Credit: Animal shelter volunteers

Why is OC Community Resources (OCCR) hiding what they told the Board of Supervisors (BOS) about the animal shelter?  They prepared a secret document for the BOS, and then hid it from Public Records Act (PRA) requests for 3 months.  They didn’t want the public to see they were misleading the Supervisors about the animal shelter’s problems.  Eventually, conscientious county staff included the document in a PRA response.

It all started in May when detailed studies were presented to the OC Animal Care (OCAC) and OCCR.  The summary conclusion:  The continuation of pandemic restrictions resulted in killing a higher percentage of shelter dogs and increasing their length of stay.  This generated unfavorable press coverage. OCCR, headed by Cymantha Atkinson and Dylan Wright, should have fixed the shelter’s problems.  Instead, OCCR worked with OCAC’s Monica Schmidt to create a secret document called “Facts Related to Recent Media Articles” to make the BOS think that everything in the shelter was fine.  

Let’s look at how this document handled two key metrics — the increasing length of stay and the increasing kill rate for adult dogs and cats.

If you were in jail, what would you care about most— how often you got yard time or how long your jail term was?  Are those the same thing?  On the length of stay for adult shelter dogs, the reports stated that “the amount of time they spend behind bars has jumped 60%”. The OCAC/OCCR coverup reply was: “False – We make every effort to prioritize out of kennel enrichment for dogs that are approved for it”.  

Is length of stay (how long they’re held in jail, behind bars) the same as out-of-kennel enrichment (how often they got from their cell to the jail yard)? I don’t think so!  OCAC/OCCR couldn’t refute the fact that adult dogs and cats were kept longer at the shelter in 2022 than in 2019, so they changed the subject to out of kennel enrichment.  They weaponized their own failure:  It’s hard to quantify “enrichment” because they collect no data whatsoever about whether dogs are walked, even though the Strategic Plan requires tracking

What is a shelter dog?  You’d think that it’s a stray dog or a dog that was brought in by owners who could no longer care for the dog.  Does it include suffering dogs whose owners asked the shelter for help with euthanasia?  It shouldn’t.  It’s a completely different type of service.

In 2018, the shelter was helping the community by providing low cost euthanasia for people that couldn’t afford to pay a vet for it.  But it didn’t provide that service in 2022.  However, the secret document added in the dogs whose owners requested euthanasia services in 2018 and told the BOS that the “save rate … was 93% in 2018 and 94% in 2022”.  In reality, leaving out the 244 dogs that had owner-requested euthanasia in 2018, the kill rate was 2.1% in 2018 and 5.3% in 2022.  In effect, the kill rate more than doubled.

The studies the shelter didn’t like were just following the widely respected “Asilomar” industry standards.  The Asilomar numbers come from the shelter’s reports, but the shelter didn’t like the conclusion, so it switched to non-standard numbers that suited it.  

The OCCR propaganda document stated that “play groups for large dogs are, indeed, still in use — when temperament and staffing levels allow”.  That is false.  They never really tried to hire enough kennel staff, so they have no play groups for large dogs.  Adding to the misinformation, the shelter tries to conflate play groups with irrelevant niche activities.  A “pack walk” involves 3-5 dogs (one per staff member) – a drop in the bucket, since the shelter has over 200 adoptable dogs.  A play group, on the other hand, rotates a large number of dogs through a play session.  Play groups are standard in good shelters, and they’re in the Strategic Plan.  

Credit: OC Animal Care / OC Community Resources

OCCR misdirected and misinformed the Board of Supervisors to make them ignore the public outcry, but made sure to keep its false claims under wraps so that the public couldn’t refute them.  There’s a broader pattern.  In a 2022 document the shelter got its facts wrong.  The shelter’s inconsistent reports violate industry standards.  The continuation of pandemic restrictions is hindering adoptions.  The Grand Jury report documented mismanagement, including inadequate numbers of animal care staff.

Unfortunately, because OCCR prefers to hide problems rather than fix them, both the percent of shelter dogs being killed and the length of stay are even higher in 2023.  The shelter is now overcrowded, generating stressful and dangerous conditions for people and animals.  

What can be done to pull the shelter out of its collapse?  The Supervisors need to bring in a trusted outside organization to dust off the shelter’s Strategic Plan and get our shelter working again.  No more PR coverups.  Get more information and take action. We need fixes that are driven by objective data and by our elected officials, the county Supervisors. 

Laura Lawther is a resident of Orange and volunteered at the OC Animal Care for 5+ years. She is now a volunteer at the Pet Adoption Center of Orange County. 

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