He Has Control Issues

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Animal control Officer Mike Teague and a beached sea lion size each other up. Photo by Sara Hall

Rattlesnakes in yards, birds in skylights and sick sea lions on the beach; that’s just an average Monday for animal control Officer Mike Teague.

He has also encountered tiger cubs, a 15-foot python and an emu during his 19 years at the Newport Beach Police Department’s Animal Control Unit.

“We have a lot of variation in calls,” Teague said. “Every day is different.”

That’s part of why he loves the job, he said: it’s never boring.

It can be a tough job, though.

Making death notices to pet owners is the worst part of the job, Teague said. If he finds a dead animal with a tag or collar on it, he’ll notify the owner, which can be very hard news to deliver.

“That’s a sad, sad situation,” Teague said.

The job is just as much about people as it is about animals, Teague said.

“We’re constantly talking with people,” Teague said. “You’ve got to have a good attitude … no matter what.”

Teague attempts to net a hummingbird and a sparrow in a home’s skylight. Photo by Sara Hall

Animal control gets an average of seven to 10 calls per day, Teague said, but sometimes they get as many as 15 or 20, especially in summer.

In the past weeks things have been a little busier than normal, with two dolphins and two sea lions having come up onto the beach.

The dolphins were found dead near 61st and 15th streets. The sea lions, alive but sick, were found by 56th and 10th streets.

All were thought to have been stricken by domoic acid poisoning, Teague said.

It seems to affect the male dolphins more and just common dolphins at this point, he added. There were some reported cases in Los Angeles and the trend will probably move down the coast toward San Diego, he said.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), domoic acid is a naturally occurring marine toxin. The algae containing the acid is eaten by sea life and passed along up through the food chain.  It doesn’t affect shellfish and filter feeding fish (anchovies, sardines, krill, etc.), but is a neurotoxin in mammals.

That is part of what makes the animal control unit in Newport Beach different than other cities, dealing with marine and coastal animals. Sea lion calls aren’t that uncommon, Teague said. While it is unusual to get two or three a day, he does get them.

Other common calls include snakes, coyotes, birds, bats and bobcats.

Snake calls are most common from Corona del Mar up through Newport Coast, Teague said.

With most snake calls, Teague will capture and relocate the snake rather than kill it.

“They take care of so many rats,” Teague noted, and so are more helpful than harmful.

Teague grabs a rattlesnake in a Newport Coast neighborhood using snake tongs as a precaution so he doesn't get bit. Photo by Sara Hall

Teague said he has had several other calls that stick out in his mind as unusual over the years.

He once caught a man selling tiger cubs out of the back of a BMW. The man was arrested and the cubs went up to Shambala Preserve.

Another call he remembers as a little more dangerous than most, was when an emu got loose and jumped the fence at a horse property.

It was taller than Teague, who stands at about six feet.

“They’re dangerous because their claws are really big and they can kick forward,” he said.

Teague, along with some Australians who were visiting the woman who owned the emu, corralled it back into the correct yard.

He has also had to deal with a 15-foot python that had slithered into a neighbor’s yard. The neighbor came out and saw it in the corner of her patio, he said.

“It kind of freaked her out,” he said.

When he arrived on scene the snake started toward him and Teague was crossing his fingers that the 70-pound reptile was friendly. Luckily, it was nice and he was able to get it home.

One of his more memorable stories happened about 12 years ago, when he went on a call for a malnourished and neglected dog. The owner was a recently divorced man who had become mentally unstable. He basically forgot to feed and water and care for the dog, Teague said.

“Almost all the hair from his shoulders back was missing. You could see all the ribs, hips and spine,” he said. “And the dog’s name was Lucky.”

The owner did community service time, paid a fine and paid for the time he was in the care of the police as evidence. A Newport Beach police sergeant adopted Lucky, Teague said, and he became a great dog.

If someone isn’t taking care of a pet, Teague or his colleagues first talk to the owner and assess the situation. An officer may force the owner to take the pet to a vet’s office or animal control could seize the animal and take it in themselves.

“With any animal that’s not being properly taken care of there’s the possibility of a penalty,” Teague said. “It’s (the owner’s) responsibility to take care of the pet.”

It’s also a city code violation to have any animal run at large. Animal control will pick up stray dogs or contained cats or birds.

Pets get picked up and reunited with their owners about 90 percent of the time, Teague said.

A pet will be held at the shelter for five days for the owner to come and pick it up, Teague said, then it will up for open adoption.

But some animals will get dumped within city limits though, Teague said, because Newport Beach is known for using a low-kill shelter (see accompanying story).

This has been happening more often recently because of the economy, he said. A lot of people can’t afford to take care of their pets anymore and will either drop them off on the street or relinquish them to animal control.

A hummingbird and a sparrow fly around in a home’s skylight. Photo by Sara Hall

Teague would not recommend approaching any animals that seem feral, though –  call animal control instead. And don’t try to touch or pet any wild animals, he added.

“Use common sense. Remember that they’re wild animals, they’re not pets,” Teague said.

Even domesticated pets are still animals and if they get surprised, scared or hurt they may react in a defensive manner.

“They’re entertaining, they provide companionship…  They’ve been domesticated,” Teague said, “but they’re still animals.”


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