Three Southern California-based animal rescue groups have filed a lawsuit against OC Animal Care, claiming the shelter has been euthanizing adoptable dogs and the kennel closure has decreased adoption rates.

Elizabeth Heug from OC Shelter Partners, Markelle Pineda from SAFE Rescue Team and Debbie Robin Friedman from Cats in Need of Human Care are named in the lawsuit against the shelter, which alleges that the shelter is on a “killing rampage.”

“This case involves an ongoing pattern and practice of abuse of discretion and failure to follow California law by Respondent OC Animal Care (“OCAC”) in Orange County,” the filings allege. “Petitioners ask Respondent OCAC be ordered to follow state laws as specified herein, to cease practices which prevent public access to impounded animals and to stop abusive practices which are harmful to animals without any reciprocal benefit to the animals or the public.”

Residents have spent more the past two years advocating for OC Animal Care to allow the public into the kennel areas within the shelter, end its appointment-only adoption system and reinstate the trap, neuter and release (TNR) program for feral cats on the street.

[Read: More OC Residents Keep Pressing The County Animal Shelter to Reopen Kennels to Public Visitors]

Heug, who founded OC Shelter Partners to help keep animals in homes and out of the shelter system, said she had to take action when she realized shelter administration didn’t care about what the activists had to say. 

“They’re never going to listen to us,” Heug told Voice of OC. “I realized that they’re going to have to be forced to change because they’re comfortable with the way things are right now. I’m not.”

At the shelter’s community outreach committee meeting on Oct. 26, the committee voted to recommend the shelter reinstate efforts to trap, neuter and release feral cats and to create an ad hoc committee to discuss reopening the shelter’s kennels to the public  — two of the main issues in the lawsuit that have also been voiced by activists.

“It should not be difficult for the public to get into this facility and to try and adopt an animal,” committee member Leslie Malo said at the meeting.

Residents filled the room at the community outreach committee meeting on Oct. 26. Residents came to vent about the way the shelter is operating and demanding change.

Jen Holt, a Costa Mesa resident who recently moved from Washington, used to volunteer at shelters in her home state and said at the meeting that it’s “ridiculous” that the shelter’s kennel areas are still closed to the public after originally closing for the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Your name is OC Animal Care yet what you are doing here is not humane,” Holt told committee members.

Both items were put on the agenda by April Josephson, a member of the committee who has been very outspoken about issues at the shelter.

“The public has been speaking about this since the shelter has been closed for the last two years, so the fact that we actually put them on the agenda so we can discuss them instead of just listening to the public comments was a huge step forward,” Josephson told Voice of OC after the meeting. “Now it’s up to the county to do their job.”

Margot Boyer, an activist who created an online petition with over 15,000 signatures calling for the shelter to reopen to the public, told Voice of OC after the meeting that although she was excited to see the votes, she fears it won’t result in any real change. 

“Nothing is going to happen. They’re not going to change,” Boyer said. “(The shelter administration) is just going to say no.”

OC Animal Care in Tustin on Sept. 10, 2022. Credit: JANETTE VILLAFANA, Voice of OC

Andi Bernard, the county shelter’s director, was at the meeting and said although she is willing to consider recommendations she was not able to comment further.

The lawsuit also alleges that the shelter’s closure is leading to the euthanization of adoptable animals and a drop-off in the number of animals getting adopted from the shelter.

In 2019, the shelter saw 7,259 dogs and cats adopted out of the shelter. 

In 2020, there were 3,992 total adoptions. 

That dropped again to 3,554 in 2021

For the first half of 2022, there were 1,617 adoptions.

Adoption percentages seem to have decreased as well. 

In 2020, 52% of the animals brought into the shelter were adopted. 

This dropped to 43% in 2021.

And down to 35% for the first six months of 2022.

If someone wishes to adopt an animal at OC Animal care, they must first schedule an appointment either online or in person. After arriving, visitors must choose an animal to meet by looking at pictures of the animals on the shelter’s website.

“This ‘by photo’ appointment process substantially reduces the likelihood of adoption,” the lawsuit reads. “The potential adopter is prohibited from observing in person a variety of animals and their behavior and personality traits to make a connection and choose which animal would make a good fit to adopt into their family. Looking at a one dimensional photo is wholly deficient.”

OC Animal Care recently launched a weekly “Pooches on the Patio” event to create meet-and-greet opportunities for adopters to get to know dogs at the shelter each Saturday. Hueg conceded that this event is a positive step forward and she hopes to see similar efforts in the future.

Heug said issues regarding the shelter extend beneath the surface. She said the administration needs to change in order to address the root of the problems. 

“If it’s not a personnel change, it needs to be an attitude change,” Heug said.

The animal shelter — which was previously located on three acres of land in the City of Orange out of a facility built in 1941 — has warranted five investigative reports from the OC Grand Jury, each resulting in critical findings and demands for the shelter to improve. The first was in 1999, with others in 2003 and 2007. There were two reports in 2014.

The shelter moved to its current location in Tustin in 2018.

Heug also emphasized the need for a shelter oversight board that isn’t run by politicians. 

Currently, the community outreach committee is made up of five members, each selected by a member of the OC Board of Supervisors. The committee meets quarterly.

“It’s imperative that there’s a regulatory board that oversees the shelter that does not consistent of politicians, whose minds change with the breeze,” Heug said. 

“The board of supervisors have no business overseeing an animal shelter… There needs to be an oversight board that consists of veterinarians, behaviorists (and) rescuers, so that decisions are made best on what’s best for the animals.”

Rose Tingle, a vocal activist, has been consistently advocating for a shelter oversight board for many years. 

“I have been advocating for an advisory or oversight committee for the county animal shelter consisting of people who care about the animals, are skilled in animal welfare and have the courage to stand up to the OC Board of Supervisors,” Tingle told Voice of OC. “Problems seem to erupt every few years, and it’s always been a challenge to get the Board of Supervisors to listen and take positive corrective action.”

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

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