What happened to the OC Animal Care (OCAC) Strategic Plan developed by national experts and the county?  It was unceremoniously buried by OC Community Resources (OCCR) using the pandemic as cover.  Ignorant of best practices in animal sheltering, the OCCR bureaucracy is running the shelter with little regard for the animals or the community.  Instead of resolving the shelter’s problems, OCCR is laser-focused on misleading OC supervisors and the public to cover up the problems.

Let’s look at the Strategic Plan.  For Animal Care, Enrichment, and Placement, the Strategic Plan’s aims include:

  • Daily playgroups for both large and small dogs.
  • Tracking 100% of animal enrichment activities.
  • Reduction in average length of stay.
  • Higher save rates.

OC Animal Care has no playgroups for large dogs, does not track enrichment activities, has implemented policies that delay adoptions, and has a declining save rate.  

In all these areas, OC Animal Care is not just failing – it’s not even trying.

The taxpayers paid for the $500k consulting contract that produced the Strategic Plan, and are now paying more for county management to ignore it.  The homeless animals of OC are suffering endless stressful days behind bars.  The kill rate is rising.  Conscientious staff at the shelter have to work harder to make up for misguided policies, and they suffer the stress of bad outcomes. 

OCCR used the pandemic to downgrade the shelter. 

The Strategic Plan was created with the full participation of animal-sheltering experts, county staff, and the community.  The Board of Supervisors approved it on May 18, 2018 (Agenda Item #44).  

The shelter made great strides in 2018 and 2019.  Then the pandemic hit.  Temporary policy changes were made to cope with lower staffing and reduce the risk of infection.  In 2022, as many of our peers returned to normal operation, OCCR management decided the pandemic restrictions were convenient.  

The goals and metrics set out by the Strategic Plan were tossed out, without consultation with stakeholders or experts.   OCCR blames the resulting bad performance on the community, the animals, the advocates, or imaginary national trends… anything except its own bad policies.  

The Strategic Plan set out to reduce length of stay.

Shelters try to minimize the time animals spend at the shelter by streamlining adoptions.  Longer stays increase stress.  Shorter stays save money.  It’s the consensus of experts – and common sense.  

OCCR has instead adopted policies that caused a steady climb in the average length of stay.

OCAC is the only regional shelter that does not allow adopters to visit the kennel area.  LA City and County have opened the kennel areas to adopters.  So have municipal shelters.  

Trying to blur the unfavorable comparison, OCCR created a series of niche programs.  Visitors can now walk by the exterior of 37 kennels (only 1/4 of available dogs), for just 5 hours a week (less than 1/8 of the hours of operation).  Grossly inadequate.

The Strategic Plan required tracking of all animal enrichment activities. 

One dog getting walked every day doesn’t make up for many other dogs spending several consecutive days shut in kennels.  The only way to meet the needs of all the animals is to keep track.  

But OCAC is doing no tracking whatsoever.  Volunteers and staff put marks on a whiteboard, which then gets erased and the information disappears forever.  If a dog seems stressed, there’s no way to find out if the dog was walked 25 times in the last month or only 5 times. 

No data, no accountability.

The Strategic Plan envisioned daily playgroups for all qualified dogs.

Play sessions relieve stress and prepare dogs for successful adoptions.  Cymantha Atkinson (Assistant Director of OCCR) understood that in 2018… but has forgotten it since.

Right now, only small dogs are in playgroups (3 times a week – not daily).  Large dogs, the vast majority of the shelter’s residents, get no chance to socialize with other dogs in playgroups.  The dogs end up more and more stressed.

OCCR even misinformed the Board of Supervisors about playgroups.  

The Strategic Plan set targets for save rates.

For cats, the save rate target was 85%.  In 2022, by its own statistics, OCAC’s cat save rate stood at 73.6%.  Look at it another way:  The Strategic Plan aimed to bring the kill rate down to 15%.  OCCR is apparently happy with a cat kill rate of 26.4%.

Was the goal too ambitious?  Not at all.  Before the pandemic, the shelter had made steady progress.  The kill rate for cats came down to 19% in 2019, then 18.6% in 2020.  But once the mismanagement took hold, with the pandemic as the excuse, the gains were reversed.  

Should we even take OCAC data at face value? There’s room for doubt:

The shelter’s 2023 1st Quarter statistics were made up.  It was forced to retract them.

Its reported counts don’t add up.  Dozens of animals are missing from its statistics.   

Its “Fact Checker” is riddled with false statements

OC Community Resources should implement the Animal Care Strategic Plan.

Pre-pandemic, the Strategic Plan and JVR Shelter Strategies earned the praise of OCCR’s Cymantha Atkinson and Dylan Wright.  

Post-pandemic, the Strategic Plan is not on any county website.  Is county management hiding it to escape accountability?  

The Strategic Plan has spent too much time in the shadows.   Let’s dust it off and put it to work.  OC Community Resources can take some immediate steps:  It can institute daily playgroups for the majority of dogs and carefully track out-of-kennel time.  Most importantly, the shelter can fully lift the pandemic restrictions and open the kennel area to adopters for most of its hours of operation

Michael Mavrovouniotis is retired and lives in Irvine.  He holds a Ph.D. in Engineering and served as Director of Research at an investment firm.  Over the years he has volunteered in many local organizations, including animal shelters.

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