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SPECIAL REPORT: With county's stray dog population soaring to 45,000, authorities are fighting the public health threat with such tactics as special squads for . . . : Capturing Canines


In the cold predawn hours, a SWAT team of khaki-clad sheriff's deputies and animal control officers rolled out in a mini-armada headed for the south Los Angeles County community of Florence-Firestone and environs.

Radios in the 12 cars and trucks crackled with intelligence reports from some of the officers who were acting as spotters for that day's prey and directing the squads where to converge.

Soon a team of animal control officers was out of its truck, sprinting with ropes in hand, eventually lassoing several marauding pit bulls and then gingerly loading them into compartments on board.

Standing at 95th and Grape streets watching the scene was Nancy Watts, asenior citizen who, in the midst of the confusion, was yelling.

"Get 'em all! Get 'em all out!" she said to no one in particular.

That recent morning sweep rounded up 120 dogs in about five hours, a tally that pleased residents and officials.

The fight to rid Los Angeles County of stray dogs has taken on aspects of a war in some neighborhoods--and with good reason. In recent years, the estimated number of loose dogs in the county has swelled to nearly 45,000 and the attendant problems have risen just as dramatically.

Somewhere in the county, scores of people are attacked by dogs every day. The animals have scared away police, firefighters and postal workers in some neighborhoods.

Although animal control agencies lack the resources and personnel to eliminate the problems, they are fighting back with new methods and, they say, more determination.

Los Angeles County in the last two years has developed special squads to reduce the number of dogs roaming the streets. The city of Los Angeles has taken similar steps.

Members of the county's larger Animal Rescue Field Support unit are equipped like wranglers and undergo specialized training to be able to rope their wily prey. Many of those dogs are so used to evading normal attempts at capture that they develop escape routes and hiding places.

In addition, county animal control officials earlier this year commissioned a specially built trailer with air-conditioned compartments to house up to 130 dogs during massive sweeps or after a natural disaster.

And lawmakers have begun to deal more directly with the tremendous costs to public health caused by stray dogs.

A recent state law requires all counties to report the numbers and severity of animal bites. Los Angeles County had practically dismantled its reporting program after a budget crisis in 1995 but this year expanded it and has received more than 2,300 reports in five months.

And there has been movement on other fronts.

* A new state law that takes effect Jan. 1 requires fines for owners of dogs that are impounded and are not spayed or neutered.

* The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is considering a new ordinance that would allow animal control officials to skip an in-house hearing and directly petition a Municipal Court judge to declare a dog vicious or potentially dangerous if it attacks a person or another dog. If the animal is declared vicious, penalties would range from ordering it destroyed to confinement or muzzling. The ordinance also would expedite civil lawsuits against the dog owners.

* The county is exploring the idea of taking preventive legal measures in cases involving dogs that habitually run loose and threaten or menace people, even if they do not bite.

* Many insurance companies now deny coverage under homeowner policies for animals that are considered likely to be dangerous. The firms say the nature of bites has become more serious--as have the legal consequences. The dogs ranked most likely to cause serious injury, according to health officials, are pit bulls, Rottweilers, chows and Akitas.

"Public perception is changing," said Frank Andrews, director of the county Department of Animal Care and Control. "People are beginning to realize this is no longer something that can be treated casually. You are reading about attacks every day, and there is the real possibility of kids and elderly people being injured significantly."

During the predawn sweep, Curtis Burns complained to Deputy Arthur Famble on 117th Street in Willowbrook about a black-haired female mutt that has caused havoc in his neighborhood.

"She chases people all night and all day long--and she will bite," said Burns, who added that the dog had been in heat. "All the dogs around here jump the fence 'cause of that girl dog."

Including presumably his own dog Fluffie, who was caught wandering on the street in front of Burns' home by the dog squad. Burns was given a citation, and grumbled a bit about it, but he continued to complain about the population of loose dogs.

"People come by on bicycles and can't get through," he said. "The police came down one night and they had to blow their horns to clear the dogs, there was so many. And that girl dog tried to attack me. I think she's pregnant and she will attack."

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