A battle between Orange County animal activists and the county-run shelter is brewing as residents and volunteers criticize Orange County Animal Care for not letting residents walk into the shelter to see the animals.
The activists are pleading with county leadership to help increase adoptions in the shelter, by ending its appointment-only adoption system that started when the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020.
At the shelter’s July 27 community outreach committee meeting, OC resident and six-year volunteer at OC Animal Care, Laura Lawther, said the appointment-only system is killing more animals.
“Without notice or reasons, these dogs are euthanized due to the overcrowding at the shelter,” Lawther said at the meeting.
“I have personally witnessed the public walking into our lobby to visit our beautiful facility, and instead they are being turned away because they do not have an appointment or they are being requested to choose an animal by standing in line and looking at a computer screen,” she said.
During that same time frame in 2020, 36 dogs were euthanized, as well as 62 in 2019 and 61 in 2018.
“OC Animal Care states on their website that they do not euthanize for time or space,” Lawther said. “However, that is clearly not the case.”
After making an appointment, visitors must choose which animal to meet through pictures and descriptions on the OC Animal Care website. Shelter volunteers said people are often told they can only meet with one animal per appointment and must create a separate appointment to meet another animal.
Monica Schmidt, the assistant director of OC Animal Care, said the adoption appointments are supervised by staff and the process helps decrease impulse adoptions.
“Adopting a forever friend should not be left to impulse or appearance, and our staff is well-versed in counseling adopters to make the best choice for their lifestyle,” Schmidt said in an email responding to questions.
“This careful consideration and investment of time in the adoption benefits the adopting family and results in the best possible placement for the animal.”
Additionally, visitors are not permitted to walk around in the kennel area at the 10-acre, $35 million shelter in Tustin that serves 14 cities throughout Orange County.
The series of changes created an uproar among animal activists who say the appointment-only system reduces the amount of animals that can be adopted, leaves the animals isolated in kennels and increases the euthanasia rates from overcrowding.
Margot Boyer, a resident of Yorba Linda, created a petition advocating to open the shelter and kennel spaces to the public. So far, it’s gathered over 6,000 signatures.
“How many signatures do we need to get before you take notice of the taxpayers and what we want?” Boyer publicly asked the outreach committee in July.
Julie Ashleigh, a Garden Grove resident who fosters animals from OC Animal Care, said she was losing confidence in the shelter’s ability to operate effectively.
“For the first time in 10 years or so, I’m having a really hard time telling people it’s okay to take this found dog to the shelter because they won’t euthanize it,” Ashleigh said at the meeting.
April Josephson, a member of the community outreach committee, publicly criticized how the shelter operates.
“It has been abundantly clear that OCAC’s leadership is more concerned with exclusion, micromanagement, limiting public interactions and controlling messaging than they are with providing animal care services,” Josephson said at the end of the July 27 meeting.
“Initially, the excuse was COVID. That is no longer acceptable,” she said.
The community outreach committee members are appointed by the county Board of Supervisors. Josephson was appointed by board member Lisa Bartlett.
Josephson also criticized OC Animal Care Director Andi Bernard, who was not at the meeting because she was on vacation.
“In my time on this committee and in animal rescue I have worked with six different shelter directors at OCAC,” Josephson said. “This one is by far the worst, least credentialed and highest paid.”
Bernard was made the interim director in 2020 after the previous administrator resigned.
The previous director, Michael Kaviani, started as OC Animal Care’s director in August 2018 and left to begin a new position with Dogs Playing for Life, a national nonprofit based in Colorado that advocates for animal playgroups in shelters, instead of constant isolation in kennels.
Bernard was moved to full-time director shortly after.
Since then, she’s been criticized by animal activists who say her background in human resources doesn’t qualify her to run the shelter effectively.
Although the shelter’s website says potential adopters are not turned away from adopting, Jospheson called it a “blatant lie.”
“This goes on all day, every day,” Josephson said. “Last time I was here, a few weeks ago, I watched three families being turned away within 10 minutes.”
Committee member Kim Kane, who also works as a dog trainer, argued that allowing people to walk around the kennels — especially when kids can stick their arms through the bars — creates too much stress for the animals.
“Having calm interactions with humans while in the kennels can really bring stress down,” Kane said. “We’re fighting it because we can’t police who goes into the kennels. I don’t really know what to do about that. If we can’t make people behave when they go in there, that stresses the dogs out.”
Kane was appointed by OC Supervisor Donald Wagner.
Despite the criticism, shelter leadership says that the appointment-only system is best industry practice.
“Adopting a pet is an important decision and should not be made on impulse,” Schmidt wrote in an email to Voice of OC. “In the adoption-by-appointment system, our trained and experienced staff offers a concierge-style adoption experience from the time someone calls to make an appointment until they leave with their new best friend.”
Animals are available to be seen in their kennels at the San Diego County Department of Animal Services, and adoption services are conducted by walk-ins at Riverside County Department of Animal Services.
“No (other animal shelters) have a convoluted, restrictive appointment system where you have to choose a single animal to view from a picture on a website,” Josephson said at the meeting.
The community outreach committee meets quarterly and is scheduled to meet again at 11:30 a.m. on October 26.
This story was updated to make clear the euthanasia numbers represent a six-month time period from January to June.
Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.