On the morning of the puppy rescue, Shannon Townsend gets unwelcome news: The veterinarian is not coming. Townsend says a few unhappy words into the phone, takes a deep breath and puts her van, which smells of dog and bleach and patchouli, in gear. We are headed east toward Hoopa, where the "neuter scooter" was supposed to visit. There are no veterinarians in the Hoopa Valley, no county shelter, no animal control. Dogs run untethered down gravel roads, solo and in packs, chancing death on State Route 96. The males gather to fight when a bitch comes into heat. The females have litter after litter of pups, most destined to be sold or abandoned. Their teats swell and distend. They grow thin and exhausted. Fleas, parvo and heartworm spread like wildfire. In the absence of official services, a patchwork band of confederates have gathered to fill the gap: a Christian cat rescuer, several out-of-town volunteers, two school employees and a grieving family. In the world of Humboldt animal rescue, this type of collaboration represents a rare success.
"This isn't my job," says Townsend. "It's just what I'm passionate about."
Townsend is trim, pretty, with a short dark bob. She wears a green T-shirt, dark sweatpants and plastic purple clogs. Like many who share her passion, she has an inordinate number of personal pets: two dogs and three cats. She plucked the first two cats from a conveyer belt moments before they went into a trash compactor when she worked at a recycling center. Her latest dog, Sweetie, was never meant to be adopted into her small Eureka apartment.
"My boyfriend was so mad," she says, laughing. Sweetie was one of two dogs she brought back after visiting Hoopa to check on a litter of puppies. The puppies, seven newborn St. Bernard crosses, had been posted online by Carleana Estrada, who needed help getting them medical care and adoptive homes. Estrada, 18, is the twin sister of the late Richard Estrada, who was shot dead while allegedly attacking a California Highway Patrol officer with a machete during a psychotic episode last December. (See "'System Failure'", Oct. 15.) The Estrada family home is often surrounded by neighborhood dogs.
"They come down here because she's the only one who feeds them," says Townsend, referring to Leanne Estrada, Richard's mother. Sweetie, an older sister to the pups, had been covered in demodectic mange, a condition that causes rashes, hair loss and inflammation. Townsend found her personality irresistible and, after treating the puppies, took her and another dog home. One of the dogs went to a foster home. Sweetie stayed, eventually regaining her health and winning over Townsend's boyfriend.
North of Willow Creek, the hairpin mountain curves straighten out and open onto the lush Hoopa Valley. Summer farmstands sell the last of the year's produce: gourds, apples and grapes. Next to the highway, old mobile homes sit cheek-to-cheek with yellowed RVs, sharing yards with dismantled vehicles waiting for missing parts that may never come. On other visits, Townsend says, she saw many roaming strays.
"I just want to scoop them all up and take them home," she says. As we pull into the Estradas' yard, we're greeted by a cacophony of barks. Three dogs run to greet us, sniffing tires and licking hands. The family walks out, carrying the puppies in a box. They are warm and wriggly and smell vaguely of poop. Their tiny pink bellies are distended by worms.
The Estradas load the puppies into a kennel in the back of Townsend's car. Their mother whimpers as the door shuts. She was to be spayed today, and the family receives the news that the vet isn't coming with disappointment. At a previous spay-neuter clinic, the traveling veterinarian grew overwhelmed with having to process the paperwork in addition to performing the operations and vaccinations. Today Townsend and another volunteer, Kim Class, were going to help with the paperwork but the vet fell ill. Their organizations, the Humboldt Spay-Neuter Network and Companion Animal Foundation, help subsidize the cost of care. Today they will hand out vouchers reducing the cost to pet owners, to be redeemed in McKinleyville if owners can make the long drive over the hill.
Thomas Nickerson, a veterinarian with the Trinity Animal Hospital in Weaverville, says the Hoopa Valley is like many rural areas in the region in its paucity of animal services. Nickerson travels to Willow Creek once a week to offer rudimentary care, but doesn't have facilities there to perform spays.
"It's tough," he says. "There are a lot of diseases because there's a very high animal population, very dense. Because income level is low, people can't afford to take care of their animals."
Nickerson says the top diseases he sees are heartworm, parvo and cat leukemia. Heartworm in dogs is "just rampant" in the area. In many cases, preventative medicine could spare many lives and save a lot of money, he says, but poverty and transportation issues stand in the way of proper care.
"Counties are strapped for money," says Nickerson. "Animal services end up getting the short end of the stick."
Hoopa falls into a unique jurisdictional limbo. In late September, the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office suspended its memorandum of understanding with the tribe and revoked the power of tribal police officers to enforce state law after the department's staffing dropped to only one native officer on active duty. Enforcement now falls to the sheriff's department but, due to tribal autonomy, the HCSO does not have authority to enforce the civil codes that cover most animal control issues. Tribal Chairman Ryan Jackson says the tribe's animal control ordinance is adequate but the lack of a shelter is a major obstacle. Jackson says he doesn't think Hoopa's animal population is out of control. Currently, the county shelter in McKinleyville does not accept animals from Hoopa because the tribe doesn't have a contract with the county. When asked why the tribe had not pursued a contract, Jackson said, "Nothing would stop us from entertaining or negotiating a contract for those types of services," adding he would ask the current chief of police about possibilities.
In the absence of formal support, much work falls on the shoulders of dedicated local volunteers. In this case, Denise George and Kathy Holfacker, who run the Greater Rural Rescue Society (GRRS) serve as the de facto animal support services in Hoopa. They are waiting along with Class at the old church that serves as the valley's community center when we arrive with the whimpering puppies. Their faces fall when they hear the clinic has been cancelled. Holfacker had paid out of her own pocket to rent the space.
Holfacker (short, freckled, dark-haired) is the dog person. George (thin, tan, blonde) is the cat person. Between the two, they have 16 personal animals in their homes, and another 30 in their small shelter.
"We've had people mad at us because we won't take their animals," says Holfacker. "We've had it so full we had two bathrooms filled up, ... had to make makeshift kennels for puppies, even had a playpen for puppies. But if we don't take them, (people) take them up to Supply Creek or Big Hill and dump them. People will see them and call us, say they're starving, they've got no hair, they're shivering."
GRRS, a nonprofit, is supported through donations and adoption fees but a lot of the money, they admit, is their own. George works at the grade school. Holfacker, her former coworker, is retired. They take in between 25 and 30 dogs a year.
"It would be more than that if we took in everyone's puppies they didn't want anymore. You know, because they're not cute, now they're in the way," says Holfacker. "I ask them, 'Why didn't you get the animal fixed?' It's hard when there's only two of us to do the work. I can do it, but it's hard."
Jackson had been under the impression that GRRS was defunct but, in fact, it has just stopped accepting new animals. Despite George and Holfacker's pleas that there is no room and no money, people continue to come, literally waiting until the women are distracted to open the back door and throw a dog or feral cat inside. In one case, a woman threw a puppy over the kennel's 6-foot chain link fence after George turned her away.
Last month schoolchildren alerted the women to a dog tied to a tree, a chain "embedded in her neck." She had been eating moss and tree bark to survive. Another dog was found dying from heartworm in an open field. She was covered with scars; Holfacker said she had been used for either fighting or breeding. Several years ago, a tribal police officer removed what rescue workers described as a "friendly" stray that had haunted the schoolyard and shot it five times, severely wounding but not killing it. Rescue groups banded together to get the dog medical care. It now lives in an adoptive home outside the valley. This, claim George and Holfacker, is the only kind of "animal control" that exists; most tribal officers simply haven't enforced the tribe's ordinance in respect to animal cruelty or strays. Jackson confirmed the loose details of the story, saying he's not "personally in agreement" with the officer's decision but, due to the lack of a facility, the existing animal ordinance "allows for this to happen."
At the clinic, Hoopa residents begin to filter in, some carrying their animals. Class fills out vouchers for reduced-cost spays and neuters. One woman has taken in 22 feral cats. Class writes out voucher after voucher, although the woman says she doesn't know how she will get them to a clinic. Class says the Companion Animal Foundation is close to getting a mobile clinic with a dedicated veterinarian who will visit a different rural area each week. They are currently pricing vans and hope to begin fundraising soon. Class says she has a lot of empathy for the people she meets through her work.
"There's something that happens in a person when you have compassion and love, and you want to do the right thing but you can't afford it," she says.
"It makes me sad," agrees the woman with the feral cats.
Outside, George and Holfacker coo over the puppies. A man arrives with a middle-aged Boston terrier bitch. Told the clinic is cancelled, he says he wasn't sure he wanted to spay her anyway. Yes, the male dogs come around when she's in heat and bother her, but he keeps her inside. He wouldn't mind some pups out of her.
"You know, they'll live longer if you spay them," Townsend says gently.
The GRRS volunteers tell Townsend about two strays they saw recently — a wolf mix mother and her grown pup. The mother looked like she'd had a litter recently; the pup was limping, they thought she'd been hit on the road.
Then — as though summoned — the dogs appear in the empty school playground across from the church. The volunteers try to coax them over and, after some hesitation the dogs acquiesce. They scarf down piles of dry food and accept the women's warm attention with wagging tails. Their ribs are showing. Holfacker puts her hands gently on the pup's hips.
"It's not broken. I think it's out of socket," she says. The pup — a female — is unspayed. Without proper care she will likely be pregnant within a few months, or dead along the highway. Animals like these represent an ethical dilemma for volunteers. With no local law enforcement to hold neglectful owners accountable, and no room at GRRS, the only other option is to take the dogs to the county shelter in McKinleyville, where they might be treated and rehomed. But since the pound doesn't accept dogs from areas with which it is not contracted (and it is only contracted with Arcata, Eureka, Trinidad and Blue Lake), anyone who brought the dogs in would have to lie about their origin. This tactic, Townsend says, is sadly common, and results in dogs being turned over to the shelter with inadequate information.
Several animal rescue volunteers confess that they have coached people on how to lie to shelter employees to get them to take animals. The county shelter also does not take "owner-abandoned" animals. If your pup is no longer cute or your new boyfriend is allergic to your old cat, you have to lie, rehome or abandon the animal. The result, some say, is an artificially deflated euthanasia rate at the county animal shelter.
"The county makes it look like we have our population under control," says Jennifer Raymond of the Humboldt Spay-Neuter Project. "Because they really limit how many animals they take in."
Raymond, former director of the Palo Alto Humane Society, started the Humboldt Spay-Neuter Project in 2002. The project's focus is on reducing the number of animals rather than adoption. Prior to starting the organization, Raymond volunteered with the Sequoia Humane Society, which used to contract with the county. Unlike the current facility, Sequoia took in animals from all over and euthanized many. Raymond says whenever an animal arrived from Hoopa she would feel "a sense of dread."
"It's like the black hole," she says. "It's just appalling. So often they would have heartworm, parvo."
The county shelter has reduced its euthanasia rate to 3 percent, a figure of which officials are proud. But Raymond and others say that figure relies on the work of volunteers and nonprofits that shoulder an increasingly large burden with small budgets. Many compete for the same grant funding from the Humboldt Area Foundation, which creates tension.
"It's not easy to run a shelter," says Brent Ferguson, office assistant at the Humboldt County Animal Shelter. "Every time there's a budget crunch, we feel it. Government-run shelters are not, and never will be, self-sufficient. They are money users. If we adopt out a 40-pound dog, female, and charge $150, $100 we spent just to get them spayed. We can't do it for free."
In July, the city of Eureka briefly considered cancelling its $130,000 memorandum of understanding with the county shelter, a loss that Ferguson admits would have hurt. He says the increase in strays may also be related to economics — the region's population is growing, but wages aren't.
"If people would spay and neuter and put me out of a job, I would publicly thank them," he says. He admits the facility's low euthanasia rate would be higher if not for the rescue groups.
Back in Hoopa, word is slowly spreading that the clinic has been called off. Class stays to fill out vouchers, and Townsend turns her car around, headed to McKinleyville with the grunting, whining puppies. She's taking them to NorCal Pet, a combination pet supply store/rescue group that will worm them, fix them and find them adoptive homes. NorCal Pet and others of its kind occupy a controversial space in the rescue community because some of their stock include animals imported from out of the area, often smaller breeds and puppies that are "in demand" in Humboldt. Some in the rescue community say NorCal Pet and others groups like it are reducing the capacity of adoptive homes in the county. Others counter that the animals they import are coming from shelters where they would otherwise be euthanized, such as San Bernadino, which has more toy breeds and a higher kill rate.
Shannon Ventuleth, who recently started a chapter of Sierra-Pacific Furbabies in the Humboldt area, says she sees her organization as more of a "hub" for animals that might be adopted out across the state and across the country. Many of Sierra-Pacific's cats are from San Bernadino, and around 40 percent are adopted within Humboldt County.
"I've had some [in the rescue community] that have been very supportive and some who have been kind of neutral and some that have been rather vocally opposed," says Ventuleth. "They hold the view that we should focus solely on the need of animals in this county and should not be bringing in animals from other counties, although they're very willing to send animals out of the county, so it's a little hypocritical in my opinion. We should be able to rescue however we want to rescue as long as we're thorough and legal."
According to Ventuleth and others, the cat population in California has exploded. Some experts blame an unusually warm winter, which has allowed feral cats to produce an "extra" litter. An unspayed female can have as many as four litters a year if conditions are right. Unchecked, feral cat colonies can quickly expand beyond control. Several local volunteers, including Townsend, spend their time feeding, trapping and spaying feral cats along the Eureka waterfront. They, along with the county shelter, send many strays and abandoned litters to a woman Raymond calls "the saint of stray cats."
The moniker would probably embarrass her, but it's easy to see why Wendy Kupilik has been locally beatified. She is middle-aged, with pale skin and pale hair. Her wrists are tattooed with psalms. A regular volunteer with the Pregnancy Care Center, one of her favorite phrases is "every life has value." Inside the compact headquarters of the Humboldt Animal Rescue Team, a scabby Lab mix trots to greet visitors coming in off Eureka's Summer Street.
"We just found out he's allergic to cat litter," says Kupilik. On the couch, Kupilik's adopted son, an autistic man in his mid-20s, rocks and coos. A volunteer and her 4-year-old daughter play with a kitten, photographing it for HART's website. And surrounding Kupilik, stacked in cages along every wall, mewing with their littermates in the back office dubbed "the nursery," are cats. Small cats, large cats, kittens and elder cats. Cats that need homes. In a normal year, Kupilik has between 20 and 30 cats besides those in foster care awaiting adoption in HART's office. This year, the average has been 70. Some are rescues from wildfires, but most are kittens, turned away from the county shelter or called into HART because someone abandoned them in a garage, a storage unit, a forest, a dumpster.
"I didn't get any sleep this whole summer," she says, calling this year the "worst kitten season any of the rescues have seen in a long time." The smallest kittens — the ones separated from their mothers by accident or human malice — require bottle feeding every two hours. Kupilik takes them home and cares for them herself, wiping their tiny butts so they learn how to poop, investing the money into getting them fixed, getting their shots and socializing them. Then — sometimes — the shelter will take them.
"I'm blessed," says Kupilik. "I spend over $3,000 a month on just spays and neuters, and $20 to $30 a day on litter. It all comes from donations or out of pocket. Just when I'm not sure how I'm going to pay the rent, a donation comes in."
HART has only been open for a year, and Kupilik bills it as "the only Christian animal rescue in Humboldt County." She personally takes home many animals considered unadoptable due to severe medical problems. A pet goat that required reconstructive ear canal surgery after being attacked by a predator — Vincent van Goat — recently passed away of old age.
Although Kupilik's cats rarely go unadopted for long (four months is her average turnaround rate), she acknowledges the current situation is unsustainable. HART's board of directors wants her to cut back to 40 cats. She doesn't know if it will be possible as long as strays continue to arrive from Hoopa and all other areas of the county.
"I wouldn't say that any place is worse than anywhere else, but everyone is responsible," Kupilik says. "We have a real problem in this county and we have idiots like me who just can't say no. If I have an empty cage I can't say no."