APPLE VALLEY, Calif. — They are known around these parts as "the dog ladies of the desert."
Colleen Snyder, 34, of Hesperia and Rayleen Owens, 44, of Apple Valley have not turned away a sick, wounded or homeless animal brought to their doorsteps in four years.
Between them, the San Bernardino County women now care for about 200 dogs, 100 cats, 3 donkeys, 2 horses, 6 sheep, a dozen geese and ducks, 2 hawks and a baby sparrow.
The problem is that both women have been operating animal shelters illegally. Thus far, only Snyder has been hauled into court, charged with violating residential zoning laws.
On Oct. 21, Victorville Municipal Judge Carol Koppel gave Snyder until Nov. 1 to get rid of 89 dogs and cats that had raised enough of a ruckus in her backyard to anger neighbors, who complained to county authorities.
Reluctantly, the officials had to act on the complaints and enforce the law, they said.
"She is doing a good job and it's something that is needed out there," said Paul Travares, the San Bernardino County environmental health specialist who cited Snyder for being out of compliance with zoning laws.
"We aren't saying she can't do it," he added, "just that if she wants to it will have to be on a place approved by the county."
As it stands, "we're going out there on (Friday) to pick up everything except the four dogs and four cats she is allowed for that zoning," he said.
Others also praised Snyder and Owens for trying to rehabilitate the animals and seek families to adopt them. Still, their menageries contain only some of the thousands of abandoned pets thought to roam the cactus-covered hills and flatlands of the high desert northeast of Los Angeles.
"The problem is that there is a lot of new development in an area with wide-open spaces," said Jim Lippincott, manager of the Apple Valley Animal Shelter, which is the only legal shelter of its kind in the region. "People move into homes that are not fenced and immediately get a dog with the attitude that the animal should roam free."
Then the animals breed. Too often, Lippincott said, unwanted litters are dumped on remote roadsides or in parking lots. Others starve in the wilderness or get hit by cars.
At least 10,000 dogs and cats are "put to sleep" each year at the Apple Valley Animal Shelter alone, Lippincott said.
Owens, who lives seven miles northeast of Snyder on a bone-dry Apple Valley hill, figures it may only be a matter of time before development in her area brings an order to empty her own pens.
As a result, the women have joined forces and launched a drive to establish a private animal shelter elsewhere on legal ground. They pledge that "none of our animals would ever be put to sleep," Owens said.
Meanwhile, Snyder and Owens have found it increasingly difficult to afford so many hungry critters.
Three years ago, when they each had about 10 dogs, it wasn't hard to scrape up the cash. As their reputations grew, however, so did their menageries--and the cost of caring for them.
Now, both have fallen behind on their utility bills. Snyder, who said she shells out about $600 a month on dog and cat food, has even borrowed on her jewelry to feed the strays in her charge.
"These animals will never go without," vowed Owens, who was greeted by a wild chorus of barks, quacks, whinnies and meows when she stepped out the back door. "My husband and I ate rice and carrots for dinner last night, but that's all right.
"Everything I get goes to the dogs."
Since their plight was publicized in local newspapers, people from as far away as West Covina and Ontario have sent donations in the mail. One anonymous donor even paid Owens' delinquent electric bill of $147.12.
"These gals love animals, care for them and can tell you the case history on each one," said Jim Allen, owner of a Montclair health food store who donated $100 to the cause. "When you've got that kind of dedication, why give it up?"
Veterinarians have been treating their animals for free, at cost or on generous payment plans.
'Makes Us Feel Good'
"They've run up a fair bill with us but we're glad to help them as much as we possibly can," said Hesperia veterinarian Austin Gaddis. "We do things for them at our cost because they do find a lot of homes for these animals--it makes us feel good too."