Dreams, one of the many rescue groups in town that help the county fulfill its animal protection mission. Winding his way through Montecito, Arroyo pulls up in front of Jeanie Vaughan’s home.
Inside the garage are aquariums and other containers filled with different sized turtles, tortoises, iguanas, and a couple of monitor lizards. Also hanging out are Vaughan’s old dog and a trio of cockatiels, but they seem commonplace next to the unblinking, spiny reptiles.
People try to make pets out of these exotics and end up dropping them off at the county shelter when they can’t handle the responsibility. Arroyo has transported many creatures to Turtle Dreams for proper care. Vaughan and her daughter Christi also plan to breed some of the rarer turtles to maintain their genes. They are slowly going extinct as humankind degrades their habitat, and some species are thriving only in private collections.
Arroyo praises Turtle Dreams and other rescue organizations, such as Wildlife Care Network, for their good works.
Employed at animal services for 13 years, Arroyo started out as a kennel attendant. He exhibits a neurosis-free personality and can be authoritative and easygoing at the same time. At the shelter, he’s known for his animal-handling skills. He’s been bitten by a dog only once, but he’s more worried about cat scratches.
Arroyo admitted to almost quitting early in his tenure because he had a difficult time euthanizing animals. “You have to tell yourself it’s for the good of the animal,” he said, recounting the time a cock-fighting operation was discovered at a Goleta ranch. There were almost 100 roosters that had been bred for fighting. All had to be euthanized because they are too violent to live with other chickens.
Another time, he got a call about a coyote that had been hit by a car on Cathedral Oaks Road. It had two broken legs and was bleeding from its nostrils and mouth. “It was dying,” Arroyo said. “It was suffering.”
Cats and dogs must be put down, he added, because of overpopulation. Every day, Arroyo sees the shelter’s kennel fill to capacity with homeless dogs, as well as the ASAP cat shelter with its cages and cages of lonely felines. He sincerely urges people to spay and neuter their pets and hopes his department can meet its goal of being a no-kill shelter by 2010.
The job has its physical demands. County animal control officers must bury dead seals weighing less than 100 pounds that are found on county beaches. They dig a hole three feet deep in the sand. (County solid waste employees haul away anything bigger.)
Some days, there’s real danger for Arroyo. He once had to untangle a baby rattlesnake from plastic netting at the Gaviota rest stop. It was a hot day and people were crowding around him, taking photographs. The biggest rattlesnake he ever caught was curled up in a cat litter box in someone’s laundry room. He used tongs with a four-foot handle.
Still, Santa Barbara does not offer the dramatic and sad stories told on TV’s Animal Precinct show, Arroyo said. Bigger cities with extreme poverty can be hard on wild and domesticated animals. He has never busted unscrupulous pit bull breeders-a regular occurrence on TV animal cops shows. But he has picked up many stray pit bulls. Recently, he retrieved one that was obviously dumped on a Gaviota Coast ranch.
Of pit bull terriers, he said, “They’ve got a real bad reputation, but to me they’re one of the sweetest dogs.”
A Day’s Work
Standing in Isla Vista’s Del Sol open space park, Arroyo felt a sense of relief and satisfaction watching the skunk run away after it cautiously crept out of the trap. He deals with the tension between humans and wildlife on a daily basis. People and skunks have to live together, so with that in mind, he gave instructions to the apartment complex workers.
Arroyo emphasized that the apartment complex workers cannot trap wild animals without a permit. Instead, they should seal up the electrical cabinet and the mattress storage area so the skunk can’t return. They could use rags soaked in ammonia to deter the animal, he instructed. He warned the skunk may find its way back as it was released close to its home territory, as required by state Department of Fish and Game regulations.
The skunk release turned out to be the most exciting part of Arroyo’s day, and that was okay with him. The Montecito woman got the bird out of her stove pipe-it flew away unharmed-and the afternoon ended with Arroyo patrolling Goleta Beach for unleashed dogs. Cold winds made the park inhospitable that day, and the beaches were deserted.
“This is one of the benefits of my job,” he said, looking out at the white-capped ocean. It’s a good place to de-stress after difficult days-days when a pregnant dog delivers nine puppies at the shelter, or when celebrities (he won’t name names) curse at him about the leash law, or when an aggressive or sick animal must be put to sleep by his hand.
At home, Arroyo has no pets. He has no time for them, he said. It’s hard to believe him when he claims not to get attached to the dogs at the shelter-he knows all their names. But it’s easy to believe Jesus Arroyo doesn’t need any pets. He is a caretaker of all the county’s animals.