Pet Hell

Somebody please put the county's animal shelter out of its misery

Photo by Keith MayA grieving family once showed up at the Orange County Animal Shelter in Orange with a dead pet. It was a Sunday, and the shelter was closed to the public. They picked up the intercom at the front gate and spoke with a shelter worker inside about disposing of the body. A disembodied voice asked them, "See that trash can?"

On another Sunday, an elderly man arrived at the shelter in tears, carrying his dog. The dog was old and sick, and the man had come to request that the dog be put to sleep. He spoke on the same intercom to shelter workers inside. He was left to stand there, weeping and holding his sick animal, for a half-hour before anyone came out to help him.

A man turned up at the shelter with a dog that was out of control; it had been attacking neighborhood cats and kids. What should he do with the dog? he asked through the intercom. The disembodied voice replied, "Figure it out for yourself, but don't leave it here." The man took the dog home, where it was the dog rather than the man who handled the matter: the animal strangled itself on its leash while chasing a neighbor's cat.

In more progressive shelters, cats and dogs are kept one to a cage. Not here. At the Orange County Animal Shelter, cats are kept in "gang cages," sometimes as many as 30 to a cage. Every morning, the cages are hosed down with the cats still in them. The cats, of course, get wet; many develop upper-respiratory infections. The shelter vigorously carries out its policy of euthanizing cats with upper-respiratory infections.

A woman involved in rescues of Siberian huskies was told a Siberian had been taken to the shelter. She placed a hold on the animal-if no one claimed it, she could arrange a home for it. The day came to pick up the dog. She called the shelter and explained that she couldn't get there by its 6 p.m. closing time because she worked in LA. Could she get the dog the next morning? she asked. No, she was told, if you can't get here by 6, the dog dies. The dog was killed. On a second occasion, she learned of another Siberian at the shelter and again placed a hold. She arrived just as the dog was being carted off to be euthanized.

Hoping to stimulate pet adoption at the shelter, a couple of its workers secured the assistance of The Orange County Register and a grant from Polaroid to produce a weekly newspaper advertisement featuring pictures of some available dogs. The feature ran for more than a year, each week highlighting several dozen animals. The only problem was that other shelter workers were simultaneously arranging to exterminate the dogs. Perhaps 60 percent of the featured animals were killed before their pictures appeared in the paper. There are dozens of other similar incidents that illustrate the poor service and mismanagement at the county-run shelter, a taxpayer-funded $6.5 million operation that employs 120 workers and handles more than 31,000 animals per year. Some 60 percent of those animals-more than 18,000-are ultimately killed. Insiders say that those numbers and the fact that securing favorable work assignments is seen as a matter of knowing the right people account for poor morale among the employees. The shelter is also the focus of several lawsuits alleging improper management practices. Where the health and welfare of animals are concerned, practices at the shelter are often at cruel and careless odds with one another. For example, the shelter employs a method of euthanizing cats that is highly controversial, little-used outside Orange County, not acceptable to the Humane Society of the United States and sometimes horrific in its results. Meanwhile, the shelter has lagged far behind other shelters around the country in requiring the spaying or neutering of animals-an obvious way to reduce the population of unwanted pets and save taxpayer money that goes to care for them. Finally, one year ago, at the insistence of local animal activists, the shelter began requiring that all cats adopted from the facility be spayed or neutered. It is just now developing a plan to spay and neuter dogs-because a new state law mandates it.

What's wrong at Orange County Animal Control? Why is the county agency's shelter, in the words of one former employee, "an ill-run, bureaucratic relic that we should all be ashamed of"? Why does it have a reputation among humane groups and other animal-control professionals for doing only what is necessary to get by and little more?

"We are so far behind most everybody else," says Maria Dales, former chairwoman of the Animal Control Advisory Board and a member of Actors and Others for Animals. "There is just no creativity coming from the top. They're always in a defensive posture rather than being proactive."

Ron Edwards, who worked for many years in the Los Angeles system and is now director of the city-run Irvine shelter, says: "People just don't get a warm feeling from the county shelter. There is just no sense of innovation coming from the top management."

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