Pet Hell

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

Because the shelter keeps cats in the large gang cages, prospective adopters are not permitted to hold the animals they are considering bringing into their homes. This contradicts the practice of most other shelters. Shelter officials explain that any major capital improvements at the current shelter, such as individual cat cages, would be imprudent since a new shelter is in the planning stages. There seems to have been little thought given to purchasing individual portable cages that could be moved to a new shelter.

There were many staff members around during the Weekly's visit, but none of them offered any assistance. In other words, if the shelter were a business -dealing in pets to be adopted-it would have been overwhelmed by its competitors long ago. And of course, if the shelter were a business, it would be one that destroyed 60 percent of its inventory every year.

"There just seems to be no vision, no drive to make the shelter a friendly place where you really want to go to adopt an animal," Dales observed.

"There's a real fortress mentality," said Dr. John Hamil, a Laguna Beach veterinarian and former advisory-board member. "We live in one of the wealthiest, most educated communities in the world, and animal control hasn't changed. It needs to be run like a business, with real problem-solving techniques in place."

If it were a business, the shelter might make better use of the vast pool of volunteers who would be glad to work there, grooming animals, walking them or providing information to people looking for a pet to adopt. It does not. Nor does the shelter provide counseling about animal behavior or handling for people who want to adopt pets or for people who want to give up their pets and could possibly be dissuaded if they simply knew how to better deal with the animals. Neither does the shelter screen people who adopt animals-so there's no way to prevent adoption by someone who intends to use the animal as an otherwise-to-be-neglected junkyard dog or sell it to a restaurant for food or to a research program for experimentation.

The shelter also lacks a sense of public relations. In one now-notorious instance, two dogs were brought to the shelter after their owner died saving them from a fire. It could have been a publicity windfall. Instead, at the last minute, sources within the shelter alerted animal activists that the dogs were scheduled for euthanasia because they were old and considered unlikely candidates for adoption. The activists informed reporters at the Register. They looked into the situation, and the dogs were saved. In the story that ultimately appeared in the Register, shelter officials denied they ever considered killing the dogs-a claim one shelter employee says is "blatantly untrue."

And then there is the question of spaying or neutering animals. Logic indicates that the best way to attack the problem of pet overpopulation is to prevent them from breeding. New York City implemented an aggressive spaying and neutering program and cut its kill rate dramatically. Many municipal shelters in the county-Irvine, Laguna Beach, Mission Viejo and San Clemente, for instance-require that any animal leaving the shelter be spayed or neutered. But the Orange County shelter only recently began requiring that all cats be spayed or neutered, and that was because of a decade-long campaign by animal-rights activists. The shelter is planning to require the spaying and neutering of dogs, but state law mandates it by the first of next year. Even so, shelter management doesn't expect to have a plan ready to show the county Board of Supervisors until September.

"Los Angeles spays and neuters all of its animals," Hamil noted. "Why aren't we embarrassed about that?"

"Our shelter should be setting the pace," Dales said. "Why isn't it?"

It's not for lack of money. Orange County's spending per capita on the shelter is about $2.70; the national average is just under $1.50. The city of Irvine's per capita spending is higher than the county's, but not outlandishly so; with its money, Irvine runs a shelter that places most of its animals, kills only a few, sees to it that all its animals are exercised regularly, lets its cats be held by prospective adopters, requires that all its animals be spayed or neutered, offers adoption counseling and animal-care education, and runs a facility that is bright, cheerful and friendly.

Nor is the county's high kill rate inevitable. Five years ago, San Francisco turned its shelter program over to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In the process, it saved considerable money and now kills only animals that are vicious, incurably ill or injured. The rest are adopted out, thanks to an effective marketing-and-education campaign. Las Vegas also runs an essentially no-kill shelter program.

Such programs aggressively pursue spaying and neutering and enthusiastically market adoptions. (Las Vegas, for example, offers free obedience training, reduced fees for animals considered less adoptable, and waived impound fees for low-income families who watch a film about responsible animal care. And its shelter offers adoptions seven days per week.)

The problems at the Orange County shelter seem to begin in management. Edwards, the Irvine director, sees a general lack of innovation "coming from the top." He said, for instance, that he rarely sees Orange County officials at professional conferences he attends. There is also a very considerable insular and defensive attitude on the part of the animal-control bureaucrats.

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