Few public agencies attract Orange County Grand Jurors’ attention like the county-run animal shelter.
From 1999 to 2015, the shelter warranted five investigations by the impaneled civil watchdog body.
This year, another Orange County Grand Jury report released Wednesday — the first to address the shelter’s current Tustin location — is echoing community advocates’ calls to reopen OC Animal Care to the public, reduce kill rates and reinstate a trap, neuter and release program which animal officials shuttered in 2020.
It comes after more than a dozen complaints from residents requesting such an investigation.
It also hits against the backdrop of public protests and departures of embattled animal shelter leaders.
Romina Yamashiro, a local animal advocate, said the report falls in line with what the community has been saying for years.
“This is not from animal advocates, it’s not from passionate volunteers — this is from the actual Orange County Grand Jury,” Yamashiro said in a phone interview Wednesday. “Their role is to be impartial and give a report that is completely unbiased. From their findings, it seems like they agree with everything that we’ve been saying.”
Jackie Tran, spokesperson for OC Animal Care, said the report will be reviewed and a formal response will be prepared by the County Executive Office within 90 days.
“While OC Animal Care cannot comment on the report at this time, the agency would like to thank the Grand Jury for their interest in the animal shelter,” Tran said in an email Wednesday.
Animal Bodies Pile Up
Grand jurors raised concerns about increasing kill rates for dogs who are deemed to have behavioral issues.
Before 2021, about 1.19% of dogs were killed for behavior. That number jumped up to 3.41% after 2021 showed an uptick in euthanasia, the report states.
Grand jurors attribute that rise to the shelter’s Behavior Evaluation Committee — a group that the body claim evaluates dogs for euthanasia without written guidelines, resulting in inconsistent outcomes.
“OCAC does not have a professional licensed, trained, or certified animal behaviorist on staff to oversee the dog enrichment programs, resulting in dogs with declining behavior being placed at greater risk of being euthanized,” the report states.
An Overpopulation Crisis
The report also states that kill rates for cats have increased dramatically after the shelter suspended the spay/neuter program for feral and community cats — also known as trap, neuter and release (TNR).
The shelter euthanized about 21% of adult cats while the TNR program existed prior to 2020, according to the report. Afterward, that rate increased to about 29% as more cats filled the streets and overwhelmed local shelters and rescues.
The end of the trap and release program is one of the biggest issues highlighted in the report.
The shelter used to spay and neuter approximately 1,500 cats each year. The shelter initially stopped this program during the pandemic and now claims they can’t reinstate that policy because it’s against the law to release abandoned cats back onto the streets.
Yet neighboring City of Los Angeles has a catch and release program to stabilize its feral cat population.
Grand jurors say this practice has been harmful to cats coming into the shelter.
“The absence of TNR at the shelter has seriously increased the rate of euthanasia of cats, especially kittens, who are not old enough or healthy enough to adopt,” the report reads.
There’s disagreement about whether TNR violates the law, specifically California Penal Code 597s, which prohibits animal abandonment.
Orange County animal shelter officials claim trap, neuter and release may constitute animal abandonment.
But the grand jury disagrees and urges the shelter to reinstitute the program.
“TNR programs are widespread throughout California, not to mention the nation as
set forth in a report from the American Bar Association,” the report reads. “The Grand Jury is unaware of any published court case determining that a bona fide TNR program is prohibited under the anti-abandonment statute.”
Reopening Kennels for Public View
At the beginning of the pandemic, OC Animal Care suspended most of their walk-in services and introduced an appointment model for most operations.
But to this day, OC Animal Care’s visitors still cannot meet any animals in person without an appointment. The kennel areas are also mostly off-limits to the public to walk through.
A petition to entirely reopen the shelter’s kennel areas to public view has surpassed 22,000 signatures.
The grand jury calls for the shelter to reopen kennels for public walk-throughs by the end of the year.
“Prior to COVID-19, the adoption process at the shelter was relatively open… The experience was unconstrained, spontaneous, instinctive, and natural,” the report reads.
“The current appointment system is restrictive and does not provide prospective adopters viewing access to all available adoptable animals.”
Michael Mavrovouniotis, a former volunteer for the shelter, said shelter officials should implement the grand jury’s recommendations faster than outlined in the report.
“The recommendations are all sound, but I think they can be done faster because in many cases we are returning to practices they had in the past,” Mavrovouniotis said in Wednesday phone interview.
“We aren’t inventing some unusual new system. We’re just saying let’s go back and do things that worked really well before.”
Grand jurors also pointed out a critically understaffed shelter with only 21 workers directly caring for animals — not enough to effectively meet the animals’ needs.
“It all goes back to a problem with the current administration and the way that things are done,” Yamashiro said. “This is a great report that shows there’s a lack of transparency and communication that’s leading to what the shelter is today and why people are not happy and why we’ve been screaming about it for two years.”
A Long History of Criticism
This report comes at a time of heated debate over the shelter.
The OC Animal Care shelter cost $35 million dollars when it was built in 2018, spanning 10 acres of former Tustin Marine Air Base property. The shelter was previously located on three acres of land in the City of Orange in a facility built in 1941.
Late last month, OC Animal Care Director Andi Bernard stepped down from the position after facing a rise in criticism for keeping the shelter on an appointment-only basis and not reopening kennel visits to the general public.
Less than a week before her departure, animal activists protested outside her home on May 20.
There are decades of history between the shelter and the OC Grand Jury.
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.
Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.
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