OC Animal Care Director Andi Bernard has stepped down from the position effective immediately after facing a rise in criticism for keeping the shelter on an appointment-only basis and not reopening kennel visits to the general public.
Bernard’s leave comes less than a week after animal activists protested outside her home on May 20, calling for the former director to reopen the shelter’s kennel areas to the public and reduce kill rates.
County officials say recent attention has been highly focused on Bernard as an individual and negativity toward her role as director was on the rise.
“In recent months however, the conversation around OCAC has become more focused on Andi’s role as director than on the excellent work being done by shelter staff,” OC Animal Care spokesperson Jackie Tran wrote in an email to Voice of OC Friday.
“The escalating negativity directed at her is concerning to Andi, distracting and disturbing to staff, and it takes focus away from the important work being done.”
Bernard didn’t return a request seeking comment Tuesday about why she left. When emailing her Orange County address, a bounce-back message claims she is out of office until Sept. 5, 2023, and residents should email Monica Schmidt for assistance.
Schmidt, the former assistant director, will take on the role of interim director while Bernard moves to a different, temporary position in another department in Orange County, Tran said.
The county shelter has come under fire the past few years for policies that advocates say are driving up kill rates.
At the beginning of the pandemic, animal shelters nationwide — including OC Animal Care — suspended most 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 OC Animal Care, residents still cannot meet any animals in person without an appointment. The kennel areas are also mostly off-limits to the public to walk through.
Advocates have criticized the shelter for years, but more recently, residents have been calling attention to COVID-19 policies that have remained commonplace.
A petition to entirely reopen the shelter’s kennel areas to public view has surpassed 20,000 signatures.
“The animal shelter simply needs to open along the same structure that was used before COVID, the way it was planned and envisioned when built,” Margot Boyer, a local advocate who started the petition, said in a Tuesday email.
“It’s a fabulous building but is currently completely underutilized,” Boyer said. “What a waste of the public taxpayer’s money to the tune of $35 million dollars through poor management.”
Michael Mavrovouniotis, a former volunteer for the shelter, has been analyzing shelter data and speaking out against increasing kill rates reflected in the shelter’s statistics when comparing 2019 and 2022 — pre- and post-pandemic.
“We take pride in our quality of life here in Orange County,” Mavrovouniotis said in an interview earlier this month. “We have an outstanding park system. We have outstanding facilities of all kinds. It is reasonable to have a top-tier shelter.”
The kill rate for adult dogs in the shelter has doubled since the new animal shelter location opened five years ago, according to the shelter’s data sheets published quarterly on its website. In 2018, the kill rate was right around 2%. That’s increased every year to over 5% in 2022.
During that same time period, the shelter has seen fewer dogs coming into the facility.
In 2018 and 2019, the intake was over 5,000 adult dogs each year. That number took a dive after the start of the pandemic, but in 2022 it was less than 4,000 dogs.
For Mavrovouniotis, it’s the difference between life and death for hundreds of animals at a time when the shelter has fewer dogs to manage.
“You have a rising kill rate with lower intakes. The situation should be easier,” Mavrovouniotis said. “Instead, it seems harder because you have a higher kill rate.”
“I think we should be performing to the best of our capacity,” he added. “Are we really going to settle for mediocrity?”
Mavrovouniotis was a volunteer who has worked in the shelter since 2019. After he started speaking out about the increasing kill rate and other issues at the shelter, he said he was fired from his volunteer position.
The county shelter has seen six directors over the past 20 years.
Bernard first took the role of director for the county shelter in January 2020, when then-director Michael Kaviani, who started as director in August 2018, quietly resigned on Christmas Eve.
Bernard was named interim director immediately following Kaviani’s resignation and was brought up to become the permanent director shortly after.
Before being named director, Bernard was a human resources manager at OC Community Resources, which oversees OC Animal Care and several other county agencies. She was not a staff member of the animal care agency before becoming director.
“A significant reason for public disappointment with Andi Bernard is her background in human resources without any significant involvement in rescue or animal welfare,” Romina Yamashiro, local animal advocate, said in a Monday email.
Kaviani was the director from 2018 to 2020. He left the shelter to work at Dogs Playing for Life, a national nonprofit based out of Colorado.
After a series of directors in recent years, Yamashiro said it’s time OC Animal Care get experts in the field.
“OCAC must consider hiring a new director and administrative team with expertise in animal care, animal welfare or animal shelter leadership, preferably someone with a successful track record of running a 501c3 non-profit rescue group,” Yamashiro said.
“This individual would understand the importance of preventative care such as spay and neuter services, trap-neuter-return, removing barriers to adoption, extending visiting hours, accepting more volunteers and ensuring that each dog is walked at least two to three times a day.”
Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.
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