Manny Morales couldn't see himself stuck behind a desk -- he craved some adventure in his work -- but not even he envisioned being paid to chase down a monkey in Martinez. The assignment that came early in his career as a Contra Costa County Animal Services officer (unofficial motto: "You'll never guess what happened today!") served as the first big test of his problem-solving ability.
"When I get there, this lady comes running out of her house with her Yorkshire terrier in her arms," he said. "She said the monkey had attacked her dog, and he was up in the orange tree in her backyard."
The monkey hissed and leapt threateningly toward Morales, but it never came within reach of his snare pole. Then it took off along the fence line to a yard three houses away, where no one was home. Morales could tell from the backyard cage with the open door that this is where the primate belonged.
"I knew he'd been in the orange tree, so I figured he might be hungry," he said. "I got this apple I had in my truck, and when I showed it to him, his eyes followed it wherever I moved it. I threw the apple into the back of his cage and he went after it."
That's when Officer Morales slammed the door on the Case of the Runaway Monkey.
The stories are plentiful when you've been at a job 21 years. Morales is one of nine full-time officers on a budget-slashed force that patrols all of Contra Costa County except Antioch (which does its own animal control).
There was the time he teamed with firefighters to free a horse trapped in a deep ravine on Mt. Diablo. Another time, he worked hours alongside firefighters to save a doe wedged between a retaining wall and a cargo container behind a drugstore in Pinole. Twenty minutes later, he was summoned to free the same deer, which got stuck between the bars of a fence a few blocks away.
"That one was simpler," he said. "The deer probably remembered me and felt stupid for getting stuck again. I put a blanket over her head, popped one of the fence boards and pointed her toward open space."
Blankets and towels are tools of the trade. Animals become submissive when their eyes are covered. He used that trick recently on a retail hawk that fell into a Moraga yard.
"They flare their wings and raise their talons to deter you when you approach," he said. "I put a towel over its head and it went limp."
Not every task is so simple. Animal Services officers are called when threatening canines impede cops serving warrants. That's why they get police training and wear bulletproof vests and sidearms.
Morales once was called to remove a pit bull from a Brentwood house where an eviction notice was being served. Only after he'd gone inside, leashed and removed the dog did he learn that its agitated owner was in the next room holding a .44 magnum pistol.
Morales has pulled live bats off living room walls, plucked ducklings out of storm drains and fended off snarling dogs with a whack on the head with his wallet-sized citation case. He's been bitten twice, suffered a nasty elbow wound while wrestling with a Rottweiler, and several times thrown out his back. That explains the rolled-up towel he fits behind his lower back when he's behind the wheel in his truck.
He wouldn't change any of it. The job holds a rare appeal.
"You never know what each day will bring," he said.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.