MERCED — The rising stray animal population in Merced is a problem that cuts both ways.
While the streets of Merced present many dangers to stray animals -- getting hit by cars, starving or being killed by other animals -- there's also an impact on humans.
A community group called Neighbors United for a Better South Merced said they're concerned about walking in their own neighborhood. Some take sticks during walks to defend themselves from potential dog attacks.
On March 4, they appealed to the Merced City Council, highlighting the stray-dog problem with pictures and pleading for a solution.
"We wanted to do something to fix this problem," said Sue Caldera, 34, who presented the issue to the council members. "We have to start by educating our neighbors. Many of these dogs have tags, but there's a lack of knowledge about spaying and neutering."
Mayko Lozano, 19, a resident of south Merced, said his mother's dog -- a 10-pound Chihuahua named Bambi -- was killed by a pack of pit bulls two years ago.
The attack happened after the family came home from a day trip to Sacramento.
"The dogs saw Bambi and we ran inside and tried to close the door, but the biggest dog pushed the door open," he said. "The pit bull grabbed Bambi in his mouth and was shaking her. I got on top of the dog and tried to pull him off."
After Lozano's father chased the dogs away with a stick, they took Bambi to a veterinarian, who said her chances of survival were slim. The family decided to put her to sleep.
Lozano and the group members say another animal control officer is desperately needed to cover Merced and take control of the stray dogs.
"Our residents call animal control and we get voice mail," Caldera said. "We know there is only one animal control officer -- but we need more help for this person."
"Calling animal control hasn't been working," said Minerva Perez, a program associate at Golden Valley Health Center and community group member. "We understand it's just one person, but we want more resources devoted to animal control."
Currently, one officer works during the week with part-time help on a few days. No Merced police animal control officers work on weekends.
Kim Herzog, Merced police animal control officer, said adding an extra officer would be nice -- but she's not holding her breath.
"We could use two more (officers) and still be busy -- but realistically, that's not going to happen for quite some time," Herzog said. "At least for the next three to five years."
Herzog said Merced police are running on minimum staffing in all divisions, not just animal control. If they could hire someone else, Herzog said, it would be another patrol officer to fight crime.
Today's Police Department has 84 sworn officers for a city of more than 80,000 people, compared with 111 officers six years ago, according to Merced Police Chief Norman Andrade.
There were three animal control officers in 2004, but two positions were eliminated because of budget cuts, and by 2010, Herzog was the only one left.
Although she's just one person covering Merced, Herzog urges community members to do their part to help.
"People need to hold their neighbors responsible for letting their animals run loose," she said. "They can do neighbor-watch meetings, or put a note on the neighbor's door."
Herzog said people can help by giving animal control a specific address when calling about a loose dog, because she will go to the addressed locations first.
"I have a better chance of making contact and correcting the issue," she said.
Group members said raising the issue to City Council was the first step. Next, they plan to educate the community about spaying and neutering pets to control overpopulation.
They are working with the Merced Dog Owners Group, or M-DOGS, to spread the knowledge.
President Marilynne Manfredi said the group, which opened the dog park on Yosemite Avenue and R Street, gave a presentation to the public March 6.
"My hope was to have a discussion and come up with some ideas for a solution," Manfredi said. "There's a lack of knowledge on where to go (for low-cost spay and neutering)."
After the presentation, three people approached Manfredi to get vouchers for low-cost spaying and neutering options. Manfredi said M-DOGS is applying for a $100,000 grant to provide low-cost spaying and neutering.
For now, the rescue group New Beginnings for Merced County Animals offers free or low-cost spaying and neutering, based on the owner's ability to pay. They can be reached at (209) 769-2122.
Another group called The Snip Team is offering $20 neutering for the first 50 male pit bull owners who call (559) 961-7647. Go to www.snipteam.com for more information.
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.