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"I think that we are meeting the needs of the community," says Lieutenant John Humphrey of Animal Control's patrol division. "And the city of San Diego will be increasing their funding for animal control services beginning in July. That will bring additional staff on board."

Humphrey admits that with only ten patrol officers in the Central Division, "we're very busy. But I would say our response times to high-priority calls has been really fairly good. Department wide we [average] under one hour, and probably in the central region closer to half an hour."

Yes, he says, cops often get there first. "First of all, Animal Control officers are not authorized to exceed the speed limit as [police] officers are. And there are several hundred more police officers on the payroll than Animal Control officers."

What happened to the idea of volunteers to liberate officers for the field? "We really don't have any patrol officers at a desk or in the shelter. That proposal was to increase our volunteers answering the phones. We made technical changes to our phone system and informational phone menu, which has improved the wait time on our phone."

Mid-City community-relations officer Misty Medina agrees progress has been made since August. "We've formed a very valuable partnership with Animal Control. We have a very good information exchange. I've even put on my running shoes, got my dog-catcher's noose, and done ride-alongs with them chasing dogs myself. They'll be coming to a supervisors' meeting this month to do an information exchange with all the supervisors. It's not as adversarial anymore. And when we call for them, response time is better."

Medina says that last year's idea of training police officers to handle vicious dogs "died off." But the ride-along certainly helped her appreciate how dangerous the Animal Control officers' work can be.

Lieutenant Treece, a 25-year veteran of Animal Control, doesn't disagree. "[Pit bulls] are bred to have a high tolerance to pain and low fear," he says. "And they're tough! Bullets can bounce off their head. In one case a guy struck a pit bull with a crowbar and broke his own hand. The dog had a concussion but was up and going straightaway. That's selective breeding. That's what we're dealing with."

An unexpected test came at midnight, last Thursday, outside this writer's office. Suddenly, a wild possum is confronting a dog. One of them has minutes to live. What to do? Call Animal Control? Let's see, 236-4250.

"You have reached the San Diego County Department of Animal Control. Our offices are now closed. Shelters are open, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. through 5:30 p.m. And Saturday and Sunday, 12 p.m. through 5:00 p.m. Our phone-center hours are Monday to Friday..."

After 45 seconds it does finally get to an emergency number. "To report life-threatening emergencies involving an animal occurring now, press 1." The recorded voice on "1" says call the sheriff at 565-5262. According to Humphrey, the sheriff will contact an Animal Control officer sleeping with his wagon at home, ready to roll any time.

But not tonight. The possum discovers a tree. The dog's owner comes out growling. The barking becomes a whimper.

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