SAN FRANCISCO—Alabama Street runs north through the heart of the Mission, from Bernal Heights Park, past the city’s best burrito spot on 24th, all the way up to 16th Street, when its name changes, for one block, and it becomes Rescue Row. The bulk of the city’s animal outreach and rescue organizations are located on the block. You have Muttville, which rescues senior dogs and tries to find new homes for them. The San Francisco SPCA is one building up. Across the street sits the San Francisco Animal Care and Control office.
If you know about SFACC and don’t live in San Francisco, you probably know about them because of the only good account on Twitter, @officeredith, which chronicles the work that SFACC does as well as the menagerie of animals they take in. A sampling from this summer:
Delightful! Who doesn’t love cute doofus owls? I spent a day with SFACC to meet the woman behind the @officeredith account, and also to get a chance to see what SFACC does when they’re not posting pictures of impossibly cute animals. It’s a lot more complicated than getting kittens out of trees.
We’re an hour into a ride-along, and officer Juan Carlos Martinez, who is showing me around today, has been called to a house in Dolores Heights to deal with a “Code Two skunk.”
“The trick is to move slowly,” Martinez tells me, “the second you are impatient with a skunk, that’s when they spray you.” He’d know; the two-year SFACC veteran has been sprayed plenty of times. “We always have backup uniforms.”
There are three levels of severity, ranging from, say, “cat stuck in a tree” to “raccoons fighting my son in the driveway.” Earlier this morning, we were called in to deal with a Code Two opossum, an ornery little dude who had probably been hit by a car and had curled up to die in the backyard of a fancy house in the Dogpatch. Martinez donned a thick pair of leather gloves and was able to corral the one-eyed marsupial into a cardboard carrying case, all while the family’s docile dog looked on from the kitchen.
SFACC is a small unit, and at any given time, fewer than 20 people are responsible for handling all animal-related problems in the city and county of San Francisco. They used to be open 24 hours a day, but budget cuts forced them to close from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. The volume of calls they handle is tremendous, but more than that, it’s the incredible variety of problems they’re charged with solving that’s truly impressive. Every member of the team has stories of dealing with odd animals, like a tegu lizard or a coyote. Martinez told me he once responded to a call out at Lake Merced, where he found a pair of massive snapping turtles. “I didn’t know how strong they could be.” You learn quickly on this job.
The officers of SFACC often find themselves dislodging animals from weird predicaments, like the raccoon who got his head stuck in a tire and needed to be rubbed with vegetable oil to slither out. “The new and original happen fairly frequently,” Martinez noted.
On any given day, an SFACC officer might rescue a hawk that got stuck in a garage, tend to a cat after it’d been hit by a car, or help save a dog after it tumbled off a cliff. The thrill of the job is its variety, as well as the chance to help injured or abused animals. As Martinez told me, he and his coworkers all work for SFACC because they’re animal lovers.
Remember that dog whose thrilling escape across the Bay bridge briefly went viral last year? Martinez picked the dog up from CHP and SFACC was able to find a permanent home for Ponch, as they named him, within the month.
The job is simultaneously cute and gritty, and as much as the Twitter feed makes it seem as if SFACC is one big animal party all the time, Martinez and the rest of the department have to deal with problems that nobody else will. As Martinez told me, SFACC has an open-door policy, which means that unlike many no-kill shelters, they don’t have the luxury of turning any animal away, no matter how dire its situation. They’re the last resort. Euthanizing animals is an ugly part of the job, but for injured animals that can’t make it in the wild or dying pets, it is sometimes the only option. However, they put down a relatively small percentage of the animals they take in, and they have been steadily improving their live release rates year by year.
That Code Two skunk from earlier? When we arrive in our van, it’s having a seizure on someone’s back porch, probably because it got into some rat poison. It’s cute and small and there’s nothing Martinez can do to save it. When we take it back to SFACC, there are two garbage bags on the ground, surrounded by what I will soon learn is coyote blood.
San Francisco has a few families of coyotes living in the city, and SFACC works with Project Coyote to educate people about the critters and keep them out of harm’s way as much as possible. Martinez assures me that coyotes are actually pretty chill, as long as you don’t let your cat go out at night if you live near Golden Gate Park. People call in coyote sightings to SFACC and often ask for them to be exterminated, and while it’s not exactly comforting for some residents to have wild carnivores in this small, dense city, SFACC is not in the business of killing off wildlife. As Martinez puts it, they are here to mediate human-animal interactions, and keep both sides healthy and safe, which is harder than it sounds sometimes.
If this all sounds overly grim, our next call is to go pick up a stray kitten that a girl found outside her school. On the way there, Martinez tells me that spring is their busiest season, as the parks and streets flood with undercoordinated baby animals getting into mischief. He predicts that by now, in late summer, the “kitten” is more of a “small cat,” and he’s right. She doesn’t have a chip, but she’s incredibly calm around people, even purring as he places her in a cardboard crate. “She’ll probably be adopted in a week,” he says. If I could have pets in my apartment, I would have adopted her on the spot. Martinez said he’s adopted two pets during his stint as an animal control officer, and that pretty much everyone around the office has as well. One of the harder parts of the job might be coming to terms with the fact that you can’t adopt every cat and dog in need.
Let me tell you the story of Wiggles.
Wiggles is a six-foot boa constrictor.
Wiggles belonged to a man living out of his RV, and people would repeatedly call SFACC to report Wiggles’s presence, which makes sense, because she’s a big-ass snake. Wiggles would keep getting brought in, his owner would keep promising to take her back to Vallejo or Sacramento (where boa ownership is apparently permitted), and then more people would call in sightings, and the cycle would repeat itself. An SFACC officer told me “we all got fleas” from visiting the RV over and over. Wiggles’s owner even got arrested for fighting someone, which bounced poor Wiggles back to SFACC, but only temporarily. Eventually, the man’s RV caught on fire, and he reported Wiggles missing.
“We went out plenty of times looking for Wiggles,” said Officer Ellie Sadler, but they couldn’t find her.
Two months later, someone bought an RV (presumably from the same lot that housed the burnt husk of the RV from this story) and called SFACC to report that they’d found a large snake inside. Miraculously, Wiggles had survived. “I cried over a snake,” said Sadler. “Emotional moments sneak up on you.”
Sadler would know; she’s been with the department for 16 years. She’s also the one behind @officeredith. That’s right: There is no actual Edith. She’s a character created by the department, a fictional social media officer who chronicles the animals saved by SFACC and the officers who save them.
One of the main reasons Sadler runs @officeredith is to highlight the bright moments from an emotionally draining job. Her line of work still comes with some public stigma from people who see them as cartoon dognappers with oversized nets. The account is a way to show a potentially skeptical public the good work that SFACC does, like place a few pups in the Puppy Bowl when the Super Bowl came to town in 2016.
They really do rescue the silliest looking animals.
The account doesn’t shy away from some of the thornier parts of the job, but I suspect it also does the important work of buoying the spirits of SFACC officers themselves. Sadler told me the gut-wrenching story of a dying dog she found in the Mission, who was missing all of its fur and slowly bleeding from its cracked skin. It had been left alone by someone who was supposed to be taking care of it, in a backyard in full view of plenty of neighbors. The dog maybe could have survived if it was reported in earlier, but it was not, and it died out there. Nobody was ever held responsible. SFACC is full of animal lovers, and they have to stare this sort of deadly cruelty and neglect in the face. Why wouldn’t they want to celebrate the uplifting parts of the job as often as possible, and share them with as many people as they can?
As soon as Martinez and I arrive back at the office to drop off a delightful seven-year-old Rottweiler mutt named Sadie who has a skin problem and whose owner no longer has time to care for her, he gets a call for a Code Three. This is the big one. A dog is loose on the freeway.
We have to go now. We don’t have time to drop off our animals back at the office, so Sadie and the kitten are coming with us.
Dogs apparently run onto the freeway every three weeks or so, and this one is motoring north on the southbound side of Highway 101. We make use of the lights atop the SFACC van (which Martinez has been capably piloting through San Francisco’s Seussian hillscape all day) and rush to meet CHP, who has already started to slow traffic. We get ready to wrangle the dog. He readies the net, just in case. Sometimes dogs on the freeway are friendly goofballs, but you never know. That’s how it is with every part of this job.
As it turns out, the dog didn’t want to be on the freeway either. He was friendly enough that CHP could swoop him up and pass him off to a nearby SFACC vehicle at the Alemany Flea Market. This particular shaggy dog story has a happy ending.