Like two connoisseurs determined to own the same work of art, the rivals bid against each other at the auction Friday. In $1 and $10 increments, the asking price spiralled from a starting point of $14 into the hundreds of dollars.
At stake: Ownership of a stray, white dog, about 1 1/2 years old, with the puckered face of a boxer, one blue eye and one brown.
On one side was an unemployed Northridge man who wanted the dog so badly that he had been arrested while trying to steal it from a Chatsworth pound, and who subsequently won the hearts and financial backing of the Los Angeles Police Department and a mysterious blonde.
On the other side was an animal welfare activist, determined to save the pooch from falling into the hands of what she called "an irresponsible animal owner."
As if in slow motion, the bidding went on, "$280, $281 . . . $290, $291 . . . $420, $421. . . ." The rhythm faltered only when the price reached $500.
The animal rights woman then announced her final bid: $650.
The Northridge man topped it by one dollar.
Victory in the strange auction went to David Mills, 30, who was arrested at the West Valley Animal Shelter on Monday night. He told police he had come for the impounded dog because it reminded him of his previous pet, a boxer named Buckwheat who was killed by a car in July.
Mills, who lives alone and does volunteer handiwork at a senior citizens' center, said he did not have the $48 in fees needed to adopt the dog and was afraid it was going to be destroyed by the shelter.
At the Devonshire police station in Northridge, sympathetic officers collected more than $50 to aid him.
"We're used to arresting people who don't give a damn about other people's property," Officer Paul Robi said. "But who wants to send a guy up the river for trying to get a dog?"
Mills pleaded guilty in San Fernando Municipal Court Wednesday to trespassing after a burglary charge was dropped. He was placed on two years' probation.
Meanwhile, publicity about the case prompted interest from others. The stage was set for the auction when the animal passed the standard seven-day waiting period before a stray can be adopted, said Tom Walsh, district manager for the city Department of Animal Regulation. Such "auctions" are held whenever more than one person is interested in adopting a pet and are quite common with horses but extremely rare for dogs.
Mills arrived at the shelter's loading dock before 7:30 a.m., confidently carrying a red-and-white braided leash and accompanied by Robi and a blonde woman in a black jogging suit who would not give her name but said she was a lawyer.
The male dog, picked up on the streets of Canoga Park last week, was in a pen.
Mills opened the bidding at the $14 minimum.
An immediate counter bid of $100 came from Barbara Fabricant, who said she represented the Humane Task Force and was there to prevent Mills from getting the boxer.
"I feel he's an irresponsible animal owner," she said. "This was no way to get a dog. If he can't afford the dog, can he afford to feed the dog, to care for the dog?"
Bidder Drops Out
The bids rose. A third bidder dropped out at $200.
Onward and upward went Mills and Fabricant.
"Am I bidding against the whole LAPD?" Fabricant asked when the price rose over $250.
She at least had some moral support. Several shelter workers complained that others have attempted to steal animals and the police support for Mills set a bad example.
"Last summer, we had a lady come in and try to carry a kitten out in her purse," said one employee, who requested anonymity. "Everybody else in the world is going to break in now."
Although he won the boxer with his $651 bid, Mills' total bill, including fees for licensing and neutering, came to $721.86. The anonymous woman in the black jogging suit calmly signed over more than $600 in traveler's checks, telling him: "Remember the lecture you got about staying within the law."
"I kind of feel guilty about it," Mills said, commenting on the extraordinary expense his backers had to cover, "but at least the money goes to a good cause."
A shelter officer snapped the red and white leash on Mills' still-nameless new companion, and Mills led the dog to his car.