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The Santa Maria area keeps Santa Barbara County Animal Services officers busy.

County Animal Services maintains three shelters — Goleta, Santa Maria and Lompoc — and Santa Maria takes in a full half of the approximately 6,000 animals that enter the shelters.

Despite the high intake of animals, the county has raised its live-release rate to 93% in recent years due to the work of dedicated officers and assistance from nonprofits like the Santa Maria Valley Humane Society, which takes in animals from the county when the need for space arises.

In early June, I took the opportunity to ride along with Officer Aubree Gonzales, one of four officers based in Santa Maria, to get a feel for what the day-to-day work of responding to calls of aggressive animals and ensuring strays, abandoned animals and injured wildlife get the care they need.

After climbing into a white Ford pickup, Gonzales checked her onboard computer to see what calls had come in and what previous calls needed to be followed up on.

The pickup’s bed had three separate kennels to hold dogs and cats.

Santa Barbara County’s libraries were “saved,” cannabis taxes will be audited and longtime deficiencies in the district attorney’s Santa Maria office will be dealt with as a result of allocations made Tuesday in the final 2019-20 budget adopted by the Board of Supervisors. In a hearing lasting about three hours and 15 minutes, supervisors hashed out revisions to the staff-recommended budget and approved the final result on a 4-1 vote, with 4th District Supervisor Peter Adam dissenting.

Gonzales, a four-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, has spent a little over six years with the County Animal Services Division. 

She joined in 2007 and spent five years based at the Lompoc shelter before she and her family moved to Northern California.

When they moved back to Santa Barbara County in 2017, she rejoined Animal Services.

While reviewing previous calls, Gonzales told me about some of the more memorable calls she has responded to, like ornery rams and large boa constrictors.

“I had a call for a ram that was out loose — that was fun trying to get that buddy,” she said, laughing. “Somehow I was able to get him on my truck.

"I got him back into the shelter and a light just flipped in his head and he decided I was the bad guy," she continued.

"I was trying to hold on to his, I guess you’d call them horns, and he was trying to buck at me the whole time.

“We ended up naming him Dodge,” she said.

While based at the Lompoc shelter earlier in her career, Gonzales recalled, she was called out for a 5-foot-long boa constrictor that had been left inside a room at one of the motels in the city.

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“The motel manager said they thought it was just abandoned after the people checked out,” she said.

I asked if County Animal Services would adopt out a boa constrictor.

“I don’t remember what happened with that one,” she said. “But if it’s something that you could legally own, it would go up for adoption. We’ve had big iguanas that come in, and those go up for adoption.”

The first call of the day was decidedly more ordinary, however: The Santa Maria Valley Humane Society called about a stray pug someone had dropped off.

We made our way to the Humane Society to pick up the pug, a small pup that seemed to be coming down with mange, a skin infection.

The puppy, which did not have a microchip, was taken back to the shelter to be examined by the shelter vet.

After dropping the pug off, Gonzales received a call about an injured dog in an Orcutt neighborhood, west of Highway 135 and just south of Union Valley Parkway.

One of the neighbors had captured the dog, which appeared to be a shepherd mix, and put it on a leash before our arrival.

The dog, which we learned was named Ruthie, was walking with a limp and had a bloody ear, swollen gums and a strong foul odor that indicated her wounds were infected.

Before making it back to the shelter, Gonzales received a call from County Animal Services that the registered owner of Ruthie had called and said there was an appointment for her to be euthanized the next day.

After calling the veterinarian to confirm the dog had an appointment and that the vet had recommended euthanasia, we drove to the owner’s home to drop off Ruthie.

In between other calls, which included having to visit a pit bull that had bit someone and was placed under a legally mandated quarantine for rabies, Gonzales talked about the challenges and joys of the job.

It was challenging, she said, dealing with owners who are defensive about efforts to educate them about being more responsible pet owners.

But the joys of the job, like removing animals from abusive or neglectful situations and seeing the live-release rate rise, have made it worthwhile.

Since she returned to Animal Services in late 2017, the county has only had to euthanize animals when it was medically necessary or an animal was deemed too aggressive or dangerous to be kept as a pet — which wasn’t always the situation in prior years.

“Those decisions don’t have to be made like they did 15 years ago,” she said. “So it’s been really nice coming back. I want to work to improve the lives of animals, and what better place to do so than Santa Barbara County?”

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Razi Syed covers Santa Maria City Government for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.  Follow him on Twitter @razisyed

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City Government

Razi Syed covers city government for the Santa Maria Times. He is a graduate of Fresno State University and New York University.