“Dog catching” is not always about dogs. One morning early the janitor at Vestal Elementary School called us. “You aren’t going to believe this,” he said, “But there’s a camel tangled up in the swing set on our playground.” And there was. It had been picketed not far away, brought in for a promotion of Camel cigarettes. Luckily, the owner and keeper soon found it and led it off. None of us knew a darn thing about camels except that they were supposed to be cranky.
One of the more rural officers got a call to where a cow had broken through the badly maintained cover on a septic tank and was standing up to its neck in sewage. The officer drew himself up and said, “All right, I’ll be easy on you. I’ll give you until noon to get this cow out of there or I’ll write you the most expensive ticket you’ve ever imagined!” Then he made his business to be far away until after noon. The owner had hired a backhoe to lift his cow out, something he might have been reluctant to do without the incentive of a ticket. The officer didn’t ask how they got a bellyband under the cow.
Responding to a call of my own about chickens in traffic, I found two batches: six white leghorns and a dozen small banty hens, sure enough running around in the street. They had been bought for a farm, but left in a residential garage with a lot of feed which the optimistic owners thought would keep them there -- even with the door open -- until they could be transferred to the farm after work. Or maybe someone else had opened the garage door. I spent a half hour making a fool of myself chasing chickens around. They were full of food and needed exercise more than enticement. Beyond that, the leghorns would go in as a group and the banties would go in as a group, but both groups refused to go in at the same time. Then a boy came home from school and I told him HE had until rush hour to get those chickens in. I expect he quickly got his parents home. The complaint didn’t repeat.
Inevitably, we had a more daunting stray, an African lion. It was only a six-month-old female but it was already bigger than a German shepherd. The owner was a young gypsy man who had named it Jamalya. I lived not far from him and had walked past his yard when he had it out on a chain and it seemed quite tame. We talked about it at the shelter but we had no law that addressed lions at that point.
Jamalya appeared early in the morning at a local business. Lyon Moving Company had some employees picketing out front, but since the boss was not at work yet, the sympathetic front desk people had invited the picketers in for coffee. Just before they were ready to go back out, the lion peered in the front window. Police response was confused by the fact that it was a lion at the Lyon Moving Company, but they soon had a firm grip on one thing: this was obviously an animal control problem.
The first of our officers on the scene were Bill Lennox and Kathy Christopherson, the coolest and most appealing people we had. The media and the neighbors did not overwhelm them and they were able to keep the people away from the lion, although there was a lady who rushed up in a mini-pickup with a baby in her arms to tell us that she had once had a pet lion and knew all about what to do. It never occured to her that this particular lion might be different or that she might be endangering her baby.
When I arrived, I thought maybe by using her name I could get close enough to snap a leash to her collar. After all, I’d seen how tame she was. One giant paw with claws made a swipe at me, immortalized on the front page of the Oregonian the next day. An upset disoriented lion thinks quite differently than it would in her familiar place with a familiar person. We had had a case not long before when a man with a pet lion he trusted utterly had had his forearm laid open to the bone by one paw swipe. I decided I didn’t want blood on my nice clean dress.
By then Burgwin and Dr. Watts were there. I suggested getting the gypsy guy to come claim his pet. That was vetoed. Did we really want to give him back his lion when he clearly couldn’t keep it under control?
By now the lion had been hazed into a fenced pipeyard and had jumped into one of their huge bins of pipe fittings. We had a couple of daredevil officers and they made an attempt at roping her from overhead, climbing out on the roof of the bins. Didn’t work.
So now Dr. Watts got out his trusty air-powered tranquillizer gun. I’d brought the zoo veterinarian in for a workshop and he had gotten us started, helped us pick out the rifle, taught us to operate us, coached us while we shot up a pile of cardboard boxes with animals drawn on them, and cautioned us of the dangers. For instance, it’s a major mistake to tranquillize a horse anywhere you don’t want it to lie down and pass out, like in the middle of a bridge. And the dosage of tranquillizer for horses, aside from relating to the weight of the animal which has to be guessed -- sometimes in the dark -- completely changes if the animal has been runnning and scared. Our policy was that only the veterinarian could use the gun and luckily Dr. Watts turned out to be a decent shot. Anyway, he was the only one able to calculate the dosage of the meds.
One outfit I had called when researching was a game farm in Florida where the owner bellowed jovially, “Hey, come on down and we’ll practice on the critters we’ve got. If you accidentally kill one, we’ll eat it that night.” Everyone forgets that one of the more formidable guns Lewis and Clark took along was an air gun. The zoo vet explained that one of the quandaries was that the best place to get the drug into muscle was the hip, but there is a huge vulnerable nerve (the sciatic nerve, which you know about if yours has ever been inflamed) running down the middle of the hip and it could be permanently damaged. He’d been a quarter-of-an-inch off once when trying to tranquillize a giraffe and it limped forever after. The public is unforgiving about such misadventures.
In Montana I lived next to Glacier National Park when the rangers were just beginning to tranquillize bears instead of killing them. I’d heard the stories about how if they pumped up the pressure a little too high, their tranq dart went right on through the bear, killing it as effectively as lead. One of the first victims was a little female black bear with a cub. The rangers said she stood up to see what they were doing, took the dart in her chest, put her paws on her bosom just a person would, and keeled over dead. They felt awful. And they were afraid to try to tranq the cub until they figured out what went wrong so they had to spend days trapping it.
But Dr. Watts and a few others had practiced enough to feel fairly confident. The problem was what drugs to use for a half-grown lion, how to figure the dosage, and how long the interval would be before she woke up and started demolishing the truck. Luckily it all worked. She didn’t wake up until she was safely in Dr. Watts’ sick bay, which were the only kennels with a lid and no outside access.
But then what does one do with a lion in a dog shelter? What do you feed a lion? (Some suggested small dogs. No one laughed.) Actually, we just went up to the zoo and bought a sack of lion chow. Then who’s going to clean up the “processed” lion chow? I’d read an article about lion excrement, which claimed it came in neat round balls, something like horse manure. The article was accurate. In fact, the zoo bagged up its lion and elephant manure and sold it as “zoo doo” for gardens, especially good for tropical plants. And stray animals stayed out of the yard.
It turned out that since I’d bragged about how seeing how tame she was and since I’d raised bobcats in Montana, I was delegated to clean the lion cage. I went in with a squeegee on a very long handle, which scared the cub so much she leapt straight up in the air. The hair on both of us also stood straight up. I made the shelter supervisor stand just outside the sick bay door watching through the window in case Jamalya tore my throat out. She asked what she was supposed to do if that happened, but I had no answer. Not my problem.
Months before I’d gone to LA to visit friends and bargained with the county to rent me a car down there if I would go interview LA’s animal control and bring back ideas. Their “special ops” guy was a former Marine, waiting to finish a degree in night school so he could be a regular police officer. At least it started out that way, but like so many of us, he got so fascinated that he kept putting off the transition over to the police.
He told me that they averaged five lions a year and that they were not much trouble. Mostly trained and docile -- valuable enough in the movie business that their owners were right after them. What they hated in LA was ostriches, emus and the like. The big brainless birds could disembowel a human with one swift swipe of a clawed foot -- descended from dinosaurs, you know. One of the officers had actually gotten an immigrant Argentinean to teach him how to use a bolla, one of those sets of three heavy balls connected by rope which one throws to entangle feet. Then all you had to worry about was their beaks, but you could throw a blanket over their heads.
The lion’s gypsy owner finally emerged from hiding and began working to get his lion back while we stalled. It was decided to transfer the animal to an exotic animal shelter, she was loaded, and the lone animal control officer with police driving training was delegated to drive along to run interference. But the gypsies did follow closely enough to find out where the lion was taken and finally managed to get Jamalya back, mostly by paying all costs and promising to never bring her back to the county.
Then we began to hear rumors that the local “Black Panthers,” which were active at that time, had gotten themselves a mascot actual black panther, far more untameable than a lion. It never appeared.
Late one night a cougar was hit by a car, right in town, and knocked unconscious. The officer on call was Renee, who had trouble with the people present. One of them was a woman who insisted she wanted to cradle the cougar’s head in her lap while it recovered. In the end a sheriff’s deputy had to stand by, both in case the cougar came up slashing and to keep sentimental women at bay. It took a little help to get the cougar into the truck and this time they didn’t bring it back to the shelter. In fact, when it seemed to have recovered, except for being a bit groggy, it was released into appropriate habitat.
Another time a burglar broke into a very nice house and was so disconcerted to be met by both a doberman pinscher and a pet cougar, its playmate, that he left by the front door, failing to secure it behind them. It was a bright moonlight night and the pals were having a wonderful time chasing each other around the well-manicured lawns of the elegant neighborhood when both animal control and the animal owners arrived. The doberman was whistled into the house and the cougar followed, much to everyone’s relief. Some thought both animals ought to have been shot and others were quite charmed by the image of the animals in the moonlight on the grass.