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A day in the life of Manteca animal control

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Animal Control Officer Crystal VanDykhuizen impounds a stray dog at the shelter.

HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin

POSTED August 9, 2014 12:56 a.m.

The early morning light shines through the glass, illuminating the stories and tails inside the Manteca Animal Shelter. 

The doors won’t open to the public for another two hours, but inside many of the shelter’s creatures crawl out of bed. 

Even the two-legged type.

Animal Control Officer Crystal VanDykhuizen is coming off what amounts to a 12-hour work day. Her long blonde hair is pulled into a pony tail and her undershirt refuses to be tucked. While she would have loved to punch the snooze button this morning, the animals in her life come first.

As if on cue, Diego saunters out from behind the counter. The domestic medium hair cat patrols the front lobby, stretching his legs as he goes.

Here, many of the cats are allowed to roam the hallway and lobby before the doors are opened, and Diego makes full use of this liberty. His fat-cat appearance, orange coat and slow strut make you wonder if Diego is actually Spanish for “Garfield.” He circles my legs, rubbing his untamed coat against my ankles. 

Diego is in desperate need of a spa day, and just his luck, VanDykhuizen says a sponsor has stepped up to pay for his grooming.

“Follow me,” she says.

The life of an animal control officer isn’t always exciting or adventurous as, say, that of their contemporaries at the police station. 

VanDykhuizen says there is a misconception that animal control officers spend their days chasing strays, bagging exotic birds and snakes, or educating the public on licensing. 

Granted, there is some of that. But like you and me, there are chores to tend to before VanDykhuizen and Officer Les Rowe are allowed to play in the field.

In a past life, VanDykhuizen was the owner of a floral shop in Escalon. She and her husband began selling flowers in memory of their daughter, who passed away nine years ago this Sunday.

When they decided to close the shop four years ago, VanDykhuizen took a part-time job with the animal shelter in Escalon. 

“I loved it,” she said. “I wish I had done it sooner.”

Today, she’s employed at both animal shelters, which means she works seven days a week. The mother of five also lives on a ranch “with lots of horses.”

“This job starts with the animals,” she says, which means laborious work for the officer and today’s volunteers, Jose Juarez and Sophie Perea. 

She leads me on a tour of the year-old, $2.1 million facility on Wetmore Street. To the right are the adoption rooms. On the left are cages for feral cats and just beyond those, the – gulp – euthanasia room. 

Through the door at the end of the hallway are the dog kennels – 29 in all. On this day, there are few vacancies. The dogs greet us with a sad symphony of whiny howls and barks. 

“They’re screaming at us,” VanDykhuizen says. “They’re screaming at us to let them out. It’s potty and play time.”

The streets of Manteca and Lathrop have surrendered dogs of all shapes and sizes, each with their own story of neglect and abandonment. 

There’s a mother and five puppies, each no bigger than a potato; and a Labrador retriever whose puppy dog eyes belie his charge of being, of all things, “too active.”

VanDykhuizen steps inside a kennel to collect a shaky chow-chow with a bad haircut. He looks like the reincarnation of Sideshow Bob – wild tuft of hair on top of a skinny body. 

The dog came to the shelter with twigs matted in its coat. He is among the lucky ones; VanDykhuizen recalls a pup with more than 200 ticks.

Once the dogs have been transferred to a holding compartment, VanDykhuizen starts the cleaning process. She pressure-washes the cages, floor and walls throughout the kennel because “dogs can sneeze up to 20 feet.” 

Good to know.

I trade paper and pen for a squeegee and towel, and mop up the standing water behind her. The shelter depends on volunteers to care for its animals, to maintain the property and run the front counter.

Each volunteer has their own tale to wag, too.

Juarez, 18, has found comfort and a healthy distraction through a summer work program at the shelter. The recent East Union graduate lost his mother just three days after Mother’s Day and the animals help fill the void.

Kris Davis runs the front counter for three hours a day, Tuesday through Friday. She brings a wealth of office management experience, but relishes her role as a grandmother.

After nearly two hours tending to the animals and the shelter, VanDykhuizen slips into her uniform and checks Government Outreach, a dispatch system that allows the public to bypass the Manteca Police Department and communicate directly with the shelter.

We’re in luck – a report of multiple barking dog complaints on the same street. A two-fer. We head out to the Woodward Park area, bound for Amy Way. 

Along the way, we learn a little more about Manteca’s newest animal control officer. In four years, VanDykhuizen has had just three dogs elude her grasp. Her hall-of-fame call list includes a Pterodactyl – yes, a flying dinosaur – which turned out to be an attention-starved Cockatoo; two adult skunks and 12 babies at a high school, a capture that later required a bleach bath; and a cat bite that landed her in the hospital.

We serve notice at both residences along Amy Way and then return to the shelter, where VanDykhuizen hands me off to Rowe. A 24-hour notice on the west end of Yosemite Avenue has come due. 

Rowe’s ties to the Manteca Police Department date back to 1995. His dream is to one day serve his community as a full-fledged police officer; he’s been in animal control for 14 years. “I think I can do more for my community,” he says.

We arrive to a back-lot home that had been ravaged a week earlier by a fire. The windows have been boarded up and the gate is locked, concealing but not hiding a collection of empty beer bottles and broken dreams.

A skittish dog stands watch over the property. Rowe says she has a litter of pups on the grounds somewhere. There are also seven goats and a pen full of roosters. 

During his career, he’s been faced with a Black-necked spitting cobra and elusive emus – truly scary stuff – but he insists animals are much easier to deal with than humans.

“People are so passionate about their animals,” Rowe said. “When you tell them you’re taking their dog or their animal, they become really upset.”

Rowe chases the stray dog for about 5 minutes, before tucking the leash back in his pocket. He says he’ll come back later when the human is home. 

“Sorry, man,” Rowe says, pulling on black sunglasses. “Wish we had more for you.”

No worries, guys. You’ve given me a tale or two.

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