In a wrinkled smock and blue jeans, Jolene Hoffman sits in the director's office at the Humane Society in Ojai.
The room smells of antiseptic and is shared with Beamer, a gray ex-tomcat who prefers the battered furniture to the floor, and Ruby, a border collie mix with apologetic eyes.
The two are survivors--a trait they have in common with the woman behind the desk.
In her five-year tour of duty as head of the staff, Hoffman has found the role of rescuing unwanted or abused animals tougher than she might have imagined.
"I've been yelled at, screamed at, spit on, threatened, pushed down the hall by a man who offered to blow me away," said Hoffman, who acts as backup for the staff members who handle the agency's desk and phones. "There are a lot of sick people out there that we deal with."
Owners whose animals are impounded due to cruelty are not the only people making complaints. There are those who object to the agency's adoption rules--such as one requiring all pets to be spayed or neutered. Then there are animal-rights activists who feel that a place calling itself a shelter has no business destroying animals.
People who have complaints with the agency and the way it operates don't back down easily from their positions. Neither does Hoffman. Both have called the sheriff to resolve issues in the front lobby. The last time, Hoffman summoned deputies to remove a determined dog advocate.
When she was offered the director's job, Hoffman was working as a field officer, answering complaints and taking animals into protective custody. She was reluctant to accept a promotion, thinking that it held too much responsibility.
But Joyce George, president of the society's board, said Hoffman has just the right qualifications for the job.
"She doesn't give up. It's easy to give up and say, 'What I do isn't a drop in the bucket,' " George said. "She also has a great sense of humor. You have to be able to laugh about things. Some of the things that happen are really hurtful."
Over Hoffman's desk is a bulletin board of smiling people standing by dogs and horses. One is daughter Heather, 11. Another, a dark man wearing a blond Harpo Marx wig, is husband Jeff Hoffman, whom she met 15 years ago on a blind date.
"He made me laugh so hard, I fell in love with him," Hoffman said.
The two have worked together at the society seven years. Jeff is in charge of the field officers and also runs a dog obedience training business. His understanding and support of her position, she said, allow her to keep doing the job.
In a phone conversation about his wife, Jeff Hoffman played it straight.
"She's very loving and has a big heart. She cares a lot about people and animals," he said. "I'm surprised she lasted this long."
Hoffman grew up in Santa Cruz in a family of nine she describes as "really caring people." After high school, she tried driving a catering truck, tending bar and selling in a fashion boutique. None of the jobs had much appeal.
"I always wanted to work in a shelter," she said.
But it was hard getting a paid job, so she became a volunteer at the Ojai agency seven years ago, manning a desk.
The shelter--entirely funded by private donations--logged 652 incidents of animal abuse last year. Many of these were cases of neglect. Others, which are presented to the court in attempts to permanently remove animals from their homes, involved what Hoffman calls "unmentionable things."
In a phone interview, Deputy Dist. Atty. Randall Thomas discussed one such case--a dog covered with sores, videotaped dragging itself across a sheet, leaving a trail of blood behind.
"This graphically brought home to me what they are up against," he said. "They face enormous odds, and it's clear they do it because they have a heartfelt belief in their cause."
Hoffman, Thomas said, is "tireless in the face of enormous frustration."
The director says it's neither neglected animals nor verbal attacks that are the hardest part of the job. It's euthanasia duty.
She, her assistant, Susie Lowe, and kennel manager Sharon French take turns injecting sodium pentobarbital into unwanted or unsalvageable pets. Dogs receive a dose in a leg vein; it's over in seconds. Cats' veins are not that accessible. The drug is administered to the chest, then animals are held tightly or closed in small carriers until they collapse.
"We hate this--we do it because it's part of our job. We continue to do it because we know it's being done humanely," Hoffman said. "It's kind of hard to put words to it."
Euthanasias are presently down; the staff saw a lot of happy endings last month. Sixty-eight percent of adoptable animals were placed. The society's outreach campaign in county schools is believed to be lowering the numbers of unwanted litters.
But spring is coming. In the warm season last year, up to 60 kittens a day arrived over the front counter. About one in 10 was chosen as a winning personality and placed in the kitten room for possible adoption.