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.
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.
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.
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?
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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