The small dog was frozen with fear when Officer Rebecca Fenson pulled her white Animal Care and Control van into the South of Market alley. He trembled and flinched as Fenson reached beneath a truck and touched him on the behind, testing to see whether he would turn around and snap at her like a shark.
“Hey budsters,” Fenson, dressed in her green uniform, told the Corgi mix in a calming, high-pitched voice. “Can you come out?”
A homeless man watched from across the alley as the pooch scurried from one side of the truck to the other, dodging Fenson, her partner and some office workers. Perhaps a lost pet once mistreated or recently attacked by another animal, the dog had blood spots on his front legs and wore a tattered collar.
Then all at once, Fenson placed a leash over his head and the dog realized he had been caught. He jumped and jolted until the leash snapped closed. “Alright,” Fenson said, heaving a sigh of relief. “Let’s try to get this poor soul in the van.”
The call was just one of a rising number that ACC has responded to in recent years as calls for service increased 14 percent from 14,081 in 2015 to 16,135 in 2017, according to the most recent data available.
“It’s been pretty tough,” said ACC Executive Director Virginia Donohue. “It really is a significant departure from years past. Even when you look back to the beginning of the department, it’s the highest level in, actually ever.”
The department has also recently handled more animal cruelty cases than usual.
While just a handful in comparison to the number of crimes police investigate, the roughly half-dozen cases include a dog slammed against the wall of a BART Station in March and a canine found dead with holes in its head last November in the Tenderloin.
Donahue attributed the increase in calls in part to the growing density of San Francisco and to a rise in wildlife calls. There were no coyote sightings in The City a decade ago like there are today, she noted.
Just 14 officers work the thousands of calls, which can vary from a report of a pigeon with a broken wing to a coyote walking down a city street.
“We are trying to operate more efficiently,” Donahue said. “But we are at the end of what efficiency will get us.”
Donahue didn’t request funding to hire new officers last budget season as the late Mayor Ed Lee called for a hiring freeze.
The department last picked up four new officers before Donahue started in March 2015, she said.
The animal shelter at 15th and Harrison in the Mission is home base for the officers. The building, which is in need of a multi-million-dollar replacement, is like a maze, with different smells around each corner and an assortment of rooms for animals lost or otherwise in need. It’s no surprise then that the small squad room on the second floor features a fish tank and octopus art.
From there, a dispatcher fields calls and Capt. Amy Corso, the squad leader, decides which cases need further investigation.
“All of the cameras that people put out, whether it’s Ring or Nest Cam, have been helping us a lot,” Corso said. “A dog can take a couple really good kicks and show nothing. We kind of rely on the public using their cameras all the time.”
In one particularly vicious case, Corso helped a police inspector investigate a husband and wife who trained their dogs to kill wildlife in Golden Gate Park. The couple posted videos of the attacks on social media.
Jasmine Marshall and Kelvin Johnson were each charged with six counts of felony animal cruelty. Their dogs, Sasha, Smoke and Mac, killed raccoons, squirrels, rats, rabbits, a seagull and even an egret, according to court records.
Corso provided the police investigator with ACC’s records on Marshall and Johnson, which included a 2015 incident in which Johnson allegedly ordered two pit bulls or pit bull mixes to assist him with an assault and robbery.
In February, Marshall and Johnson each pleaded guilty to one count of felony animal cruelty. The other charges were dismissed under a plea deal. Both were sentenced to three years of probation.
Johnson served 253 days in County Jail while Marshall, having been released under supervision, served just two days.
Hitting the Streets
The clipboard slid off the center console as Fenson turned the white van onto the freeway with a vicious dog in the back.
After a day of investigations, an emergency call came in over the radio for a baby squirrel abandoned in Laurel Heights.
The ACC van beeped like a garbage truck as she switched lanes.
“My deep, deep belief is helping animals, is helping people,” Fenson said, driving as fast as the law permits without sirens. “In my view, the pigeons belong here and the racoons belong here, and they need help just like we do. The breadth of what we do is a little bit unknown.”
Fenson, a 51-year-old San Francisco resident, joined the department only a year ago after a career in animal rights. Her previous work includes a decade at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. She’s also a strong swimmer whose husband is an engineer for NASA in Virginia.
“The main thing is there’s a little bit more of an element of danger,” Fenson said of her latest career choice. “You find yourself in the weirdest situations.”
Case in point, Fenson once found herself speaking to a man in very close quarters as he waved a large kitchen knife around.
That was because he lived in a residential hotel room in the Tenderloin, and she needed to make sure the place was safe for his dog to return.
“The whole time he’s waving a huge knife at me, and it’s because he was chopping potatoes,” Fenson said, adding she had to ask the man to put down the blade. “It sounds really scary, but it wasn’t.”
Another time, a man called ACC and said snakes were living in his camper van.
“I got the call,” Fenson said. “Can I handle snakes? Yes. Do I like to? No.”
The call sounded reasonable at first since the man said he had just purchased the van in Modesto. But when she arrived, he popped opened the hood.
“That’s the inside of your vehicle,” Fenson said she told him. “I’m looking at exactly what you’re looking at. Those are plastic pipes and tubing.”
Like there were no snakes, there was no squirrel to be found in Laurel Heights.
Fenson pulled over on a residential street and paced the side of the road looking beneath cars for the baby.
But all she found was a pile of peanut shells. “I think he ran away,” she said.
She started up the van and headed back to the animal shelter.