Pet Hell

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

These questions and criticisms come at an important time for the county's shelter and animal-control program. In March, director Judy Maitlen retired after six years. (Ironically, in the picture accompanying the newspaper story about her retirement, she is shown cuddling a shelter cat, something the public is not permitted to do when they come to the shelter seeking to adopt one.) Maitlen was replaced temporarily by Mark McDorman, who has been with animal control since 1982 and was the No. 2 person in the department for seven years. McDorman is eager to secure the $79,000-per-year job permanently and seems to have the inside track, although he hedged his bets by applying at the same time for a similar job in San Diego. But critics have urged the county to look beyond those associated with the shelter's troubled past and launch a broader search for a top professional in the field.

This is an important time for animal control for another reason: the county is considering building a new shelter on land at the former Tustin Marine base. To do so, it must first secure long-term contracts from the 20 cities to which it already provides service. If it succeeds, the majority of Orange County's cities will be locked even longer into a program of animal control that has changed little over the decades.

Animal control is part of the county's much-troubled Health Care Agency. Its jurisdiction extends to the unincorporated parts of the county and the 20 cities that contract with it for services and pay 90 percent of its budget. Early this century, animal control was crucial to basic public health and safety, assigned to keep the streets clear of the carcasses of animals-horses and dogs, primarily, but also wild roadkill-that were more prevalent before automobiles became dominant. Public health is still a major focus of current animal-control responsibilities, particularly regarding the prevention of such diseases as rabies. At this, the county's animal control has been a remarkable success: there hasn't been a case of rabies in a person in Orange County in some 50 years. The department also inspects rodeos and circuses and other facilities that make use of animals. But most of its energy and money is spent on family pets who end up at its Orange shelter, where they are housed, treated if they are sick or injured, and offered for adoption and redemption or killed.

It would be unfair to blame all the complaints about Orange County Animal Control on its employees. Those interviewed for this story seemed to be caring, decent people who entered the field because they love animals. In large part, they feel they're cleaning up a mess made by the rest of us; in many ways, they're right. Ours is a disposable society, and that disposability often extends to our pets. We acquire them on a whim, like living, breathing doodads from a boutique, and then discard them when our attention spans expire or something new strikes our fancy. Consequently, prodigious numbers of dogs and cats are cranked through a pitiful life-and-death cycle driven by hard economics and heartless shortsightedness. Almost as fast as they are bred, bought and sold, they are also funneled into animal shelters and exterminated.

Orange County isn't the only place where this is a problem, of course. Shelters around the country killed an estimated 5 million dogs and cats in 1998. In fact, Orange County's kill rate approximates the national average, and many shelters have rates that are much higher. But there are also many programs with far lower killing rates-including Irvine's, for instance, which killed only 6 percent of the animals it received last year. And some animal-control programs, most notably San Francisco's, kill almost no animals at all.

Animals get to the county shelter in lots of ways. Animal-control officers on patrol pick up strays, rescue animals from the freeway or just peel them off the roads. Owners often bring in pets because they believe their pets have behavior problems or because they're moving or just because they're tired of them. Sometimes owners bring in pets with a direct request that they be killed-because they are old or injured, because they believe the animals are vicious, or, again, simply because they are tired of them.

Animals don't stay long at the shelter. By law, strays must be kept a minimum of three days and licensed dogs a minimum of seven days. After that, if they are deemed unadoptable, they can be killed. Officers attempt to contact the owners of licensed animals; otherwise, the animals wait for adoption or for their owners to come for them. Meanwhile, dogs are kept in individual cages and cats are housed in large gang cages-all of them ominously marked with the day of the week the animal arrived and, thus, the day of the week they will be killed if they are not adopted.

Forty years ago, the Orange County "pound master" would simply shoot unwanted animals. Today, killing is accomplished by lethal injection. The preferred method is to inject a lethal dose of a barbiturate directly into a vein, making the death quick and relatively painless. This is the way most dogs are killed at the Orange County shelter.

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