It’s getting harder for people to adopt animals from local public shelters and surrender strays they find on the street.
That’s because appointment-only policies make it more difficult for people to see as many animals.
At the same time, public animal shelters are changing intake policies and accepting fewer animals.
That’s largely a result of the pandemic.
Policies meant to keep people from congregating indoors created more steps for residents to adopt or surrender animals, raising alarm bells among animal activists.
The concern is that fewer animals are getting adopted and more are ending up either on the street or at euthanasia appointments.
This debate has flared up in Orange County over the past few years as residents criticize the county-run animal shelter for its appointment-only adoption system and refusal to accept healthy cats.
[Read: OC Animal Activists Demand Walk-In Animal Shelter, End Appointment-Only Adoptions]
At the beginning of the pandemic, animal shelters across the nation — including OC Animal Care — suspended a majority of their walk-in services and introduced an appointment model for most operations.
At this point, many shelters have reopened their walk-in procedures for services like adoptions.
But at the county-run public shelter, known as OC Animal Care, residents still cannot meet any animals in person without an appointment. Visitors also can’t walk through the kennel area at all, with or without an appointment.
The shelter has released no plans to return to pre-pandemic operations, arguing the changes have been helpful for the animals in their care.
Many shelters now also practice “managed intake” policies — procedures that only allow certain animals to come into the shelter, reducing the overall intake.
For example, OC Animal Care refuses to take in healthy stray cats found on the street.
Managed intake existed before the pandemic, but some activists argue that COVID-19 has pushed local shelters to take in ever fewer animals, leaving more on the streets or in the hands of people ill-equipped to care for them.
Although these practices have come to public attention in Orange County over the past few years, these operations are being encouraged on a national scale.
Adoptions-by-Appointment Encouraged Nationwide
Sharon Logan — a local animal rescuer and activist who successfully sued the county government in the past — attributes the permanent implementation of pandemic-related policies in Orange County to guidance from national organizations.
Logan has been following and advocating against issues with the Orange County animal shelter since 2012. She sounded the alarm at an Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting earlier this year about the influence of large animal welfare organizations on local municipal shelters.
“If the general public wants to be outraged at OCAC, they should be proactive and they need to be channeling their outrage towards the big-box national organizations that are encouraging municipal shelters to implement these policies and procedures,” Logan said at the Feb. 7 meeting.
Groups like Best Friends Animal Society are among the voices advocating for appointment-based approaches to adoption and making other COVID-19 policies permanent.
On its website, the organization lists “concierge-level services” for adoptions as one COVID-19 policy change worth keeping in place for good.
However, Kaylee Hawkins, director for the Pacific region of Best Friends, said adoptions by appointment work best when paired with accommodations for walk-ins.
“Best Friends Animal Society has found benefits in modifying the adoption by appointment model many agencies took on during the peak of COVID-19,” Hawkins said.
“Many have likened this model to the experience of the DMV — you can pre-schedule an appointment and have a dedicated staff member ready to assist you and other appointments, while a queue system is created for walk-in appointments that will be seen in a first-come, first-serve capacity.”
While activists like Logan acknowledge
“I understand the appointment system,” Logan said in an interview with Voice of OC. “Did OC Animal Care take their appointment system too far by completely blocking all access to the general public to walk through the kennels and see the animals? Absolutely.”
Jackie Tran, public information officer for OC Animal Care, said the shelter evaluated nationwide standards when deciding to implement an appointment-based adoption program. A statement on the shelter’s website also states that the shelter’s operational model is based on a “compilation of industry best practices.”
“Nationwide, many shelters encourage adopters to pre-schedule an adoption visit,” Tran wrote in a statement sent to Voice of OC. “OC Animal Care replicated pieces from a variety of adoption models and created a unique program that benefits our adopters and shelter animals and allowed the shelter to continue operations throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The Irvine city animal shelter also transitioned to adoptions by appointment as a result of the pandemic. Mike Cribbin, manager of Irvine Animal Care Center, said they have found success with this system.
“We believe [adoptions by appointment] is a success and continue to monitor adopter satisfaction,” Cribbin said. “Adoption appointments enhance the customer experience as people don’t have to wait around, it adds predictability and allows for a more effective process.”
Yet there’s a big difference in the approach at the county animal shelter.
Potential adopters are allowed to walk through the kennels at the Irvine shelter, whereas all the kennels are behind closed doors on the county level.
“I’m a believer that we need to have a balanced approach, ensuring animal health and that we are getting our animals adopted into loving homes,” Cribbin said. “Having our facility open to browse available animals keeps us relevant so that the public knows we are here [and] that we do a good job.”
Currently, most Southern California shelters operate with an appointment-based adoption model that includes certain walk-in hours.
The two San Diego County animal shelters have walk-in hours Tuesday through Sunday in addition to appointment slots.
The six shelters run by the city of Los Angeles and the seven run by the county all operate with appointments and certain walk-in hours.
In Riverside County, one of the four shelters requires appointments for adoptions, while the others allow walk-ins.
Criticism against OC Animal Care recently sparked a resident lawsuit, claiming the shelter was euthanizing adoptable animals. The lawsuit was ultimately withdrawn by the activists after OC Superior Court Judge Martha K. Gooding denied requests to place a veterinary compliance monitor within the shelter.
[Read: Years of Resident Concerns Spark Lawsuit Against OC Animal Shelter]
The Consequences of “No Kill” Sheltering
Many shelters advertised as “no kill” practice managed intake and limit which animals come into the shelter.
Reducing the overall intake can help increase a shelter’s live release rate — the total percentage of all pets who are adopted, rescued, transferred or returned to their owners.
Some shelters that practice managed intake refuse to accept healthy animals into their care, instead making more room for sick and injured animals or animals that pose a threat to public safety.
Other shelters require appointments for intake, which can reduce the overall number of animals coming into the shelter.
Managed intake is recommended by national organizations like the National Animal Care & Control Association, American Pets Alive and Best Friends.
Betsy Denhart, a Southern California animal activist and communications director for Pet Assistance Foundation, describes managed intake as part of the “no kill agenda” that keeps animals out of shelters and on the street in the name of a heightened live release rate.
“They want to measure success with one statistic — the live release rate. That’s it,” Denhart said. “Often they haven’t really increased adoption when they raise that rate, what they’ve done is lowered what they intake.”
Denhart emphasized that the live release rate does not include the animals the shelter turns away and that this trend has only worsened because of COVID-19.
“During COVID, everything was shut down, so it was very easy to require appointments,” Denhart said. “But then, they liked it. They liked the shelters being emptier, and they liked people not just coming in whenever, and then they just wanted to extend it and keep it like that.”
OC Animal Care’s website states that they accept aggressive, injured, or sick animals, underage kittens and puppies and stray dogs.
The shelter has a managed intake policy for healthy, uninjured cats, meaning they do not accept healthy stray cats brought to the shelter and instead encourage residents to release these cats back onto the street.
“‘No-kill’ policies have resulted in a deluge of suffering for cats,” reads a statement written by Wendy Aragon, president of the Pet Assistance Foundation.
“Many public shelters simply will not take in found cats unless they are injured, sick, or motherless, unweaned kittens,” Aragon wrote, adding, “In all other cases, the public is told, ‘Leave the cats where you found them. They can take care of themselves.’ Often these cats are intact, and those who survive continue to breed. So the suffering continues.”
As stray cat numbers multiply, the problem becomes more apparent.
[Read: ‘We’re All Overwhelmed’: As Orange County Becomes Overrun With Cats, Local Rescues Struggle to Keep Up]
“We have hotlines in five counties in Southern California, and we get calls on our private numbers as well from people who know we do this kind of work,” Denhart said. “[They say], ‘We found kittens, and we don’t know what to do. We called the shelter and they just said to leave them where they are.’”
When asked if national organizations are doing harm with their policies, Denhart said definitively, “Yes.”
“When people get to the point where they need to give up a pet or they found an animal, you have to fill out all this paperwork, and then they try to get you to keep it for a couple days and find the owner yourself,” Denhart said.
“We just get more and more calls from people who are desperate. Abandonment is up. The whole purpose is to set up obstacles for people to bring animals in that need help or refuge.”
OC Animal Care advertises as an open admission shelter, meaning they will accept all animals from the cities that they serve “whether they are aggressive, feral, sick, underage or injured.”
Logan claims this means they should accept all animals in need.
“OC Animal Care, who is supposed to be an open admission shelter, should be taking in all animals that are in need,” Logan said.
“Managed intake… is a way for shelters to shed their responsibilities and put that burden on the general public,” she added. “Open admission shelters, especially municipal, taxpayer-funded animal shelters, should be taking in healthy animals, sick animals, all animals. That’s what they are there for.”
Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.
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