It was early Monday. The sun was still low in the sky, but already it was warm and dusty as the white van bumped along the dirt road.
Behind the wheel was Bruce Messinger, a veteran of the animal wars who has stalked everything from tarantulas to terriers as an officer with a local humane society.
In a wide spot on the road, Messinger finally stopped the van and announced, "From here, we walk." And with a slight limp--the result of a firefighting accident long ago--he set out to cover the last hundred yards on foot.
Twice a day, Messinger, 53, trudges across the same vacant field in Cerritos to a large thicket of brush and trees where a small, baited trap is set. The purpose is to capture several red foxes that apparently live in the brush on the site of the proposed Towne Center shopping and office development.
"Foxes like to burrow underground," Messinger said, "and when those big earthmovers start cutting this place up, I'm afraid some may get trapped."
On this morning, the steel trap was empty. The cat food used to lure the foxes was untouched.
"They are smart li'l things," Messinger said, bending close to examine the cage, which was tucked in the shadows of a flowering bush. "They can smell a human a mile away, making it almost impossible to catch 'em."
In the race against progress in this tailored city of greenbelts, shopping centers and housing tracts, catching and relocating the red foxes has become a priority of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Since mid-March, officers from the society's South Gate shelter have nabbed just one of the critters. The young adult male--about the size of a large squirrel--was taken to a wildlife refuge in the Santa Monica Mountains and set free.
Cerritos residents, however, have spotted other foxes near the Towne Center site--a 125-acre parcel bounded by Bloomfield Avenue, 183rd Street and the Artesia Freeway.
The furry coat of the foxes, Messinger said, is reddish, almost like an Irish setter. While small, they are lightning quick, with long legs and keen senses of smell and hearing.
Since purchasing the site across from City Hall four years ago, the city has periodically plowed it, clearing weeds and other debris from what used to be a dairy farm. But on orders from city officials, the tractors have always skirted the thicket of brush where the foxes are believed to be holed up. The decision, officials admit, is partly out of concern for the foxes and part public relations.
"Rather than tear down their habitat," city spokeswoman Michele Ogle said, "we'd like to catch and relocate the animals. . . . We like the foxes, too."
Come December, however, efforts to save the red foxes will cease. Bulldozers will began smoothing the Towne Center site for construction of a series of high-rise office buildings, restaurants and a luxury hotel. As Messinger said, "The clock is ticking."
Time is not the only enemy working against the humane society. Shortly after the first fox was caught, somebody stole one of the society's traps from the thicket. Because they cost nearly $200, officials with the society said, they cannot afford to replace it. If the second trap disappears, the group may be forced to abandon attempts to save the foxes, said Messinger, who started working as an animal control officer 10 years ago after a leg injury forced him to retire early as a fireman in Orange County.
The missing trap, Messinger said, is symptomatic of the society's image problem. Most people, he said, support the group's efforts to catch stray and diseased animals. But others consider the society a nuisance and in some cases a detriment to animals.
"Some people are real down on animal control officers," said Messinger, pulling his blue baseball cap with the big gold letters SPCA on the front, tight over his eyebrows. "Maybe they've had their animal picked up. Or they are animal lovers who see us as killers, putting every dog and cat we get our hands on to sleep."
Messinger, assigned to patrol Lakewood and Cerritos, said he is fond of animals, adding, "You gotta love 'em to do this 50 weeks a year." He said putting animals to sleep is a last resort when a new owner cannot be found.
"Finding a good home is our goal," he said, his gold humane society badge shining in the sun as he walked back to the white SPCA van on the dirt road. "But sometimes there aren't enough good homes to go around. Then we have no choice."