New SPCA program targets Sacramento’s ‘ground zero’ for stray pets

GoDo, a young pit bull terrier with wanderlust, has been known to escape his yard and run the streets of south Sacramento.

It is a trait that makes him a prime candidate to wind up in an animal shelter, at risk of never returning home to his family.

The dog lives in an area that is ground zero for animals delivered to the county’s three primary shelters. A 1.5 square-mile area bordered by 12th Avenue, Stockton Boulevard, Fruitridge Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard has the largest density of dogs and cats that end up in city, county and SPCA shelters, according to research by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

A total of 603 animals from the area were taken into the three facilities between September 2012 and August 2013, said Meg Allison, a data manager for the ASPCA.

Pit bulls are the most common breed crowding local shelters, according to officials, and most of them arrive without tags or microchips, making the task of finding their owners nearly impossible. Obtaining new homes for the dogs can be difficult, shelter officials said, because of their reputation for fighting and biting.

But if an aggressive new approach to the problem is successful, far fewer animals will end up alone and unclaimed at area shelters.

The local SPCA is taking the lead on the project, knocking on doors in the “target zone” in south Sacramento to offer no-strings-attached services for dogs and cats. Everything is free, including spaying and neutering surgery, vaccinations, microchipping, dog training, food and other supplies, and transportation to and from the SPCA’s clinic on Florin-Perkins Road.

“When a stranger comes to the door, the first response is, ‘We don’t want what you’re selling,’” Mike Vasquez of the Sacramento SPCA said last week as he roamed south Sacramento neighborhoods in search of clients. “When we tell them everything is free, they want to know ‘What’s the catch?’”

Vasquez, whose past work at the SPCA has included the heartbreaking task of accepting stray animals into the shelter, is coordinating the effort called the Sacramento Neighborhood Animal Assistance Program (SNAAP).

When he worked at the SPCA’s “receiving” desk, Vasquez recalled, he saw people line up every day, holding dogs on leashes and cats in cages. “Fifty to 80 per day during the summer,” he said, shaking his head. Most of the animals would never find their way home.

By next summer, coordinators of SNAAP hope to have provided services to more than 1,000 animals in south Sacramento, giving them a better chance of avoiding death from illness or injury, a trip to the shelter or a lengthy stay at one of the facilities.

The program’s goals are to keep pets healthier, get them altered and make sure they have identifying tags or microchips, which should ease stress at overcrowded shelters and lead to more reunions between lost pets and their families.

“The bottom line is that we want people to hang onto their animals,” said Jeanie Biskup, chief operations officer at the local SPCA. “We’re trying to reach as many people as we possibly can in this specific area and make them aware of the services available to them. We hope they will pass that information to their children and other people around them so that everyone learns about the importance of things like spaying and neutering and vaccinating.”

On a recent Wednesday morning, Vasquez, wearing a black shirt with the SPCA logo and carrying a clipboard, walked a hardscrabble area just south of Oak Park. Soft-spoken and friendly, he rang doorbells and chatted with residents about their pets. He lugged toys and bags of dog food to needy people and their animal companions. He picked up dogs and cats slated for surgery and microchipping, and loaded them into his white van, promising to return them to their families later in the day.

The yearlong neighborhood effort is funded with a $148,000 grant from the ASPCA and is the first program of its kind on the West Coast. Similar efforts by the ASPCA and the Humane Society of the United States in other cities, including New York and Cleveland, have significantly increased pet retention in targeted neighborhoods, according to the national agencies.

“It’s a whole different approach from what we’ve tried before,” said Rick Johnson, executive director of the local SPCA. “We’re putting someone on the ground, connecting with pet owners and community organizations, and making it as easy as possible for people to get help. It’s a new way of reaching those who might not have the opportunity to get services for their pets.”

In addition to canvassing, the program is sponsoring events at neighborhood parks, where pet owners can sign up for services and grab informational fliers.

While there is no income criteria to participate in the program, many people who live in the targeted area have incomes below the poverty line, and are without reliable transportation to take their pets for veterinary care. “We’re essentially bringing the services to them,” Johnson said.

Pio Shafer, who has four dogs and lives in the zone, recently became disabled with heart problems and is unable to work, he said.

“I’m going through a money crunch, wondering what I’m going to do, and this guy shows up at my door like an angel,” Shafer said, smiling as he stood outside his home watching Vasquez pile 75 pounds of premium dog food on the porch. “Thank you so much!”

Victoria Bernal and her daughter, Araceli, met Vasquez earlier this month as he crisscrossed the neighborhood, and signed up to have their cat Ruby spayed. A few days later, Vasquez came to their duplex to pick up the feline.

With gray, fluffy fur and piercing green eyes, Ruby protested loudly as Vasquez gently loaded her into a carrier, then quizzed Bernal about the cat’s health history. At 7 months, “she hasn’t been to the vet yet,” said Bernal, a massage therapist who also attends college.

“I’ve been wanting to get her spayed and vaccinated, but it’s an expensive thing,” Bernal said. “I don’t make a heck of a lot of money in my first year as a massage therapist. I don’t have a car, so I am on foot and I bus it.

“I was connected to the universe on the day I met Mike.”

Vasquez also visited a family with two Shih Tzu dogs scheduled for surgery.

“A lot of people around here don’t have the resources to give their animals the care that they need,” Debbie Sanders said, stroking her dog Rico, who was scheduled to undergo the operation along with another of the family’s pups, Choo. “So this is very helpful.”

Vasquez handed a family member tags stamped with the names and addresses of the dogs, plus a phone number for their owners.

“Bye, baby!” said Sanders’s mother, Debra, as the pooches peered and yapped at her from inside the carrier. “It’s all going to be OK. I’ll see you later this afternoon.”

A few blocks away, GoDo the pit bull greeted Vasquez with unbridled enthusiasm. The dog, white and tan with a face that evoked a constant smile, bounced on his hind legs, wagged his tail and licked Vasquez’s arms before willingly jumping into the van.

“He’s my baby,” said his owner, Joana Lana.

Lana said she rescued GoDo from a possible life as a fighting dog in Oak Park. “He’s really not aggressive,” she said. “These dogs have a bad reputation, but he’s the sweetest and smartest dog I have ever had.”

Since GoDo already had fathered a litter of puppies, “it’s time” to get him neutered, she said.

“I think this is awesome,” Lana said. “I don’t have transportation. I’ve asked people to help me get him to the vet, but when it comes right down to it, people are too busy and they don’t want to do it.”

Less than a half-hour later, GoDo was at the SPCA, getting weighed and prepped for surgery. The 57-pound dog received parvo and rabies booster shots, a microchip, a metal ID tag and a supply of food.

He was back in Lana’s home, no worse for the wear, by the end of the day.