Pressure continues to build at the county-run animal shelter to get more dogs and cats adopted and reopen the kennels to the public.

A vocal group of Orange County residents fighting against the OC Animal Care’s current operations has grown during the past few months. 

More than 11,000 people have signed a petition calling for the shelter to reopen to the public. 

One month ago, 6,000 people had signed.

This weekend, at an adoption event hosted by OC Supervisor Katrina Foley, dozens of residents stood outside OC Animal Care, claiming the shelter isn’t getting enough animals adopted fast enough and continues to contribute to increased numbers of euthanized animals over the past few years.

[Read: OC Animal Activists Demand Walk-In Animal Shelter, End Appointment-Only Adoptions]

When the COVID-19 pandemic started in 2020, the animal shelter closed the kennel area to the public, prohibiting any attendees to walk around and view the animals.

To this day, the shelter has not fully reopened their doors, keeping the public out of the kennel area and restricting adoption visits to appointments only.

If someone wants to adopt a pet from OC Animal Care, they are required to first make an appointment over the phone. Walk-in appointments are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

When arriving at the shelter for an appointment, the attendee is required to choose which animal they wish to meet by looking at the shelter’s website. If they wish to see another animal afterward, an additional appointment is needed.

Advocates have been speaking up against shelter leadership about their practices, and more recently, they have been showing up at Orange County Board of Supervisors meetings demanding an end to the appointment-only adoption system.

[Read: OC Animal Activists Call on County Supervisors to Reopen Animal Shelter

Dr. Robbin Morris, president of The Ark an animal rescue center, at Saturday’s protest holding a sign that read “Open OC Animal Care Without Restrictions.” Morris expressed her concerns about the shelter’s TNR, trap, neuter, return practices. “We get calls all the time to come get kittens, and if we aren’t able to come get them in a timely manner, we find out an hour later that a perfectly fine kitten was euthanized.” Credit: JANETTE VILLAFANA, Voice of OC

Despite vocal residents and thousands of supporters, the shelter leadership has remained steadfast in their arguments supporting their methods.

Monica Schmidt, the assistant director of OC Animal Care, told Voice of OC that the adoption appointments are supervised by staff and the process helps decrease impulse adoptions. She said keeping individuals out of the kennel areas decreases stress on the animals and potential opportunities for bites if a child were to stick their arm through the bars.

Dozens of residents took to the streets during Saturday’s adoption event to continue their demands to county leadership to reopen the shelter to decrease the number of euthanized animals.

Wendy Fears, a resident at the protest Saturday morning, said she came after personally seeing people being turned away from the shelter two days prior.

“Being there on Thursday, witnessnessing really nice couples actually come in wanting to see dogs and turn and walk out — three of them (turned away) in half an hour, that’s what I witnessed — and I thought, ‘That is so wrong,’” Fears said. “(The dogs) can’t get adopted if (people) can’t see them.”

Fears said it’s more stressful for the animals to live in the shelter with minimal human interaction than to have people walking around the kennel area. She cited a recent visit to an animal shelter in Riverside, where she spent an hour walking around the kennel area and meeting dozens of dogs.

Sandie Genis, a Costa Mesa resident drove to Tustin to demand the full re-opening of the shelter in OC. As an owner of a senior female dog herself, she said, animals need human interaction. “When someone is getting ready to adopt an animal it is important for them to be able to walk through the shelter to see what animal they connect with,” she said. “That isn’t being done here, everything is by appointment and you aren’t allowed inside.” Credit: JANETTE VILLAFANA, Voice of OC

“I went yesterday to Riverside, and I was able to walk up and down and find a dog because I could see it,” Fears said. “It’s stressful (being in the kennels), but I think it’s more stressful not to see a human being. When I was in Riverside, I spent an hour with all the dogs, and they’re coming up and kissing me, and I thought that’s probably better for them than not seeing a person.”

Janette Fisher, another protester, adopted her dog in 2016 from OC Animal Care after walking around the shelter and seeing her new dog named Charlie in a play area. She said she never would have adopted him just by looking at pictures online, it was his personality from seeing him in real life that made her take him home that day.

Chris Edmonson held a sign at the protest depicting images of dirty kennels, calling to attention allegations that the shelter is closed because they don’t have enough workers to clean regularly.

“Answer the question: How many people are in there to clean the cages right now?” Edmonson said. “Why is that budget so big if you only have five people in there, overworked, trying to keep these animals out of this kind of a condition?”

A woman holds up a sign a few feet away from OC Animal Care showing blown-up pictures displaying dirty kennels and a caged dog. Credit: JANETTE VILLAFANA, Voice of OC

Saturday’s adoption event also had a job fair element promoting employment opportunities.

In a phone interview with Foley Aug. 26, she told Voice of OC that the understaffed shelter is looking to hire more dog handlers, staff members who are also responsible for cleaning the kennels.

Despite the lack of employees, the director and assistant director rake in a combined $500,000 in yearly salaries. 

According to Transparent California, OC Animal Care Director Andi Bernard made nearly $300,000 in 2021 for total pay and benefits. Schmidt was listed as making just over $200,000 in 2021.

Advocates have been speaking up against this imbalance between managers and workers,, wondering why the shelter is lacking employees and volunteers. 

Some volunteers are claiming that dogs are not walked every day and their kennels are not cleaned as often as they should be.

Schmidt said that every kennel is cleaned every morning in the shelter, but residents remain skeptical.

“There’s no way that you clean 500 animals out before breakfast,” Fisher said.

Foley had mentioned that the shelter was looking into a temporary contract with custodial services to get extra support for kennel cleaning services as they look to hire more employees.

Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact her at ahicks@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.

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