County Hires Consultant to Help Improve Beleaguered Animal Shelter

Following years of criticism from grand juries and protests by animal advocates, Orange County officials have hired an animal shelter consultant to advise them on how to improve the aging county shelter.

The county Board of Supervisors voted last week to pay JVR Shelter Strategies, a firm run by veterinarian Dr. Jyothi Robertson, $150,000 to review current shelter programs and make recommendations on best practices. The recommendations would be for both the current 75 year-old shelter in Orange and a new county shelter in Tustin that’s expected to open up by the end of next year.

“Our hope is to implement recommendations provided by the vendor to become the model animal shelter the [Board of Supervisors] seeks and the community expects,” Dr. Jennifer Hawkins, director of OC Animal Care, said in a statement.

“I think we all…recognize the fact that we need to kind of tweak some things in our policy. And bringing Dr. Robertson on board – I think it’s going to be just a great benefit to OC Animal Care,” said supervisors’ Chairman Lisa Bartlett just before a unanimous vote for the contract.

“It will continue to be a very collaborative process with the county, with the stakeholders involved. And we’ll come up with a very good result in the end, with I think a very solid animal care policy.”

The move comes after withering criticism from multiple grand juries about the shelter, the latest being two scathing back-to-back reports in 2015.

Last year’s grand jury found that the World War II-era shelter is in a state of “utter disrepair,” with the health of animals and people alike put at risk.

Grand jurors also declared that poor management has contributed to problems like rat infestations at the county shelter and dead animals – including a deer – being left near homes for days after being reported to animal control.

The situation is so bad, jurors wrote, that the county should consider replacing the leadership of the animal services agency and the county’s community resources department, which oversees it.

The shelter has also drawn the ire of animal rescue and adoption advocates, who say Orange County falls far behind shelters elsewhere in engaging the community to help care for shelter animals, which they say leads to unnecessary killings of dogs and cats who are deemed un-adoptable.

More than 100 people protested outside the county shelter over the weekend, according to activists.

Protesters outside the Orange County animal shelter on Saturday

Photo courtesy Saskia Boisot

Protesters outside the Orange County animal shelter on Saturday.

Some advocates said the consultants’ hiring is sign of progress, while others said they remain disappointed that more immediate steps haven’t been taken to bring in more volunteers and better promote adoptable animals.

“I’m just glad that they are at least moving towards what appears to be an effort to change their business as usual,” said Howard Finkelstein, an attorney who sued the county on behalf of animal rescuer Sharon Logan and got officials to agree to provide monthly datasets on every animal that’s killed. “To me it’s favorable news.”

He said he plans to reach out to Robertson in an effort to coordinate the court-supervised euthanasia monitoring system from his case and ensuring compliance with the court order.

Meanwhile, an animal rescue advocate, Dr. Saskia Boisot, said she and others are disappointed that the county turned down offers of free consulting visits from leading animal shelter directors – from San Diego and Austin, Texas – and instead awarded this contract without a bidding process.

“We provided [the county] with a connection to people who are willing to help from the outside who come from two of the best sheltering systems in the country. And they agreed to do this for free. And [county officials] went ahead and went with this company for $150,000,” she said.

“We’re just very disappointed at the path that they’ve taken,” Boisot added.

Asked about this, a county spokeswoman said none of the other potential consultants could offer the full review of services the county was seeking, ranging from veterinary practices and disease prevention to shelter capacity and staffing.

“JVR Shelter Strategies is a one stop shop, which means that we won’t have to solicit for respondents to different contracts,” said OC Animal Care spokeswoman Katie Ingram, adding that Robertson’s firm, which has done work for the Orange County department before, was recommended by UC Davis’ shelter medicine program.

Ingram went on to say that county officials plan “to visit the San Diego Humane Society and San Diego Animal Control in the coming week to learn about their creative partnerships and programs.”

“Additionally, we have spoken to the Deputy Director at Austin Animal Control on several occasions to discuss their programs,” she continued. “We continue to seek creative ideas and solutions from these and other sheltering agencies.”

The county also says the public can offer feedback and suggestions to the consultant through an email address – ocac-comments@shelterstrategies.com – that “will remain confidential” among the consulting team.

And Finkelstein, the attorney, says the public can offer feedback and comments for advocates through a website he set up, ocacsettlement.com.

Boisot emphasized the importance of bringing in the public – through shelter volunteers, foster programs, media appearances, and private donations – to help reduce the county’s euthanasia rates.

“This is never going to change until they engage the community,” she said, adding that San Diego’s public shelter system brings in over $13 million in donations per year.

That community input is critical, county Supervisor Todd Spitzer emphasized as the consultant work was about to be approved last week. He pressed staff on the need for public outreach.

“I think we should ask people who have adopted animals, ‘What has been your experience, what are we doing’ – I think it would be great to get that feedback,” Spitzer said, along with input from advocates and city managers of cities that contract with the county for shelter services.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. He can be reached at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.