Orange County Animal Shelter’s Kill Rate Has Advocates Sounding Alarms

Dogs that have been euthanized at the OC Animal Care shelter. (Photos courtesy of Sharon Logan)

Orange County’s main animal shelter is putting down more than a third of the animals that come through its doors, a death rate that has animal advocates sounding alarms.

Of the 2,050 animals entering the county government’s sole shelter in October, 725 were euthanized, according to data from shelter officials. That makes for a euthanasia rate of 35 percent, compared with 22 percent in San Jose or as low as 3 to 5 percent in so-called “no-kill” communities like Austin and Kansas City.

“My heart literally sank when I saw those numbers,” said Sharon Logan, a Huntington Beach resident who runs an animal rescue. She obtained the monthly data as part of a settlement with the county in a lawsuit she filed, which alleged that county officials are too quick to euthanize dogs and cats.

Logan and her attorney, Howard Finkelstein, have put together a team to review monthly euthanasia datasets and follow up with getting documents from shelter officials detailing why specific animals were killed.

In particular, Logan says she’s concerned about the number of dogs that are immediately euthanized after being delivered by their owners.

Meanwhile, county officials say they are only euthanizing animals for reasons allowable under state law, and that the shelter’s euthanasia rate has dropped significantly in recent years.

“OC Animal Care is committed to continuing to follow state law regarding the euthanasia of animals impounded at the shelter and we intend to continue to fully comply with the criteria outlined in the settlement agreement,” said Katie Ingram, a spokeswoman for the county animal services department.

The law requires a waiting period of four to six business days before shelters can euthanize animals, with three exceptions: animals that are suffering from a serious illness or severe injury that can’t be cured; newborn animals that need maternal care and have been impounded without their mothers; or if an owner turns in their pet for euthanasia because it’s irremediably suffering or has a documented history of aggression.

If Logan and her team find violations, they can notify Superior Court Judge David Chaffee, who as part of Logan’s settlement agreement has the power to issue sanctions against the county.

‘Worst Shit That You’ve Ever Seen’

Lake Forest Councilman James Gardner, who is active on animal issues, says the high euthanasia rate is an indicator of major problems with the way Orange County shelters animals.

While the shelter has many documents and policies about how to kill animals, “they have almost nothing on how do you care for animals. Almost nothing on how do you make [them] marketable to the people,” Gardner said.

The documents include advice on how many animals to put on table at a time when killing them, he added. “Just the worst shit that you’ve ever seen in your life.”

When the shelter is killing as many animals as it does, Gardner said, it makes it harder to get volunteers to care for them.

“By having so few volunteers you dramatically…reduce the quality of the care. If you reduce the quality of the care, then on top of everything else, you’re also going to increase the death rate,” he added. “Orange County kills animals because they’re scared – honestly, because animals are scared, they’re put to death.”

(Click here to download the raw October euthanasia data.)

Shelter officials now that the euthanasia rate has declined dramatically in Orange County over the past few years – from 54 percent in 2011 to the current 35 percent – amid new initiatives at the shelter.

“Over the past few years, OC Animal Care has implemented a [trap-neuter-release] program to reduce the uncontrolled breeding and euthanasia of feral cats, hosted monthly low-cost pet adoption events, partnered with a low-cost spay/neuter mobile to host clinics at the shelter and implemented a shelter intervention program, through a creative partnership with OC Shelter Partners, which assists in keeping owner surrendered animals from entering the shelter system,” Ingram said.

“Additionally, OC Animal Care continues to work with non-profit rescue groups, veterinarians, local shelters and local pet stores, who assisted in finding alternative placement for more than 4,000 shelter animals last year.”

(Click here to see the multi-year euthanasia statistics.)

Logan said she was encouraged by a meeting Monday she and other animal advocates had Monday with Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who ultimately oversees the shelter with the other four county supervisors.

The meeting lasted for an hour and a half, and Bartlett’s chief of staff, former Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters, showed a strong interest in their cause and delving into the details, Logan said.

“I was really surprised,” Logan said. Walters was “very accommodating, very open, and he actually paid attention” and “asked a lot of valid questions and…showed concern.”

Walters said he’s going to recommend that Bartlett set up another meeting with the advocates, and invite the animal care director and her boss to it, according to Logan.

However, Gardner, who also attended the meeting, was more skeptical.

“There is no political will on the part of the supervisors to do the right thing. They have to have the right incentive,” Gardner said. “On no other issue are we doing as horrible a job as we’re doing with animal care. On no other issue has the grand jury come after the county as many times as it has. It’s the most disgraceful service that we provide.”

Bartlett and supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer didn’t return a messages seeking comment for this story.

A great example of animal sheltering practices can be found in Austin, where the shelter went from a “super-duper high kill” rate to no kill largely through involving the community, Logan said.

In Austin, she said, volunteers can get started walking dogs as soon as they sign a release, while in Orange County some have had to wait for a year or so before being allowed to help out.

“Orange County…needs to engage the community more and make it more easy and accessible for the community to come” and help, Logan said.

You can contact Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.