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AROUND THE VALLEY

Pooch Is Lost in Dogged Enforcement of Law

May 09, 1998|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the past 10 years, the word "dog" has appeared in the pages of this newspaper 35,783 times.

That's a lot of "dogs," 9,803 per day.

Now, 162 of those "dogs" were preceded by the word "Dodger," and referred to what many a culinary critic has called the very best wiener in the major leagues. Another 3,675 were preceded by the word "hot," and referenced wieners of lesser stature.

There are some "lucky dogs," "mad dogs," "dog days" and "dog-uglys," as well as a handful of other usages. Most of the references, though, are to actual dogs--mutts, pooches, Canis familiaris.

The reason for the ubiquity of the word is simple: Everybody loves dog stories.

Edwin Womble has one.

It involves three dogs, actually, as well as a cop, a dogcatcher and a group whose job it is to enforce strict animal laws in an era of lawsuits and in an area not known for its dog-friendliness.

It begins with a trip to church, includes a lost retriever, and ends bittersweetly--with Womble finding his exhausted and frightened pup after three days, but losing much of his respect for the Humane Society.

"All I really wanted was a little sympathy," Womble said. And some help from the Pasadena Humane Society in finding the dog it lost.

The 58-year-old Womble decided to take his dogs with him on the drive from his home in Sherman Oaks to the Self-Realization Fellowship in Pasadena. He has a Ford Centurion, a giant custom pickup-cum-sport utility vehicle with yards of space in its enclosed bed. It's a dog truck if ever there was one.

As he tells his story, his 17-year-old chow, Buddy, sleeps on a mat Womble has spread out inside. His 6-year-old Akita, Murphy, and 8-year-old retriever mix, Foxy, relax and peer out the windows.

A soft-spoken landscaper with a lingering hint of a Tennessee accent, Womble has owned dogs all his life. With the exception of the Akita, which he purchased during a bout of grief over the death of another dog, they have all been orphans--lost dogs, kennel dogs, beaten dogs. And he figured he knew how to take care of them properly.

So on April 26, Womble parked his truck under a shade tree on a street near the church. He rolled down his windows to make sure the truck's interior would remain cool and the dogs would have plenty of fresh air, and went inside to worship.

That's when, according to all parties, a Pasadena police officer drove by and made a call to the Humane Society.

A short time later, the service was over, and Ed Womble returned to his vehicle to find a ticket of sorts on the windshield. His dogs were gone. The note was from the Humane Society. It said the society had impounded an Akita and a retriever. Below that, Womble recalled, the officer had made an "X."

"I said, What? What is this? And what is this 'X'?"

The "X" represented Foxy, the retriever, the fastest of the three pets. When the animal control officer opened the door to Womble's vehicle to confiscate the animals--a move Womble considers "overzealous" at the least--Foxy, no dummy, hit the road.

When compared to laws governing humans, dog laws, like dogs, tend to have more teeth. And they sometimes focus on what could have happened rather than what did happen.

What could have happened (and no one really disputes this part) is that the dogs--with the exception of Buddy, who hardly has enough energy to stand--could have gotten out. The windows after all, were open. Both state law and a Pasadena city ordinance require that dogs be confined or on a leash.

"Confined," though, is a vague word. What about the skittish indoor malamute who became so rattled by the fireworks one Fourth of July she leaped through a plate-glass window and headed for the hills? Or the two Oregon pups who fled their fenced backyard when a coyote came for a visit, and later wound up on "Doggie Death Row" for chasing a neighbor's sheep?

(That particular dog story elicited more calls to the governor's office in Salem than the story of a man slated to be executed. The convicted murderer was put to death. The dogs were reprieved and set free.)

West Los Angeles attorney Elizabeth Moreno, who has handled animal cases on and off for 14 years, said she'd never heard of a situation quite like Womble's. Although state law requires a dog riding in the back of an open pickup truck to be secured, Moreno said she's never heard of a dog being removed from a vehicle--even a convertible--for fear that it might leap out.

"A dog running around without a leash would pose a threat," Moreno said. "But these are dogs that were in their domain and would protect their domain. It's similar to being in their own backyard."

But Steve McNall, executive director of the Pasadena Humane Society and SPCA, which enforces the dog laws in Pasadena, said it was his group's responsibility to confiscate the dogs.

"How would we feel if we walked away from that vehicle and then 10 minutes later the dog jumped out the window and was hit by a car and killed?" McNall said. "There's a thousand excuses, and I have a thousand dead dogs in the morgue."

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