Mario Lopez, dead-animal collector for the City of San Diego, leads me to his white GMC pickup parked outside the City Environmental Services building in Kearny Mesa. It’s around 11:00 a.m. and he’s been working since 6:00. Two coyotes, a couple of dogs, a raccoon, three or four cats, and a skunk lie rotting in the bed of the truck. “Don’t mind the smell,” he says with a laugh as he hops into the cab. “It’s part of the job. What can I say?”
There is nothing to be said. The smell of nine or ten animals decomposing in the midday heat is beyond words. I’ve changed many diapers in my life. I’ve been in badly ventilated locker rooms after long, sweaty football practices. I’ve slept in a small bedroom with three flatulent brothers and four pairs of dirty socks. I’ve cleaned the bathroom of a college dorm occupied by 30 men. My olfactory glands have taken a beating over the years but nothing like this. The stench surrounding Lopez’s truck is making my stomach queasier and queasier, and the urge to vomit is getting stronger and stronger. But Lopez starts the truck, and as soon as we’re moving the smell is gone, trailing behind us like the tail of a comet.
Lopez, 45, has worked for the city for 17 years, the last 5 doing dead-animal collection. Armed with a pickup, a pager, and a shovel, he spends his days driving the streets of San Diego picking up the dogs, cats, skunks, possums, coyotes, raccoons, and even the occasional snake that have ended up on the street or sidewalk. For this he’s paid $13.72 an hour. He’s dressed in bright orange coveralls and a black felt hat. The hat combined with long black sideburns and a handlebar mustache give him a fierce look, which belies his gentle demeanor. “My wife hit the ceiling when I told her I was going to pick up dead animals back when I started this job," he tells me as we speed south on 15 through Murphy Canyon. “ ‘You’re going to what? Are you crazy?’ At first, it was kind of hectic and hard to adjust to. But now that I know what I’m doing and I know how to get where I’ve got to go, it’s a little easier. Now, I enjoy it.”
Our first stop is in Logan Heights on Ocean View Boulevard near Dewey Street where, Lopez’s pager says, a dead cat sits on the sidewalk. Cruising south on Ocean View, Lopez slows as we near the corner of Dewey and he starts looking around for the cat. “Sometimes people give you the wrong address, and you’ve got to play detective,” Lopez explains. “You look for flies, or you smell for them. Let’s see....”
Lopez spots the cat lying on the sidewalk just before the corner on the east side of the street. “There it is,” he says, pointing across the street and stopping the truck. When he stops, the odor from the cargo of carrion catches up with us and fills the cab. I want to retch but manage to control it. Grabbing a pair of heavy plastic gloves from off the floor, Lopez hops out and takes a square-nose shovel from the back of the truck. He walks over and with a short, quick stroke slips the shovel under the black-and-gray cat, which he then flips into the bed. Returning the shovel, he takes his seat behind the steering wheel and starts to fill out a log: time, location, type of animal. The smell, with the addition of another dead cat, is stronger than ever. Lopez seems unaffected by it. I ask if he’s gotten used to it the way dairy workers get used to the smell of cow manure. “Oh, I smell it. It’s a little overwhelming but....” He shrugs as if to say, “There is nothing I can do about it, so I’m not going to fret.”
The log completed, he checks his pager for the next address. “Hmm,” he says and flips open the Thomas Guide sitting between us. “The pager says 2405 Skyline Drive. I know that’s Lemon Grove because San Diego in that area is 6500, 7000 block. I pick up these animals free in the city of San Diego, but I can’t go to Lemon Grove and La Mesa (or any other cities]. I can only go in the white area.” He holds up the Thomas Guide in which San Diego is colored white and La Mesa and Lemon Grove are orange and green. “Sometimes, we’ll make exceptions if it’s close.”
Lopez calls the city central maintenance yard on the radio and tells them about the Lemon Grove address. Reading another address from his pager — Paradise Valley Road near Gilmartin Drive in Paradise Hills — he starts the truck, and we head east on surface streets through Southeast San Diego.
The animals Lopez picks up are usually “about a day or two old. But sometimes, people don’t notice them for a while and they’ll be there for — as much as I hate to say it — about a week."
How can you tell?
“They fall apart on you," he answers. “There’s not much there to work with. Also, you can tell by the maggots that build up when the animal is dead and decomposing.”
Do they bloat?
“Some do, yes. Then 1 just kind of push them onto the lift gate on the back of the truck. I don’t want them to pop. They smell as it is, and it’s worse if it pops.”
Do the dead animals carry diseases?
“There is a possibility of disease, but I wear gloves when I pick them up. I think the worst I’ve had is fleas. I picked up a dog once, and it was obvious that the dog never had a bath. I wasn’t paying attention because I just wanted to get it done, and when I was driving away, I looked down and the fleas were all over my coveralls. I started slapping at them and finally got rid of them.”
Skunks and possums make up the majority of the 10 to 15 carcasses Lopez picks up daily, followed by dogs and cats. Coyotes and raccoons and rattlesnakes are less frequent, and pigeons, crows, and seagulls make occasional appearances in Lopez’s truck. The most exotic animal he’s ever picked up? “A boa,” he says with a smile. “It was a big old snake, big enough to make a pair of boots.” Though the snake was big enough, Lopez didn’t make boots out of it. He’s never skinned any roadkill he’s picked up. “No,” he says, “everything I pick up is dead, and they all go to the landfill.”
On Paradise Valley Road before we get to Gilmartin Drive, Lopez slows the truck and looks left, right, left, right but doesn’t see the dog. There is road construction going on at the corner, and all the workers turn as they see (or smell) the truck. A couple hundred yards past Gilmartin, Lopez pulls a U-turn and comes back. This time one of the workers flags us down. Lopez pulls over, grabs his gloves, hops out, and runs across the street. Ten seconds later, he comes back dragging a large, long-haired black dog by the rear legs. Shifting his left hand to the left foreleg and leaving his right on the right hind leg, he heaves the dead beast over the side of the truck onto the heap of carnage. The smell isn’t as bad this time as Lopez fills out the log because the truck is parked into the wind.
Our next stop is a few miles away on Cardiff Street in Lomita, a few blocks from Lopez’s own house. Traveling north, he spots the dead animal, a cat, on the west side of the street, five feet from the curb. “There it is. Smashed. Squished.”
He swings a U-turn and double parks. A dog behind the fence of the nearest house barks wildly at us. Maybe he’s the one who chased kitty into the street where she met her doom. I step out and the cat is about ten inches from my shoe, flattened and messy. The sight of it, plus the smell of the 12 or so carcasses in the back, brings up a heave from my stomach that takes all my willpower to control. I turn away but curiosity gets the better of me, and I take another look with similar results. I turn away again and hear the scrape of Mario’s shovel on the asphalt and the thud of the cat hitting the bed of the truck. Without looking at the bed, I hop back into the cab. Basking in the scent of rotting animal flesh, the 30 seconds it takes Mario to fill out the log seems like 30 minutes.
After picking up a skunk in University Heights on Madison, quitting time is upon us, and we head for the Miramar landfill to dump the decomposing load. The skunk he has just picked up reminds Mario of an anecdote. “I had a call from one lady in the Old Town area who was trapping live skunks and wanted me to take the skunks for her. I told her, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t take them. This is dead-animal collection.’ She got mad and said she was going to call my boss. I said, ‘You call anybody you want to. How can I handle a live animal?’ She said on top of calling my boss, she was going to call the mayor and everyone else. I said, ‘You go right ahead, ma’am. I am not a live-animal collector. I’m a dead-animal collector.’”