Mortensen was still on the job of helping animals in every way that she could
SOLVANG, California––“Hurricane” Hazel Mortensen, 85, remembered for nearly 50 years of dynamic animal advocacy and her hearty laugh, died at her home on September 26, 2020 from complications of heart disease.
“Born on April 26, 1935 in England, Hazel was one of four daughters,” reported a family-supplied obituary.
“While at a USO dance, Hazel met the love of her life, Bob Mortensen, who was in the U.S. Air Force, stationed in England. They eventually married, moved to Michigan, and had two daughters. In 1966, the family moved to Orange County,” in California, specifically to Westminster, “and spent many summers and holidays at their vacation home in Baja California,” Mexico. “In 1983, Hazel lost her beloved husband to cancer,” 37 years less a day after Bob Mortensen’s death, “and eventually moved to Solvang about 30 years ago.”
“Child of the Great Depression”
That was a very short synopsis of the first half of a long and energetic life, during which Mortensen never hesitated to pick up the telephone whenever she thought she could help an animal, or a human, felt she needed to scold a lazy or incompetent public official, or wanted to share a story with ANIMALS 24-7.
Recalled Santa Ynez Valley News lifestyles editor Lisa Andre, “Mortensen was a child of the Great Depression.
“Mortensen witnessed not only people but helpless animals suffering due to the rationing of supplies for survival. It was then that she vowed to champion the welfare of animals one day.”
Saw wartime pet massacre
Mortensen was just four years old when, as Clare Campbell described in her 2013 book Bonzo’s War: Animals Under Fire 1939 -1945, the British National Air Raid Precautions Animals Committee in the summer of 1939 advised urban pet keepers to, “If at all possible, send or take your household animals into the country in advance of an emergency. If you cannot place them in the care of neighbors, it really is kindest to have them destroyed.”
As many as 750,000 British pets were killed by the Royal SPCA, People’s Dispensary, and National Canine Defence League, by private practice veterinarians, and by other means during the week-long panic that followed.
Those pets who survived suffered through years of food shortages, with horsemeat, slaughterhouse offal, and stale bread no longer available to pet food manufacturers, and hard for anyone to come by, a crisis detailed in the November 1942 edition of The National Humane Review, published by the American Humane Association.
First pet was U.S. war dog who was afraid of gunfire
The arrival of American troops and supplies from the U.S. eventually eased the crisis.
According to a profile of Hazel Mortensen published in the Autumn 2002 edition of Santa Ynez Valley Magazine, “Her first dog,” acquired as a nine-year-old in Britain, “originally belonged to the commanding officer of a nearby U.S. Air Force base, who was often invited to her house for home-cooked meals. The dog had received battlefield training, but there was one problem: he was afraid of gunfire. So when the officer shipped out to France, he gave the dog to Mortensen.
“She adored animals as a child,” the profile continued.
Recalled Mortensen, “My mother used to get irritated with me because wherever we went I preferred to be with dogs instead of people. And I’m the same now.”
Volunteered after sleepless night
But Mortensen did not become involved in humane work until circa 1973.
“She met another English woman who volunteered at [the Orange County] animal shelter, and Mortensen told her, ‘I love animals too, but I could never work at a shelter,’” the Santa Ynez Valley Magazine profile recounted.
“The woman’s response had a huge impact on her. ‘You see, we English people can be very outspoken,’” Mortensen told the Santa Ynez Valley Magazine journalist, whose article did not carry a byline, “and this woman said to me, ‘Oh, well, you’re one of those people who says they love animals, but does nothing for them.’
“After a sleepless night reflecting on these words,” the Santa Ynez Valley Magazine said, “Mortensen began volunteering at the shelter, and soon realized she was becoming obsessed with the desire to make changes in a system full of atrocities. ‘So many beautiful but unwanted animals came in,’ she says, ‘loving and kissing me and full of life, but half an hour later they were dead.’
“Sometimes I’d fall apart”
“She witnessed the results of human indifference, and the horrors of starved and abused animals. ‘Sometimes on my way home I’d pull over to the side of the freeway and fall apart,’ she says, “because I’d just seen too much that day.”
Initially, when Mortensen saw someone surrendering a healthy animal to the shelter, “I would try to encourage the person to make an effort to re-home it, as its chances of living out the day were minute,” she recalled. “The lack of compassion toward these animals sickened me. It was obvious that in our disposable society, pets and paper plates have equal worth to some.”
But Mortensen also observed that many people who came to surrender animals to the shelter really just needed help to keep them.
Instead of burning out from compassion fatigue, Mortensen in 1977 founded United Humanitarians of Orange County, a volunteer group that held rabies and distemper vaccination clinics in public parks, raised funds to provide subsidized spay/neuter service for the pets of low-income people, promoted pet licensing and identification, and encouraged pet-keepers to protect their animals from the noise of fireworks at the Fourth of July.
“Go one step further & spay the dog”
“The telephone sometimes rings in Hazel Mortensen’s home as often as 20 to 25 times a day,” reported Orange County Register staff writer Rod Speer on March 10, 1980. “No idle chit-chat, the calls are inquiries about low-cost spaying, neutering, or other services for a family pet.
“The caller may be interested in an inexpensive vaccination for a dog,” Speer mentioned, “and Mrs. Mortensen, in her British accent, is pleased to oblige with information. But she also pleads with the caller to go one step further and spay the dog.”
Said Mortensen, “Every day they kill 200 puppies and kittens at the pound. It’s tragic . It breaks my heart to see it.”
Led campaign for abolition of decompression killing
Mortensen by then, assisted by her husband Bob, was also pushing to end the use of decompression chambers to kill dogs and cats in animal shelters. Berkeley and San Francisco had abolished the use of decompression killing in 1972 and 1976, respectively, but Orange County was among the last cities in California to do so.
“Her efforts became somewhat militant at times: she picketed, protested, and campaigned continually,” recalled Santa Ynez Valley Magazine. “Her husband joked that ‘One of these days, you’re going to call me from jail.’ But she firmly believes her actions were necessary. ‘You see,’ she says in her proper British accent, ‘You can’t get changes made being a nice old lady in tennis shoes.’”
A turning point, the Santa Ynez Valley Magazine said, came “when she invited a county supervisor to accompany her to witness animals being destroyed first hand. ‘He left with tears in his eyes’, she says. Decompression chambers are now outlawed in the State of California and have been replaced with the more humane technique of lethal injection.”
Fought to have husband’s living will honored
After a decade of confronting life-and-death issues on behalf of animals, Hazel Mortensen found herself dealing with the impending death of her husband.
“Hazel Mortensen eyed her husband, nestled in a brown leather chair in their Huntington Beach living room, and knew he was about to die,” opened Fran Smith of the Orange County Register.
“She told the nurse on duty of the decision he had made 21 months earlier, shortly after doctors detected tumors in his lungs and brain. When death approached, she said, Robert Mortensen, 51, wanted no sophisticated machines, no web of tubes, no medical acrobatics to forestall it. He would happily trade a few extra hours or days of life for a tranquil death.
“As proof of her husband’s wishes,” Smith recounted, “Hazel Mortensen, a soft-spoken graceful woman, produced the directive––a legal, binding document he had signed six weeks earlier.”
The living will had been drawn up as directed by a 1977 California state law, but the nurse “claimed she needed the written order of a doctor, not a patient, to withhold life-saving measures,” Smith continued.
Mortensen called Bob Mortensen’s family doctor. Unfortunately, it was four a.m., many hours before the doctor would receive the message.
“Bob Mortensen hovered on the edge of consciousness,” Smith wrote. “His wife resolved to fend off the nurse physically, should she try to get near him. Hazel Mortensen still shudders as she recalls the confrontation, and says the nurse’s refusal created more trauma for her and her two daughters than did her husband’s death.”
A change of nursing shifts resolved the matter.
“Bob Mortensen died quietly in the brown leather chair at 5:07 p.m. on September 27, 1983,” Smith finished. “There was no fight between wife and nurse,” but the episode inspired the hospital that sent the nurses to adopt an ethical guideline stating “Biological life need not be preserved at all costs. There are times when it is more in keeping with respect to life to let it go than to cling to it.”
Following her husband’s death, Hazel Mortensen threw herself ever more into humane work. In 1988 that won her a Florida vacation for two, including a visit to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot Center at Walt Disney World and a two-night stay at the Orlando Sheraton Hotel, as the first of nine “Register’s Angels” honored by the Orange County Register and the California Angels major league baseball team for “making an extraordinary effort to help others.”
Relocating from Orange County to Solvang in 1994, “her first priority was to establish additional low-cost spaying and neuter clinics to attract pet owners who might otherwise allow their pets to reproduce,” the Santa Ynez Valley Magazine profile recalled.
“She searched for local veterinarians who would be willing to accept reduced fees, paid from a fund originally established by a now-deceased woman who wanted her money to benefit animals after her death. Mortensen’s attempts to work with some veterinarians failed, but she established an excellent relationship with Dr. Joni Samuels of the Buellton Veterinary Clinic,” who sterilized about 50 dogs and cats per year for Mortensen’s home-based program.
Fought for air-conditioned animal control trucks
“Mortensen’s efforts serve to enhance the twice-monthly low cost spaying/neutering clinic offered by the Santa Ynez Valley Humane Society,” the Santa Ynez Valley Magazine profile added. “She wages her own publicity campaign, through letters to the editor, and actively recruits pet owners to bring their animals.”
Mortensen meanwhile often clashed with Santa Barbara County Animal Services, including, the Santa Ynez Valley Magazine explained, over “the lack of air conditioning for animals carried in Animal Services vehicles. The driver’s area is cooled, but the metal animal compartments in back are not. Mortensen was successful in persuading officials in Orange County to air condition the backs of their vehicles, but so far has only met with resistance here. Mortensen reports that on a hot day the temperature inside the enclosures can be 20 degrees higher than the outside air. If it’s 110 degrees out, that means it’s 130 degrees in the compartments.”
Mortensen eventually won that fight.
Critic of no-kill sheltering
“Another issue for Mortensen,” the Santa Ynez Valley Magazine profile said, “is seeing dogs with nowhere to stand or lie but on the hot metal of a truck bed, and she doesn’t mince her words when she sees an injustice. She once accosted a pick-up driver, demanding that he put his own hand on the metal of his truck bed, asking ‘Do you expect your dog to lie on that hot metal while you’re in the store?’”
Despite having done everything she could to reduce shelter killing for decades, Mortensen was not pleased when the major animal shelter serving Santa Barbara County went no-kill.
“They get more donations because people think this is wonderful,” Mortensen told the Santa Ynez Valley Magazine reporter, “but as deep as my love is for dogs, I would choose to euthanize most biters rather than risk a child being mauled by one.”
Added the Santa Ynez Valley Magazine, “She also thinks it’s inhumane to keep dogs in cages for the rest of their lives, especially when this costs taxpayers thousands of dollars a year. Mortensen would rather see the money spent on spaying and neutering, treating animals humanely, and encouraging responsible ownership of pets.”
Medical emergency form
Mortensen by 2009 was already fighting the heart disease that eventually killed her.
“A good friend and I were both widowed in our forties,” Mortenson wrote in an op-ed column for the Santa Maria Sun. “She is an exceptional dog owner, so we agreed that whoever outlived the other would inherit the other’s dog. When I had a medical emergency 20 years later, she came and took my Penny home with her,” until Mortenson had recovered.
“While I was waiting for the paramedics, I knew I was losing consciousness,” Mortensen continued.
“My biggest fear was that my dog would end up at a county shelter. Our fire chief, Dwight Pepin, arrived with the medics. He assured me that he would personally take my dog to a Solvang friend until my friend arrived from Orange County. I will always be extremely grateful to this compassionate man.
“One side for you, the other for your animals”
“I recently heard of two dogs who died of starvation because their owner, who lived alone, was unconscious for a week in the hospital.
“When I heard of this dreadful event, I decided to put together a two-sided form,” designed for pet keepers to post on their refrigerator, “to keep other pets from a similar fate. One side of the form is for your medical information; the other side is for your animals,” Mortensen explained.
“Best of all, it will list several contact people whom the firefighters or paramedics can phone to take care of your pets in an emergency situation.”
Changed mind on pit bulls
Though always wary of dangerous dogs, Mortensen defended pit bulls and opposed breed-specific legislation to the extent of briefly cancelling her subscription to an animal protection newspaper produced by ANIMALS 24-7 editor Merritt Clifton, in response to a 2003 editorial urging mandatory sterilization of pit bulls.
Mortenson changed her perspective in December 2010, she recalled to the Santa Ynez Journal in September 2011, when she and her dog Penny, then 22 years old and being walked on a leach, were mauled by a pit bull brought to an adoption event in Solvang Park by a local “rescue.”
Surgery on both hands
“Two other pit bulls joined in the attack,” Mortensen wrote. “I did what I could to protect my dog. However, at age 75, I am not as strong as I once was. A local man drove my dog to a veterinarian. The paramedics asked me if I wanted to go to the Solvang or Santa Barbara Cottage hospital, and I told him that I needed a hand specialist to sew my amputated finger back on.
“I arrived at the emergency room in Santa Barbara at 5:30 p.m. and had surgery on both hands.
“Approximately one hour after surgery, with blood running down my arm, I was told that they needed my room,” Mortensen narrated. “But I had no key to get into my house, as my purse was left in my car in Solvang. The nurse asked if I was willing to stay in a hotel. I was willing, but the hotel was not willing to take in an elderly lady with no means of immediate payment.
“I suggested to the nurse that if they got the paperwork ready, I would sign myself out. My plan was to go to the hospital lobby and find a sofa to sleep on until morning. The nurse said she didn’t think I should leave as I had received morphine. She left and then came back and said she had found a room where I could stay overnight.
“I suggested he take them to jail”
“At the end of the hallway were five policemen, and up and down the hallway were security guards. I asked at the nursing station if I could have some juice,” Mortensen said, “and if I was in the criminal ward due to the presence of so much security. She said no, and stated that the hospital has to take in anyone. That was soon apparent.
“There was persistent screaming and guards taking patients to the bathroom,” Mortensen observed. “As I was going back into my room, I was yelled at by the guard and told to get in my room and stay there. I had taken on three pit bulls that day and witnessed my precious dog being ripped apart. I was not going to allow a bully in a uniform to intimidate me. I asked him who he thought he was talking to, telling him that I was not a prisoner, but supposedly a patient. He replied that there were dangerous criminals on that floor who needed checkups. I suggested he take them to jail.
“I was in Cottage Hospital for 16 hours,” Mortensen recounted, “and not once was asked if I wanted as much as a cracker to eat. The doctors and nurses could not have been nicer. However, it is obvious that the system is broken.
“Penny survived a broken jaw and 75 stitches”
“My precious Penny survived a broken jaw and 75 stitches. She and I have both had a mild stroke since the attack, and I’m afraid her time at a quality life is running out,” Mortensen finished.
Explained Mortensen in becoming an early donor to ANIMALS 24-7, “My 23-year-old dog Penny’s last year of life was very difficult after the pit bull attack. Yours is the only publication I know where one can read the truth about pit bulls. I appreciate your courage.
“I hope your readers will stop donations to all animal charities that promote pit bulls,” Mortensen wrote. “I phoned three of those charities after my dog and I were attacked, and told them I was removing them from my will because they are pushing the adoption of pit bulls, while wonderful friendly dogs of other breeds are being euthanized.
Moved by Daxton Borchardt death
“I volunteered for animals for 50 years, including at county shelters and humane societies,” Mortensen said. “I took many abused and neglected dogs into my home. Not once was I bitten. Yet, while walking Penny on a leash in a park, we were attacked by three pit bulls who were up for adoption! These same dogs were being taken into classrooms full of small children. I stopped that.
“In memory of 14-month-old Daxton Borchardt,” Mortensen suggested, recalling the victim of a fatal pit bull attack in March 2013, “I encourage ANIMALS 24-7 readers to write letters to their local newspapers and contact the staff of their local schools to make sure they are not brainwashed into believing that pit bulls are ‘nanny dogs.’ Perhaps we can prevent another precious life from being taken from us.”
And by Pamela Devitt death
Mortensen expressed her changed views also to the Santa Maria Times.
“I read of a woman in Antelope Valley [Pamela Devitt] being mauled to death by pit bulls,” Mortensen mentioned in a March 2013 letter-to-the-editor. “Fortunately, the owner will be charged with murder. However, I believe the authorities, who ignored previous reports of these same dogs attacking, should be partially responsible. Had they done their jobs, these dogs would have been euthanized and that woman would be alive today.
“I wrote to county supervisors 16 years ago telling them I was horrified to learn that dogs with a history of biting were adopted from Santa Barbara County shelters, because their volunteers did not believe in euthanasia. Nothing has changed,” Mortensen said.
“I wish I could have transferred my nightmares”
“That was also the case in Solvang after my dog and I were attacked by pit bulls who walked around Solvang and Buellton for over a year off leash. I phoned the sheriff, county animal control, the Solvang mayor and city manager and county supervisors. I wish I could have transferred my nightmares of pit bulls ripping at the skin of my precious, 14-pound dog. I hardly knew what sleep was that first year.
“To add insult to injury, my property taxes will help pay for the pensions of these city and county employees.
“Who will be killed in Santa Barbara County before we learn our lesson?” Mortensen asked. “Must we carry guns to protect our animals? The public has no idea how many attacks are happening, as so many go unreported due to people’s fears.”
Responded to COVID-19
Slowed only a little by age and infirmity, Mortensen responded in her characteristic all-out manner to the economic crisis for many pet-keepers occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In March 2020,” wrote Santa Ynez Valley News lifestyles editor Lisa Andre, “Mortensen, with the support of local businessman and Santa Ynez Feed and Milling owner Quinn Spaulding, launched a community fundraiser to help purchase bags of dog and cat food for local residents in need of assistance.
“Pet food purchased from or donated to Spaulding’s shop was trucked to the Solvang Visitor’s Bureau and made available twice a week to pet owners throughout the community — no questions asked.
“Mortensen continued to manage and run the program of her own volition.”
“Didn’t let the grass grow under her feet”
Said Spaulding, “I really didn’t know her personally until she contacted me, but she certainly didn’t let the grass grow under her feet. She was a wonderful woman who loved animals more than anything in the world. We’ll miss her.”
Wrote fellow Solvang resident Rachelle Mueller, “This is how my dear friend Hazel Mortensen chose to live the last months of her life: giving her time, energy and love to the betterment of animals. Despite her own health challenges, she always found a way to give back to the community, particularly to the animals who do not have a voice that humans understand.
“Hazel fought year after year for the proper care and treatment of the trolley horses here in Solvang,” Mueller remembered.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals [PETA] picked up on that theme.
“Animals have lost a dear friend and PETA member with the passing of Hazel Mortensen,” wrote PETA spokesperson David Perle. “Her kind nature was evident in everything she did — from being a lifelong vegetarian to advocating for an end to horse-drawn carriages and the animal overpopulation crisis. Hazel was empathy personified.”
PETA assistant manager for animals in entertainment Melanie Johnson reminded the Solvang city council in an open letter that, “When the city council voted to renew Solvang Trolley & Carriage Company’s business license in July, Hazel called the carriage industry cruel, adding, ‘Horses are not meant to work on blacktop and inhale car fumes for hours, especially during hot summer days.'”
“Not a Danish tradition”
Emphasized Mortensen, “Horse trolley as entertainment is not a Danish tradition,” and thereby clashes with the community theme of emphasizing the Scandinavian heritage of the immigrant farmers who founded Solvang in 1911.
“Her petition to ban the trade garnered nearly 700 signatures,” Johnson continued, “and she spoke out against horse-drawn carriages in letters to the editor and to the council. Following August 24, 2020 city council meeting—during which numerous attendees, ranging from local residents to tourists and experts, called for a ban—Hazel wrote to me that Solvang must ‘accept practicing ethical tourism which is respecting animal rights.’”
Johnson asked the Solvang city council to reconsider their decision, and move to ban horse-drawn vehicles in Mortensen’s memory.