Dogged days

Ten hours, 200 miles and too many neglected animals—just another shift for Sacramento County animal control officers

Tong Thao, county animal control officer.

Tong Thao, county animal control officer.

Photo By Lilly Fuentes-Joy

For more information about Save Our Shelter, visit the Save Our Shelter page on Facebook, or go to

It’s nearly 1 p.m. on a muggy Sacramento afternoon, and Tong Thao has just started his swing shift, but the Sacramento County animal control officer is already swamped with work. As he sits behind the wheel of his service truck, Thao scans a two-page call sheet log and prioritizes his stops, including a report of a skunk in North Highlands and several calls about abandoned dogs.

“We’ll probably get a lot more calls—these are just the ones on my list,” Thao says as shifts the vehicle into gear.

It’s just another long, grueling 10-hour shift that will stretch well into the evening. As the only officer on call this afternoon, Thao will log anywhere between 120-200 miles, issue several tickets, rescue neglected dogs and dispose of dead animals.

And days like this are just going to get even longer.

In June, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors voted to reduce the shelter’s budget by 49 percent, modifying hours and cutting six positions from its staff.

With only two full-time kennel attendants to care for an average of 318 animals a day and only nine field officers available to cover an anticipated 30,000 calls during the next fiscal year, the question looms: Is it enough?

Good Samaritan, poor kitty

Thao’s first stop is to check out a report of a neglected dog at an apartment complex on Howe Avenue. But when Thao arrives, there’s no sign of the apartment number given, and a receptionist in the complex’s business office just rolls her eyes.

“That apartment number doesn’t exist, but I bet I know who placed that call,” she says curtly.

It’s not uncommon, Thao says, heading back to his truck, to receive bogus calls from disgruntled neighbors. He makes a notation on his log sheet; another officer will follow up for safety, but for now it’s on to the next stop. Before he can get the truck in gear, however, Thao is flagged down by a man frantically waving his arms.

“I’ve got a cat,” the man says, panting. “It’s been hit by a car.”

The cat was found on Bell Avenue, and that slight geographical difference creates a big conundrum for Thao. Bell Avenue is in the city and, thus, out of Thao’s jurisdiction. He could drive it to the county shelter, but there’s no vet on duty today, and the cat, an older female tortoiseshell whose tail was skinned down to bloody, exposed flesh, clearly needs medical attention.

Thao places the cat into one of the truck’s back compartments and decides to transport her to the Society for the Prevention of the Cruelty of Animals which, he explains, will treat the feline and then deliver her to the city shelter.

But when Thao arrives at the SPCA, a desk clerk refuses to accept the cat because it was found in the city and advises him to drive it over to the city’s Animal Care Services on Front Street.

“That’s a first,” Thao says, as he places the cat back in the truck and reassures her with a quiet “It’s OK, mama, it’ll be all right.”

Heavy lifting: Thao’s department is shrinking, but not the county’s population of neglected animals.

Photo By Lilly Fuentes-Joy

If Thao is stressed out by the detour, he doesn’t show it. At 37 years old, he’s worked for five years at the shelter where he started out by cleaning the animal’s cages.

It’s a job that Thao says requires maturity. He has a near Zen-like approach to dealing with sick or potentially dangerous animals, as well as difficult humans.

At Animal Care Services, Thao waits for a vet technician to process the delivery; nearby, a man fidgets with a miniature boxer he claims he found at the corner of Folsom Boulevard and Power Inn Road.

“I don’t want it to get killed,” the man says, shifting from foot to foot as he pulls slightly at the dog’s leash. “I mean, if it gets killed, it’s better here than there.”

After a few more questions from the clerk, the man is directed to place the dog into a vaultlike door built into the wall.

“OK, baby, come on,” he says, coaxing the dog through the door.

Later, Thao shakes his head with disgust.

“That was his dog—you could tell just by the way he was talking about it—people think we’re so dumb.”

Dumb and dumber

Dumb. That’s just one of the misconceptions that people have about animal control workers, Thao says, as he drives across Sacramento to his next destination, a call about four abandoned pit bull puppies in a Rio Linda backyard. A woman who answers the door in a stained T-shirt and miniskirt claims she found the puppies on the street and tried to give them away. Now they’re living on her back porch—one sick with bloody diarrhea. As the woman directs her teenaged daughter to retrieve the puppies, Thao notices several kittens lounging on the porch and inquires if they’re licensed.

“Oh, do they need to be?”

Thao gives the woman a flier with information about cat licenses, retrieves the puppies and heads out to the next call.

“People think we’re just dog catchers; they don’t see us out working in the field—they think we just drive around all day killing time,” Thao says later, as he drives a few miles north to check out a report of an abandoned German shepherd puppy.

“They don’t see how involved we are in the community and with the animals—we’re the voice for the animals that are tied up with no food or water.”

The quest to care for all those animals is becoming increasingly difficult.

A shrinking staff and reduced hours means that not only will response times be delayed, but the shelter can no longer investigate every call.

The Vandermeyde family (from left): Amanda, mom Nicole and Josh are adopting a kitten. If every household in Sacramento would license their pet, the county could fully fund its animal services programs.

Photo By Lilly Fuentes-Joy

“We will no longer respond to reports of barking dogs or loose animals on the roadways,” says the shelter’s operations manager Tara Diller.

Each year, the shelter cleans, feeds and cares for an average of 15,000 live unwanted animals. Of those, approximately 65 percent are euthanized due to injuries, illnesses or lack of adoption.

To absorb costs, the shelter is relying on public support. A June rummage sale raised $21,000 and the Save Our Shelter program, which encourages owners to license their pets and also accepts donations, has raised more than $50,000 since its launch in April, Diller used some of the SOS funds to restore an animal control officer position originally eliminated by the board of supervisors in June.

“If there are 173,000 pet-owning households in Sacramento and 2.2 dogs and 1.7 cats per household, and we were successful at getting one household pet licensed [for each] home at $15 [per license], then that solves our problem,” Diller says.

“SOS is about staffing and programs and medical needs for animals—it’s not about buying puppy toys.”

Long days, small victories

Only a third of the way through his shift, Thao stops to check on the dead skunk in North Highlands. The owners of the dog who killed it are now worried that their pet may have contracted rabies, but when Thao arrives to pick up the skunk, which has been placed in a plastic bag and unceremoniously dumped in a dirt bed, he does a quick records check on the dog and finds that it’s not licensed.

“Is your dog up on its shots?” he asks the owner.

“Oh yeah, definitely.”

“When was the last time it was vaccinated?”

“I don’t really know,” the owner admits.

Thao writes a “fix it” ticket to get the dog licensed, then warns the owners that it may take up to two weeks to get toxicology reports on the skunk.

The owners are clearly displeased with the ticket, but as Thao places the possibly diseased skunk in the truck—in a separate compartment from the puppies—he warns them that the dog is at risk.

“One in five skunks has rabies,” he tells them. “You need to call us if your dog starts behaving out of the ordinary.”

The remainder of Thao’s day will be spent similarly, traversing the county to answer calls on an injured bird, more abandoned dogs and possible “loose aggressives”—the term given to untethered, potentially vicious dogs.

It’s a long day, and Thao admits the potential for emotional burnout is high.

“It’s hard, but I tell myself that at the end of the day I did the best I can do—I took the animal out of that situation. It’s all about the small victories.”