Some 800 wild dogs -- hungry, aggressive and often battle-scarred -- live… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)
THERMAL, CALIF. — Mixing it up with the wild dogs of Duroville requires something between bravery and foolhardiness, the sort of quality that recently sent animal advocate Deanna Pridemore wading into a sea of muddy paws and bared teeth with little more than a soothing voice and sharp reflexes to protect her.
"Easy, easy there," she cooed at the snarling pack circling her in the squalid trailer park. "Come here, baby, easy."
Her target, a female pit bull, kept just out of reach. Pridemore produced a small can of cat food -- irresistible to dogs -- and an old chow lunged for it.
She dropped the can, the dogs pounced and she snagged the pit bull by the scruff of the neck. Seconds later, the canine was in a cage heading for a mobile clinic just outside the gate.
Inside the Animal Action League's specially outfitted RV, heavily sedated dogs lay side by side, their once hard eyes staring serenely at the ceiling. Dr. Robert Mills worked steadily in the tiny operating room, sterilizing some of the hundreds of battle-scarred dogs that roam this notorious 40-acre patch of the Torres Martinez Indian Reservation.
"This is the most dogs I have ever seen in one particular spot," said Mills, a veterinarian with the nonprofit group, which was offering free spaying and neutering. "We have volunteers who ask kids at schools in Palm Springs how many have been bitten by dogs and none raise their hands. We come out to schools here, ask the same question and every kid raises his hand."
Reservation dogs are an unpredictable lot. Wild, abandoned or neglected, up to 800 of them prowl the dirt roads of this desert shantytown of as many as 5,000 residents, scrounging for scraps and ready to lash out.
Over the last year, as managers appointed by a federal judge have tried to improve the quality of life in Duroville, complaints about dogs have risen.
Rosa Ceja, 35, dropped out of her English-language classes because of them.
"When I go there, three times the dogs have chased me," she said. "So I don't go anymore."
Lupe Maldonado, 36, won't walk to the laundromat.
"I will only go if I can drive, because of the dogs," she said. Nearly all Duroville residents are Latino farmworkers inhabiting a congested warren of narrow roads and sagging trailers. With their yearly pay often less than $10,000, spaying and neutering pets is low on their priority list, animal advocates say.
Park manager Tom Flynn is trying to handle the situation with free clinics and stronger enforcement.
"It's always one of the top complaints," he said. "Some people want no dogs, some want a two-dog maximum and some say it doesn't matter. Our policy is that the dogs should be in their yard."
But many dogs are not in their yards -- or have no yards. Packs of eight or nine lurk under decrepit trailers. And even the smaller dogs are tough. A trio of howling dachshunds was recently seen chasing a car. "They do a lot of damage, and the county should take them away," said Luis Rafel, standing alongside his sturdy pit bull. "When I walk my dog, everyone wants to fight him."
The Riverside County Department of Animal Services says it can't operate on reservation land unless invited in.
"They will call us if it's something major, like if someone has been injured by a dog or we have to quarantine an animal," said Betsy Ritchie, captain of field operations in eastern Riverside County.
"There is a combination of problems," she said. "The land is owned by Native Americans, who often rent out trailers to migrant workers, who often leave their animals behind when they move on."
Most of those dogs are pit bulls or pit bull mixes.
"Down in Mexico these animals fend for themselves," said Pridemore of the Animal Action League. "People don't realize that up here, they can't fend for themselves, there is not enough space here for that."
One recent morning, Pridemore and fellow volunteer Gwen Turner prowled Duroville in their truck. It was raining, and cold winds buffeted the aging trailers. The streets had turned to rivers of black mud. Some canines stood in the middle of a road, ripping apart garbage bags. Others lounged like bored street toughs. As the women approached, they rose, ears up and ready.
The volunteers set up a large metal cage baited with food. A small pit bull was immediately trapped. The others howled in protest as the cage was loaded into the truck. The dog would be back on the streets in a few hours, groggy and sore but unharmed.
At the clinic, the dog was put under general anesthesia.
Mills made a small, neat incision in its abdomen and inserted his forceps.
"See this uterus? It would normally be the size of a pencil, but this is very large," he said, holding up a distended organ perhaps four times its average size. "She had puppies not long ago. Most of the dogs I have seen today have had litters in the past month."
It was this epidemic of births in rural areas that led Jordin Kuecks, 84, to start the Animal Action League.
"This is cold, hard, nasty work, but it's worth its weight in gold," she said. "We focus on poor and isolated areas. Our main targets are the large females, because they are euthanized right and left in the shelters." They can also have 12 or more puppies a year.
Kuecks began spaying and neutering feral cats around the Salton Sea 25 years ago.
Now she travels the Inland Empire, dealing mostly with dogs. Her efforts have been funded largely by a grant from Riverside County (it recently ended). She covers many expenses herself.
Outside the clinic, Kuecks was weighing dogs before surgery. A few were so skinny that bones poked from under their skin. Others had the ugly scars of battered prizefighters.
Tenants brought in pets on improvised leashes of twine, rope, chains and clothesline.
By the end of the day, 22 dogs and six cats had been operated on.
"That's not huge, but it's pretty good," Kuecks said as she closed up shop in the rain. "It's a never-ending job."