Boisot: We Can Do Better for Our Homeless Pet Population

Chloe Rose Kumar

Most people have no idea about what goes on at their local animal shelter, and many assume that Orange County Animal “Care” (OCAC) does as good a job as any; however, they would be wrong in making this assumption. In the months of June, July, and August of 2016, OCAC killed 942, 795, and 776 animals, respectively, even though the shelter was at half capacity. If “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated”, Orange County might want to consider recalibrating its ethics compass.

Of the 34 cities comprising Orange County, until recently 19 used to contract with OCAC for their animal control and sheltering services, with each city paying according to the number of animals projected to hail from their respective cities. Last year 4 cities made the unprecedented decision to rescind their contracts, deciding to seek alternative arrangements for their homeless pet population. Two cities cited concerns about how animals were being treated at the county shelter.

Wedged between Los Angeles and San Diego counties, Orange County shares a similar demographic composition to its neighboring constituencies, and despite a well established indigent population problem, Orange County is also imbued with a significant amount of individual wealth. This raises the question as to why the Orange County shelter has attracted so much attention from fervent animal advocates, who consistently complain about conditions at the county animal shelter. After all, Southern California certainly has no shortage of high kill animal shelters in the vicinity, including San Bernardino, Downey, Carson, and Devore, to name but a few, and statistically speaking, while the overall euthanasia numbers at OCAC certainly are nothing to be proud of, they aren’t significantly worse than their neighboring counterparts. So why is it that OCAC has generated more than its fair share of criticism?

To illustrate this point, OCAC has been the subject of no fewer than 5 grand jury reports, all of which have pointed to poor management as the crux of the problem, a lengthy performance audit report, which has similarly questioned the caliber of leadership, and multiple scathing media accounts cataloging appalling conditions at the facility. The shelter has also been subject to two separate lawsuits, and there have been two highly publicized cases involving so called “wolf dogs” (Karma and Leeloo), where the shelter director wanted to kill both animals with no logical basis, one of which famously generated a petition which garnered more than 300,000 signatures from around the world.

Empty kennels have been systematically counted and documented on a weekly basis at OCAC over the past two years, and consistently enumerated at between 150-200 at any given time.

 

So are there any teeth to these accusations, or are animal advocates merely just crying wolf? I would contend that the answer to the latter part of this question is a loud and resounding “NO”, and the reason for this can be distilled down to two words: EMPTY KENNELS. Aside from the obvious derelict physical state of the current shelter building in the face of a comparatively sizeable annual operating budget of $25 million, what separates Orange County from its neighboring high kill counterparts is the fact that it continuously nurses up to two hundred empty kennels at any given time, yet continues to kill with reckless abandon, often in direct violation of the Hayden Act. Furthermore, when the other aforementioned facilities are struggling not to have to kill their resident animals due to space limitations by doubling and tripling the animals up inside their kennels, the wealth of available life-saving space available at OCAC only compounds its egregiousness.

Two year old Bowie was found as a stray in a local park, and resisted being wrangled on a ketchpole by animal control officers. He was subsequently placed in the quarantine area out of public view, and soon placed on the euthanasia list.

Standard arguments from those who choose to side with the shelter always go back to either the shelter’s primary responsibility towards ensuring public safety or the fact that these animals might be irremediably suffering, both of which are often not borne out. For starters, many of the animals who have been sentenced to die for behavior reasons and then pulled by rescues have predominantly been successfully placed in homes thereafter, often with other dogs, cats, and children, with absolutely no negative consequences, including many of the often vilified so-called “pitbull-type” dogs. In fact, so poignant is this public safety false equivalency, that last year Supervisor Lisa Bartlett herself intervened in the killing of three large breed dogs deemed to have behavioral issues (one of which was a puppy less than a year old), all three of which were thereafter successfully placed in loving homes. And while certainly no one would argue the legitimacy of humane euthanasia in cases of true irremediable suffering, conditions such as alopecia (hair loss), flea infestation, and dermatitis (eczema), conditions for which OCAC has no problem killing for, hardly qualify.

After an interested rescue was denied an interactive visit with Bowie, a vital step for rescues to ascertain whether or not a dog is a viable candidate for rescue, Supervisor Lisa Bartlett intervened on his behalf. Supervisor Bartlett’s chief of staff, Paul Walters, and his assistant, Tanya Flink, met with the rescue at the shelter, whereupon the rescue was granted a full visit to observe his behavior outside his kennel, and elected to take Bowie.

Bowie is now thriving outside the shelter environment, and has never shown any evidence of aggression.

 

For many years animal advocates have implored the Orange County Board of Supervisors to implement a number of changes at OCAC with little to show for their efforts. More recently, animal advocates have made a series of coordinated appearances at the Board of Supervisors’ meetings, they have staged a number of protests both outside the shelter and at the BOS meetings, and a select few have met with certain members of the Supervisors and their staff. Thousands of hours have been devoted to poring over monthly euthanasia lists acquired via the Logan lawsuit, combing through countless individual animal records obtained through public records requests, and subjecting the data to high level statistical analysis teasing out trends which might explain how the decisions about who to kill are made. Some of the advocates’ repeated demands have included imposing an immediate moratorium on empty cage killing, agreement to allowing animal advocate representation at a monthly oversight committee meeting, and a thorough evaluation of shelter procedures by an independent consultant. Although falling short on the first two, the Board of Supervisors did ultimately concede on the last demand by hiring JVR Shelter Strategies, albeit at considerable cost to the taxpayer, to the tune of $350,000, and so far any measurable outcomes resulting from this have yet to declare themselves.

Granted, a brand new shelter is currently under construction, with a projected opening date for early 2018, but many feel that without personnel replacements at the upper management level, the only changes this may engender will be purely cosmetic. After all, it is widely recognized that cultivating a culture of commitment to life-saving at all costs among shelter workers is directly proportional to the mentality of those at the apex of the organizational pyramid, and usually this is an innate quality which cannot be taught.

A community’s treatment of its homeless pet population does not just impact the wellbeing of the animals themselves, it is a reflection of the health of the community it serves. A significant quota of the general public spends an inordinate amount of time and money on their pets, which constitute part of a multi-billion dollar industry, and while most Orange County residents might currently be unaware of the conditions at their local county animal shelter, they would likely be horrified if they found out the reality of what’s at stake here. Successful animal sheltering can only be achieved with full buy-in from the community, and as long as the present shameful narrative persists and is further propagated, any hope of community engagement will “go to the dogs”, so to speak. If fundraising ability might provide an objective snapshot of successful community engagement, you only have to look at how OCAC’s non-profit affiliate the Noble Friends Foundation raises in the range of $60,000-$70,000 a year, compared to over $14 million raised annually by the San Diego Humane Society.

Nowhere is the interdependence between community engagement and successful animal sheltering better illustrated than in the City of Austin, widely recognized as the gold-standard for progressive animal sheltering. In 1997, the city politicians themselves issued a No Kill resolution vowing to achieve a live-release rate of greater than 90% by 2005. Although they did not quite meet their original target date, today the shelter proudly touts a true “noses in/noses out” live-release rate of over 98%, an achievement of which not only are most Austinites immensely proud to have participated in, but actually represents a significant contributing factor in defining their cultural identity.

Neighboring San Diego County has been working on their own “getting to zero” initiative targeting decreased euthanasia rates for a few years now, and a couple months ago the Los Angeles City Council took the active step of reaffirming their commitment to moving towards a “No Kill” community.   When is Orange County going to follow suit, and embrace the spreading compassion paradigm shift, because so far there’s been little sign of concession?

2 year old Charisma was at the shelter for some time, and like so many dogs experience after extended periods of confinement without appropriate kennel enrichment or socialization, started to develop signs of kennel stress. Instead of working through some of these issues to help her overcome her frustrations, she was made unavailable for adoption, and immediately placed on the euthanasia list for her degenerating behavior. Once an animal is placed on the euthanasia list, they usually have anywhere from 24 hours to a couple of days before they are killed. Thankfully for Charisma, a rescue stepped up immediately, and she was rescued in the nick of time. She now lives a extremely full life with a loving family that includes another dog, completely without incident.

Please join our mailing list for updates and to participate in the discussion on how Orange County can Save More and Kill Less of its homeless pets. Click here to sign up for the mailing list.

Saskia Boisot, MD is a physician who practices human pathology in Orange County.  Because of her profound love of animals, she founded the group No Kill Shelter Alliance and also co-founded its sister group Save More Kill Less, with a view to reforming Southern California’s high kill animal shelters, starting with Orange County Animal Care, because it exemplified everything that is wrong with the system.  Through her advocacy, she has forged alliances with some of the leading organizations in this space, and most notably has spent time at both Austin Animal Care and Austin Pets Alive, widely recognized as the gold standard in the field of animal sheltering.

In addition to Dr. Boisot, the following people contributed to this piece: Rose Tingle, Summer Parker, Eugene Gochicoa, and Sharon Logan.

Opinions expressed in editorials belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue or others please contact Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears at TSears@voiceofoc.org

  • Nora Coyle

    This is just inexcusable! What has happened with all the lawsuits, and other opposition against this shelter’s policies? They suck. They need new administration, we rescuers believe! What’s it going to take to put a stop to this? A new facility is NOT the answer!

  • Jean Einum-Bland

    Thank you Dr. Boisot for taking an interest in the conditions at the Orange County Animal Shelter and for mentioning the OC Animal Shelter’s Performance Audit. I’ve been following the Orange County Animal Shelter’s performance and statistics since 2003 and although my city and several of the surrounding cities have thankfully left the County Shelter the only clear and honest report I have ever seen, from the County of Orange, related to the Orange County Animal Shelters actual performance, was written by Philip Cheng, the Orange County Performance Auditor in 2015. PLEASE DO GO TO THE WEB ADDRESS BELOW AND LOOK AT The Performance Audit of Orange County Animal Care done by Philip Cheng, the Orange County Performance Audit Director – Final Report on March 24, 2015.

    http://cams.ocgov.com/Web_Publisher/Agenda03_24_2015_files/images/O00315-000276A.PDF

    Included in this 108 page Audit are 34 Recommendations for the County Animal Shelter – including the following “FINDING” on page 94.

    1. Euthanasia Observations:

    a. Identification of animals was not done immediately prior to euthanasia

    b. Animals were not weighed before euthanasia

    c. Verification of death after euthanasia was not performed.

  • Sharon Logan

    Have the courage to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves and if your local Shelter is killing healthy adoptable animals, have the courage to demand Shelter Reform.

    Kudos to No Kill Shelter Alliance for continuing to inform and educate the public, community and residents regarding the practices at OC Animal Care.

    Please continue to advocate for the Animals at OC Animal Care and shed light on the need for immediate shelter reform at OC Animal Care.

    The Shelter Killing of Healthy Adoptable Animals is a choice made by regressive not progressive Shelters.

    Regressive Shelters need to stop pointing the finger of blame everywhere else, I.E it’s the communities fault or it’s the animal owners fault because it is the Shelter that is actually the ones that are doing the killing of healthy adoptable animals.

    A Little Local Orange County Paper The Lake Forest Patch called OC Animal Care located in Orange, CA, a Shelter that has been a Killing Machine for Decades. And Yes OC Animal Care needs to be reformed starting with some in Management and Shelter Employees.

    A shelter’s job is to shelter animals.

    Nothing eclipses an animal’s right to live or mitigates a shelter’s duty, responsibility and obligation to shelter.

    “It is the policy of this state that no adoptable animal should be euthanized if it can be adopted into a suitable home unless it has manifested a sign of behavorial, temperamental defect or a sign of disease, injury or congenital hereditary condition. The state policy is clear that unless one or the other of those exists there is no basis to euthanize the animals. We know that the OCAC like many municipal shelters for the reasons we just discussed, claiming lack of resources, but also because they simply become callous and let’s face it, if it’s a job that you do day in and day out, it doesn’t take you long to figure out that the less animals you have to be accounted for and take care of the less work you have.”

    Howard Finkelstein Attorney for Logan vs OC Animal Care.

    Excellent Article By Nathan Winograd on we must stop excusing and condoning the Shelters in So Cal that continue to kill healthy dogs and cats unabated while there are other viable options available and we must start holding these High Kill shelters accountable for continuing to kill healthy adoptable animals.

    An article in a local newspaper is defending an Alabama pound, even though it admits that it kills, “far too many healthy, adoptable animals”: https://goo.gl/4WL1aL I don’t know much about this particular facility, and they do not post their statistics on their website, but I do know that the defense of the killing is misleading.

    No Kill shelters can be public or private, large or small, humane societies or municipal agencies. A No Kill shelter can be either “limited admission” or “open admission.” And there are plenty of No Kill animal control shelters and thus No Kill communities which prove it. As communities across the country are increasing proving, shelter killing is a choice.

    The editorial is not all bad. It does encourage people to adopt, rather than purchase an animal from a breeder or commercial source, which I wholeheartedly support. It also offers the usual advice to “spay/neuter your pets,” which I also support. Having said that, shelter killing is ended by reforming the institutions of killing, not eliminating the supply of victims. And while I support high volume, low cost sterilization and it is a core program of the No Kill Equation model of sheltering I champion: nokilladvocacycenter.org/no-kill-equation.html, to continue to reduce every issue to a failure to sterilize is exactly what regressive shelter directors want animal activists to do: point the finger of blame anywhere but on those who are actually doing the killing.

    Those who love animals must stop giving them the animal shelters the luxury of this out.

    We don’t need animals to disappear from the Earth before we can do right by them. Instead, we should be demanding that those we pay to care for homeless animals with our tax and philanthropic dollars provide them the care, kindness, and a loving home that is their birthright.

    And while the editorial has plenty of advice for the public, it doesn’t offer any for the pound. It should have shown them how shelters across the country went from a culture of killing to a culture of lifesaving by changing the way they operate. In those communities that no longer kill, there is still a public; the difference is that the shelter replaced cruel, antiquated ways of operating with the programs and services of the No Kill Equation: nokilladvocacycenter.org/no-kill-equation.html

    Of course, this discussion is not meant as a defense of irresponsible people. It would be ideal if everyone was responsible with animals in the broadest meaning of the term; but that doesn’t mean shelters must kill until everyone is. Our animal shelters could be great, and the narrative that says that when an animal is no longer wanted, tragedy must necessarily ensue, could be replaced by the understanding that when animals need a helping hand, our society ensures that they have one. The infrastructure for this is already in place. What is lacking is the will to reform the 3,000-plus kill shelters across the nation as this one-sided, simple-minded, factually-erroneous editorial proves. As long as we fail to reform shelters, millions of dogs and cats will continue to needlessly lose their lives each and every year.

  • justanon

    While I am mostly sympathetic to your cause, I do think you need to present a few more facts.

    For instance, you give the number of animals that were euthanized over a three month period last summer, but not the total number of animals taken in. Further, a breakdown of the types of animals being euthanized would also present a fairer picture of what is happening at the OCAC.

    I wonder what percentage of animals being euthanized are feral cats? I suspect that the majority of these animals are feral cats, which are a very big problem for many homeowners. Feral cats are not easy to place, especially in urban Orange County. If 50% of the animals euthanized were feral cats, the OCAC if it were to become a “no kill” shelter, would either have had to house or place over 1,250 feral cats in just that 3 month period. Is it realistic to think that any facility could handle that?

    Also, there may be empty space, but not nearly enough to house the number of animals coming in every month. At some point you’ll either face severe overcrowding and unhealthy conditions or you’ll have to turn animals away.

    It’s easy to generate outrage by playing on people’s emotions, but presenting slanted or incomplete information is unfair to the OCAC, yes, maybe they could be doing a better job, but they are not the real problem. Irresponsible pet owners are.

  • Tina Wallace

    Well stated Saskia- the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated” and sadly our nation is morally defunct ! I am disgusted and appalled at our shelter system and our treatment of our animal companions….However, OCAC has more money than anywhere and they still kill…Management needs to be fired and NO KILL leaders put in place NOW

  • Econotarian

    I have no info on OCAC in particular, but it should be noted that often kennels have to remain empty for several days after dogs with strongly contagious diseases have been in them.

  • Exhausted

    There is no need to wait for the new shelter to stop the killing – it can stop today. And without new management in place, nothing will change. San Diego, Austin, Reno, Kansas City, Seattle, Williamsburg (and soon, LA) – have all stopped the killing. The only thing keeping OC from reaching 90% is lack of will to do so.

  • Suzy Thomas

    The sheltering model has changed drastically in the U.S. but it sounds like Orange County is trapped in the past. Those who continue to follow this “Kill” means of sheltering will shortly find themselves on the wrong side of history. OCAC has an enviable budget proving that just throwing money at the problem does not solve it. Sounds like you desperately need new leadership who is dedicated to saving lives and joining the No Kill movement. Kudos to Saskia Boisot for shining a spotlight on this embarrassing and abominable situation.