Local activists continue to heavily criticize the county-run animal shelter in ongoing litigation currently playing out in Orange County Superior Court.

It’s been a years-long battle between residents and county shelter officials. 

[Read: Activists Fed Up With OC Animal Shelter, Sue For Animal Abuse]

Now, three nonprofit organizations are taking action against OC Animal Care, with court filings claiming the county-run shelter is failing to adequately care for the animals by providing clean living spaces and proper medical care and allegedly euthanizing animals without proper public notice. 

Shelter officials, on the other hand, have routinely disputed allegations of dirty kennels, medical care shortcomings and failure to notify residents before they euthanize animals. 

OC Shelter Partners is one of the groups suing along with SAFE Rescue Team and Cats in Need of Human Care — three Orange County nonprofits dedicated to helping local animals in need.

The groups are asking the shelter to comply with animal care laws and end their allegedly harmful operations towards animals. 

In a brief filed last month from the three nonprofit groups, local veterinarians and volunteers from the shelter spoke out about what they’ve witnessed over the years.

The filing describes how Diane Cosko, a licensed veterinarian in California, looked over medical records and determined two dogs did not receive proper medical care during their time at OC Animal Care.

After reviewing records, Cosko said the shelter failed to provide “necessary or prompt veterinary care” for a Siberian husky that had been hit by a car. 

“Due to OCAC’s improper recordkeeping, Dr. Cosko was unable to confirm whether the Husky was seen by a veterinarian,” the brief reads. “The appearance of these records indicate that only a registered vet tech performed the examination, diagnosed, prognosticated and prescribed for the Husky — all of which is illegal in California. If the Husky was seen by a veterinarian, he or she completely missed obvious signs that the Husky’s pelvis was fractured on both sides.”

Kathleen Oda, an activist who operates Angels for Animals Network, described in the brief how OC Animal Care allegedly euthanized adoptable animals and failed to give rescues proper notice of animals slated for euthanasia.

OC Animal Care has a service for rescue organizations called OC Rescue Track, which uses a color-coded system to alert rescue organizations of all animals at risk of euthanasia. 

Oda and other activists claim some animals are being euthanized without any notice on OC Rescue Track.

“Healthy shelter animals must be given an opportunity to be rescued,” Oda declared in the court filings. “OCAC is picking and choosing which dogs to NOT list on Rescue Track. Unlisted dogs remain hidden from rescue groups.”

Oda points to 17 dogs that were euthanized in 2022 she claims were not listed on OC Rescue Track before their deaths.

OC Animal Care administration has routinely denied allegations of misconduct and claims no adoptable animals are euthanized.

“All animals at the OCAC shelter are receiving proper care, food, water, medical attention, exercise and socialization,” Monica Schmidt, assistant director for OC Animal Care, said in a court filing. “OCAC’s shelter kennels are designed to provide a larger than average footprint for each animal to ensure primary enclosures provide sufficient space.”

Jackie Tran, the new public information officer for the shelter, couldn’t comment on the litigation but described various efforts the shelter makes to find positive outcomes for the animals in their care.

“When it comes to running a successful animal shelter, the approaches are plentiful,” Tran wrote in an email sent to Voice of OC. “Regardless of the path taken towards success, our highest priority is to help the animals leave the shelter as quickly and as safely as possible. At OC Animal Care, we strive to accomplish this goal every day.” 

The next hearing for this case is scheduled for Feb. 6.

How Clean Are the Kennels? 

Over the past few years, activists and residents have lambasted county shelter officials for allegedly allowing animals to live in filthy kennels.

Shelter officials have routinely disputed those allegations. 

Now, the claims are making their way before an OC Superior Court judge.

In a sworn declaration, volunteer Karen Vaughn provided photos in the brief detailing alleged filthy kennel areas in the shelter. 

“When I started volunteering at the shelter in September of 2019, it was very clean and I was really impressed. However, in the years since, it has progressively gone downhill,” Vaughn said in the court filings. “The dog kennels are filthy. 

The public has been unable to walk through any of the kennel areas in the shelter since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, and the shelter has made no public plans to reopen these areas.

In a court filing, Schmidt said the kennels are cleaned thoroughly every morning with spot checks when needed.

Oda disagrees.

“I personally have seen an entire building of 30 big dog kennels with feces and urine still in their kennels at 11:00 a.m. from the night before,” Vaughn claimed. “Some of these dogs are coated in their own feces and as they are walking and jumping in their kennels, they are reeking of feces and urine. 

“The dogs are forced to remain in the kennels in this filth until someone is free to clean their kennels and then bathe the dog. Much of my time, as well as other volunteers, is spent cleaning the kennels.”

Schmidt said the shelter’s been wrestling with a staff shortage.

​​”OCAC consistently experienced a 23%+ vacancy rate all summer that can be exacerbated at times by COVID quarantining of impacted staff and leave of absences,” Schmidt said in a declaration filed with the OC Superior Court. “OCAC is in the selection phase for Animal Care attendants (Kennel Attendants) and recently hired one from our current list.”

Decades of Criticism and Scathing Reports

Few public agencies attract Grand Jury attention like the county-run animal shelter.

From 1999 to 2015, the shelter — which was previously located on three acres of land in the City of Orange in a building built in 1941 — has warranted five investigations by the OC Grand Jury.

Each time, grand jurors issued scathing reports.

The new OC Animal Care facility cost $35 million dollars when it was built in 2018, stretching 10 acres of former Tustin Marine Air Base property. 

No Orange County Grand Jury investigation has been conducted at the new shelter location, but advocates are encouraging residents to submit a letter of public concern to jumpstart an investigation.

In the grand jury’s initial report on the shelter in 2000, investigators criticized the lack of permanent management, poor customer service, lack of staffing and the untimely euthanization of animals as the main issues.

In 2004, the grand jury again found the shelter struggled with insufficient staffing and problems with euthanasia decisions. The 2008 report focused on the overpopulation problem in Orange County, the lack of spay and neuter services and the potential need for a larger shelter.

In 2015, the grand jury released two reports criticizing the shelter. The first emphasized the need for Orange County to construct a larger facility to address the needs of local animals. The second suggested procedural changes in the cleaning of the kennels and hiring additional personnel.

While some of these issues have been resolved in the construction of the new facility in 2018, activists claim similar problems still persist. 

“The 2014-2015 Grand Jury documented that it ‘received written and verbal complaints from current and former employees, including veterinarians, and from various humane organizations,’ and that ‘many of these alleged problems were the same as those discussed in the 1999-2000, 2003-2004, and 2007-2008 [Grand Jury] reports’ including ‘mistreatment and mishandling of the animals,’” reads the lawsuit against the shelter.

“Thus, in fifteen years, nothing appears to have changed.”

In 2020, during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the county-run shelter limited public access, like so many other public and private businesses.

Despite a reopening of businesses since then, OC Animal Care has yet to fully reopen to the public. 

Now, they rely on an appointment-based system for adoptions and they refuse to allow members of the public to walk around the kennels to view potential animals for adoption.

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

Concerned residents and activists say these policies are minimizing the number of animals finding homes by creating barriers for residents looking to adopt.

An online petition calling on the shelter to fully reopen its doors to the same level as before the COVID-19 pandemic has surpassed 15,000 signatures.

Activists’ concerns extend further.

 Before COVID-19, OC Animal Care participated in trap, neuter and release services for feral, abandoned cats. The shelter has neutered thousands of cats over the years, preventing those animals from reproducing on the street.

[Read: ‘We’re All Overwhelmed’: As Orange County Becomes Overrun With Cats, Local Rescues Struggle to Keep Up]

Since closing in 2020, the shelter has refused to again release neutered feral cats, claiming it’s illegal to release cats back onto the street.

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

Correction: The next court hearing is Feb. 6, not Feb. 2. We regret the error.

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