Orange County officials are disagreeing with the majority of findings in the recent grand jury report that called for the county-run animal shelter to update policies, like increasing visits for residents.
Grand jurors also found the shelter has been euthanizing animals at higher levels than in previous years.
It marks another chapter of the OC Grand Jury’s critical look at the shelter over the years, with the County of Orange receiving five scathing reports over the past 24 years.
The newest report came out earlier this summer, echoing community calls to reopen OC Animal Care to the public, reduce kill rates and reinstate a trap, neuter and release program.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Supervisor Donald Wagner said he interacted with grand jurors working on the shelter report, which made him call into question the objectivity of their findings and recommendations.
“I will assure you that it led me to question the impartiality of the couple of grand jurors who were specifically pushing this issue,” Wagner said. “I come to this knowing from my own experience that this grand jury report had some folks driving it whose goal was not impartial truth.”
Supervisors Katrina Foley and Vicente Sarmiento voted against the response. Sarmiento said he wants to see the shelter open up in more of a hybrid format to allow the public more time to walk around.
“I’d like to see more of a relaxed visitation cycle for us,” Sarmiento said. “I see that our peer counties have already moved to that. I don’t think I’d be supportive of fully open, but I do think moving to a true hybrid so we can study the benefit of both.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, OC Animal Care suspended most of its walk-in services and introduced an appointment model for most operations. The shelter also suspended the catch-and-release program for community cats.
The program typically spays or neuters cats found on the street before releasing them back where they were found.
The kennel areas are still mostly off-limits to the public to walk through except for a 2.5-hour period on Wednesdays and Saturdays when certain kennel areas open up to visitors.
The grand jury report stated that over the past few years, more dogs have been euthanized for behavior and the elimination of a trap, neuter and release program has caused an increase in euthanasia for cats.
Grand jurors also claimed that the adoption appointment system is restrictive and prevents potential adopters from easily viewing the animals.
The county’s response disagrees with these claims, which have all been repeatedly called out over the past few years by shelter volunteers and animal advocates.
There have been five other investigations from the grand jury since 1999, but this year’s report is the first to address the shelter’s location in Tustin after it was relocated in 2018.
“This isn’t the first grand jury report, and it won’t be the last,” animal advocate Sharon Logan said during Tuesday’s meeting. “The themes are always the same: lack of leadership and high euthanasia rates.”
Logan is a local animal rescuer who successfully sued the county shelter over euthanasia practices in the past.
The response also refuses to comment on any of the findings about reinstating a catch-and-release program due to attorney-client privilege.
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 into the community.
Residents from across the 14 cities that contract with the shelter showed up to the meeting asking the supervisors to reject the response.
“This response is not adequate to address the grand jury report,” said April Josephson, who previously served on the shelter’s community outreach committee. “[The shelter] needs to be held responsible for specific decisions and actions. Providing nothing more than smoke and mirrors to deflect attention away from the actual issues is unacceptable.”
Shelter leaders recently launched a pilot program allowing visitors to view the dogs and cats in some kennels during select hours twice a week.
Although the program is the first time the kennels have opened to public access since before the COVID-19 pandemic shut the shelter’s doors, it’s limited to five hours a week.
“The shelter recently began non-appointment viewing of the animals but only for a select few animals and only for five hours,” said Lisa Avery, a 20-year shelter volunteer. “It’s absurd to believe at the end of a 2.5-hour period at 4:31 that now the shelter becomes unsafe for the animals to be in.”
Cities have also been responding to the report in recent weeks. In responses from both Fullerton and Lake Forest, city officials listed that there was insufficient knowledge or data to address any of the findings.
OC resident Margot Boyer created a petition urging the shelter to entirely reopen the shelter’s kennel areas to public view. It has now surpassed 23,000 signatures.
“I guess there’s no point in the grand jury taking the time to do these reports, but at least they are taking the time to investigate, which is more than you — the board of supervisors — are doing,” Boyer said at the meeting.
Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.
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