My name is Dr. Saskia Boisot, and I am a human physician practicing pathology in Orange County, and specializing in the diagnosis of leukemias in lymphomas in people. I have been advocating for shelter reform for the past 5 years or so, with a primary focus on Orange County. I am also the president of Underdog Alliance, a 501c3 charitable organization devoted to helping large breed dogs with a range of behavioral issues, and have personally been involved in saving the lives of hundreds of dogs from OCAC since embarking on this endeavor.
On a daily basis as a physician, every diagnosis I make is generated as a result of evidence-based medicine, so understanding data is of utmost importance to me. My practice in the sphere of medicine does not operate according to whose voice is the loudest, thankfully it is entirely scientifically driven, meaning that it relies on data derived from large scale double-blinded prospective studies whose results are published in peer-reviewed journals, and by their very design, bias is removed from interpretation of those results. And so too should it be in the shelter reform space. Just because No Kill buzz words get flung around with the proverbial mud by people who self-identify as “animal advocates,” does not mean they are being used in earnest.
In light of certain recent published opinion pieces criticizing the new administration at OCAC, I am writing this rebuttal to remind everyone of what OCAC looked like 5 years ago, when I personally joined this particular movement. I would also like to add that the positive change effectuated at OCAC was not the result of one single person’s efforts, it required the voices of many, and certainly before I arrived on the scene, plenty of work had been previously done to pave the way for change, including five Grand Jury reports, an audit report, and countless negative media stories relating to practices there. The Logan vs OCAC lawsuit was undeniably an important vehicle for demonstrating many of the shelter’s infractions at the time, but by no means was it the sole “game changer”; and since I was one of the key people on the legal team, who personally spent countless hours scrutinizing upwards of 400 animal records obtained via public records request and correlating them with the OCAC “euthanasia” data procured through the settlement agreement in order to ascertain which animal records should be used to highlight violations of the Hayden Law, I am well positioned to make this statement.
But back to the original point of this editorial, the glaring transformation OCAC has undergone over the past year or so. The old shelter on City Drive, built 74 years prior, was in a permanent state of dereliction, looking more like an Orwellian nightmare than a safe haven for the animals, with small outdoor kennels for the dogs, and poorly ventilated makeshift trailers for the cats. On a weekly basis at that time, we were documenting up to 200 empty kennels at every visit, yet dogs were routinely either being slated for death or actually killed for such conditions as dermatitis caused by flea infestation, arthritis, and fly strike, as well as for minor behavioral challenges, including dogs under the age of one designated as “bratty”, while cats were being killed for essentially just that – being cats. Also at that time, we chronicled multiple incidents of dogs in an extremely poor state of health not receiving appropriate veterinary care, a few of which were subsequently found dead in their kennels the next day. Finally, kennels were routinely being hosed down with animals still inside them, despite multiple recommendations over the years against this practice from an independent expert consultant.
Back in 2015, the shelter was taking in just under 1500 animals a year for so-called “owner requested euthanasia”, with a median time to death for this category of animals of 43 minutes, as calculated through analysis of two years’ worth of data by a recognized statistician, who also happens to be a veterinarian. That’s 43 minutes or less between the time half the animals killed in this category walk into the shelter, all documentation is verified, they are examined by a veterinary technician for a medical condition if “irremediable suffering” is the reason for relinquishment, and then taken out back in the Ketchal “wheel of death” to be killed. Kittens brought into the shelter at that time had less than 30% chance of making it out alive, with over 5000 kittens being killed each year, and 60% of all cats killed were killed within the first day of impound, a brazen violation of the Hayden Law which apparently back then seemed to elude pretty much everyone. And perhaps most egregiously of all, in our first month examining the raw data, we discovered that an entire litter of kittens was being counted as one animal in the shelter’s published statistics, which, along with backing out the aforementioned “owner requested euthanasia” animals from their live-release rate calculations (as permitted by the Asilomar Accords), drastically skewed the numbers in the shelter’s favor. Nowadays, OCAC releases its shelter statistics in two ways: in accordance with Asilomar, since for some this remains an acceptable industry standard, but more importantly as raw data, referred to as those in the business as “noses in, noses out”, and a far more honest reflection of performance.
Today, the new facility, which opened its doors in March 2018, is spacious and welcoming to both the general public and rescues alike, the dogs are housed in modern indoor/outdoor kennels, and the cats are in well ventilated catteries, with litter boxes spatially arranged at an appropriate measured distance from their feeding quarters. Cat socialization is actively promoted in group play rooms, and dog playgroups are conducted on a daily basis, a crucial program not only designed to ensure the emotional welfare of these dogs, but also and instrumental tool in networking them to local rescues; additionally, since playgroups are conducted in public view, they represent an engaging way to promote them to the general public. In the past six months alone, the shelter has placed 1694 pets into 402 foster homes, whereas in the past only a handful of animals went into foster care through the shelter, predominantly with a few select shelter staff members. And any rescue group who has pulled an animal from the shelter over the past year or so can attest to the drastic shift in how they are treated; no longer as a nuisance, but appropriately revered as a life-saving partner, whose time limitations are respected rather than sneered at.
Today, the small handful of extra long stay large breed dogs like Fenway and Clove (see pictures), who have been at OCAC for over a year, are afforded every opportunity at successfully finding their new homes, all the while receiving appropriate enrichment during their tenure there, instead of being killed because their perfect match has yet to show up. In point of fact, the overall live-release rate for cats and dogs at OCAC has increased from 61.9% in 2015 to 87.9% in 2019, meaning that 26% fewer animals overall are currently dying or being killed at the shelter as compared to 2015, and perhaps most impressively of all, the live-release rate for kittens has jumped from 28.7% in 2015 to 77.3% in 2019, even in the face of a booming kitten season this year. Additionally, since the premise of the lawsuit hinged so heavily on violations of Hayden’s Law specifically pertaining to animals in the category of so-called “owner requested euthanasia,” only 24 such animals have been killed at OCAC since the beginning of 2019, as compared to 1,437 killed in 2015. When fewer animals are killed by the shelter, not only do the animals themselves obviously benefit, but it improves morale among those working at the shelter, both staff and volunteers.
While there has recently been much noise made about the shelter’s practice of spaying/neutering and vaccinating not just feral cats from known colonies, but also free-roaming “stray” cats who may or may not be friendly, and then returning them from whence they came, a practice known as “return-to-field,” I am not going to expound upon the virtues of RTF/TNR programs here, as this has been previously addressed by an expert in this field, who is far more qualified than myself to speak about this topic, not to mention the abundance of published literature in support of these programs, including stochastic modeling used to predict the efficacy of TNR/RTF programs and trends in feral cat population reduction after their implementation. However, it is important to note that most of the progress made at OCAC is entirely thanks to innovative life-saving programs such as these.
Another such program which has also previously been disparaged by the same dissenting voices is that of “managed intake”, whereby relinquishment of an animal to the shelter by its owner is done by appointment, not on a whim (with the obvious exception of cases where the animal might pose an imminent threat to those around, or vice versa). How often have you been to the doctor, dentist, or any professional institution for that matter, without an appointment? So why should abdicating responsibility for one’s pet, a living, breathing, sentient being, be something to be done with more ease than throwing out the trash? Without programs like these, there is no way to save all these homeless animals, so to reject them is in essence to endorse killing or even “culling” them. You can’t demand a No Kill shelter or No Kill community without implementing the crucial programs underpinning the very core of the movement’s philosophy; you just can’t have it both ways, plain and simple.
So in conclusion, it is important to look at the real facts borne out of data if one wants to be truly objective when assessing a shelter’s performance, and certainly in the case of OCAC in 2019, the preponderance of evidence points to the balance being heavily tilted towards the good. Is there room for improvement? As long as any healthy and treatable animal is killed in a shelter system, the goal should always be towards eliminating this, so given that essentially no animal shelter in the US has managed to reach this Nirvana yet, the answer to that question will likely be “yes” for some time. But I do believe OCAC is now on the right path, and that is almost entirely because of the mentality shift at the apex of the organization’s administration.
Saskia Boisot, MD is a physician who practices human pathology in Orange County. 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. She is president of Underdog Alliance, a non profit dedicated to helping large breed dogs with severe behavioral challenges through providing low cost training, humane education, and assistance for shelters with setting up playgroups.
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