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Stray Stories 

A local student documentary shows that dogcatchers aren't usually the bad guys.

Anyone who's seen Lady and the Tramp knows who a dogcatcher is: He's the heartless dude who threw Lady in the slammer, ruining her overnight spaghetti date with Tramp.

In that vein, there are two things Tucsonans associate with the "mean old dogcatcher," according to MaryAnn Christy, Pima County Animal Control volunteer coordinator.

"They took my dog and they killed it," she said. "And they charged me a lot, those bastards."

Arizona International College students Richard and Cindy Hauck found similar misconceptions about animal control while doing research for their Capstone Project, a year-long assignment requiring AIC seniors to put what they learned to use.

"People didn't know a lot--like ourselves," Richard said. "All we thought was they picked up animals and killed them."

To dispel these myths, the husband-and-wife team, with help from others, produced a documentary chronicling what happened to four strays that ended up in the pound. The bittersweet, eye-opening product--called 4 Days--won local and national acclaim for the Haucks.

"The documentary's basically a walk through the system," Cindy said. "What's really unique about it was that we caught the animal right from the moment it was picked up."

The Haucks followed two cats and two dogs through processing at Pima County Animal Control, 4000 N. Silverbell Road. When a call went out about an animal, the Haucks rushed to the scene--sometimes getting there before a PCAC officer did.

4 Days is not easy viewing. The documentary is graphic and heart-wrenching, especially for animal lovers.

"Everyone I've talked to, it makes them want to go to the shelters and adopt--not the pet store," said Richard.

The "star of the show," a friendly 16-year-old rottweiler with hip dysplasia, was snared near Randolph Park Golf Course, 600 S. Alvernon Way. Control officers processed and left him in a kennel for four days--the standard amount of time for strays to be claimed before decisions about their future are made, said Richard.

No one ever came. He was put to sleep and dumped in a landfill along with numerous other dog corpses. Contrary to what many people think, they don't incinerate animals after killing them, said Richard. It costs too much money, he added.

"I saw a pile of dogs," Richard said. "I didn't realize how many dogs a day were euthanized. I was clueless."

PCAC took in 15,484 animals last fiscal year--that's over 42 animals a day. During the summer breeding season, as many as 150 animals are dropped off each day.

There's simply not enough room or money for all of them, said PCAC Kennel Supervisor Linda Soto. Some kennels had three or four dogs in them, and the PCAC shelter has 300 pens. Cats fared better on a visit to the shelter, but Linda said they still have issues with space.

Money is a big problem. Because PCAC is a division of the Pima County Health Department, it's been subject to the budget woes that have hit other areas of government in Arizona. Naturally, humans come before critters when funding is allocated, said Linda.

She said they're happy to get beds for the animals from organizations like Animal Rescue Foundation, a washer and dryer to keep things clean and a color printer to print up pictures of lost animals for display. PCAC cannot compete with the Humane Society, a nonprofit organization, as far as funding goes, she added.

For all these reasons and more, around 26 animals a day were put to sleep last fiscal year. In all, nearly 10,000 animals were put down, according to PCAC statistics.

"It's a traumatic thing," Linda said. "They're frightened and they're lost."

Unfortunately, most people don't care enough about their animals to search for them. As many as 80 percent of strays aren't claimed, Linda said. Licensed animals fare better; still, about a quarter of them never see their owners again.

Many of the animals are so "egregiously abused" they don't know what to make of their surroundings, Christy said. A person only needs to walk down the row where they keep pit bulls to see that. Many of the dogs were wounded in fights. They have to be kept in separate kennels because humans have bred them in large numbers to be combative with other dogs.

And then there are animals that get no attention at all.

One stray cat in the film by Richard and Cindy was so riddled with disease, dehydration and starvation when PCAC Officer Mark Soto arrived, it could barely let out a weak meow. Flies circled around its haggard body. Black bugs appeared to ooze out of the corner of its mouth. In this case, Cindy said "you're happy" because the neglected cat "is put out of its misery."

We're collectively responsible for these creatures, said Christy. She said many people would like to lay the blame for overpopulation at the feet of PCAC officers. They sometimes see PCAC employees as animal-haters out to get them.

"Can you imagine someone who hates dogs making their lives with them?" she asked. "You have to realize Pima County Animal Control is cleaning up a problem."

Mark, Linda's husband and co-worker, said it's always difficult capturing animals knowing what can happen to them. Being a PCAC officer is a double-edged sword: you're constantly torn between state requirements and your desire to help these animals, he said.

PCAC employees typically have 8.7 pets, when the general population has only 1.7, according to the documentary. Linda said she and Mark have two dogs, two cats, a snake, a tortoise and some fish--all of which came from the shelter.

"You know you're bringing something in and it might not come out," he said. "But we're a law enforcement agency. We have to do the law part of it and also deal with the part of rescuing and trying to get them placed."

"We're pushing the positive image. We're not the big, bad dogcatcher guys. We're hoping people will be able to see us in a different light."

To help them perpetuate that image, Cindy and Richard plan on editing the documentary of its more graphic elements for use by the PCAC in educational programs. They also hope to recoup the $5,000 it cost to make the film, including $30 a second for snippets of Al Roker on the Today show.

Their recognition in the Student Academy Awards should help. 4 Days won a regional award out of 41 states in the annual contest, put on by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Richard said. Past winners include Spike Lee, Bob Saget and Oscar winners John Lasseter and Robert Zemeckis of Forest Gump fame.

Although they didn't win the overall prize, the exposure will especially help Richard find work in the field after living on a student's budget.

Locally, they won a $500 prize from Pima Community College and were highlighted on Arizona Illustrated for their sensitive treatment of the issue. Richard said KVOA Channel 4 also offered him a job when a position opens up.

"We're waiting for the mailbox to be dropping off those checks," Cindy said. "So far, it's only been going out in the mail, not coming in."

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