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."

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.

The procedure for killing cats is different. Under the direction of Dr. Richard Evans, head veterinarian since 1972, the shelter employs a method of lethal injection that is highly controversial and little-used outside Orange County. By this method, which is called intrahepatic, the killing solution is injected into the cat's liver. Evans contends that there is little pain involved and that death occurs in an average of 10 seconds. But according to the Humane Society of the United States, the intrahepatic method is not an "acceptable route" because it has not yet been sufficiently studied and "questions remain regarding the accuracy of injection, organ sensitivity to pain . . . and smooth induction into unconscious." Evans' claims that the intrahepatic method is fast and nearly painless are also disputed by some who have witnessed the procedure. Jeff Isbell was a volunteer at the county shelter for several years and was recognized by supervisors for his efforts. (He is also married to Marie Hulitt, a lieutenant with the animal-control department; she's currently suing the county, alleging she was the victim of sex discrimination at the shelter.) Isbell often worked on Sundays. Though the shelter was closed to the public, euthanasia went on apace (as it does every other day of the week), and Isbell says he witnessed the killing of cats at least half a dozen times. He says shelter workers would enter one of the large cages, which contain as many as 30 cats, and grab hold of them one at a time with a catchpole-a long metal rod with a lockable wire noose at one end used to restrain fractious or violent animals. In the midst of all the other cats, the selected one would be stretched out to expose its belly, and the lethal injection would be administered.

"The cats were clearly experiencing pain and anxiety," Isbell said. "They were hissing, spitting, clawing at the air, clawing at one another, trying to climb the cage. Because the cats would be struggling, the shot would sometimes go into the abdomen instead of the liver, and it would take five to 15 minutes for them to die. Some of them would be climbing the fence when it hit them, and then they'd fall off onto the concrete."

In the midst of such killing sessions, Isbell said, the floor of the cage would be a "writhing mass" of dying cats.

Evans says cats are no longer killed en masse. Instead, he said, a worker captures and restrains each cat with a catchpole, removes it from the cage so that it cannot be seen by other cats, and then kills it. Evans also claims that seizures in injected animals are rare and that only once could he recall an injected cat climbing the fence and then falling to the concrete.

In addition to the dispute over the time and pain involved in the use of liver injections to kill cats, the use of the catchpole itself is also controversial outside of Orange County. But Evans said he's found that other methods of restraining cats-such as holding them with gloved hands, putting them in a bag or catching them with a net-don't work very well and can be dangerous for workers. For that reason, he said, the catchpole is necessary. But Isbell said he saw the catchpole used indiscriminately, even on cats tagged as docile. Edwards, the director of the Irvine animal shelter, said the use of a catchpole is "not appropriate because it can easily break a cat's neck."

Edwards' shelter has a killing rate of just 6 percent to 7 percent, but he has worked at what he calls "high kill" shelters and has had to euthanize many cats. Restraint isn't really a problem, he said. Many other shelters use a cat shield, which holds the animal and through which the animal can be injected. "I've never been bitten or scratched," he said. "That's just not the norm."

A request by the Weekly to witness the killing procedure was discussed by Evans and McDorman, animal control's interim director, but ultimately denied.

The relentless execution of animals, so many of them former pets who are bewildered and terrified, makes for a dramatically compelling controversy. But these killings are just the final moments in a chain of events, a procession of other problems at the county shelter that may be even more significant. They go to the heart of the way the shelter is managed and they may serve to increase the number of animals that must be killed. For example, the shelter's public hours discourage adoptions because they do not accommodate the schedules of most working people. Most days, the shelter is open only from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. But it closes early on Saturdays, and it is closed entirely on Sunday, a prime family day.

Beyond that, a visit to the shelter is not a pleasant experience. The Weekly accompanied Dales to the county shelter at about 6:30 p.m. on a recent Wednesday. The place is grim, with lots of chainlink fencing against a background of institutional gray concrete. There were no customer-friendly colors or posters. The dogs were in individual cages, often huddled in the back. Until recently, lighting was so bad that it was impossible to see many of them; new lighting is being installed after the complaints of activists and volunteers contributed most of the funds. Many cages lacked cards indicating the breed of the dog or any other information for prospective adopters-such as "This dog is good with children" or "This dog is trained." And there were at least 35 empty dog cages, which raises questions given the high kill rates.

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.

"The attitude they have," said attorney Robert Newman, a new member of the advisory board, "is that if you don't agree with us, then you must be against us."

At a recent meeting of the advisory board, chairman Richard Grant routinely asked for approval of the minutes of the previous meeting. Newman spoke up to point out numerous things he felt were missing from the minutes or mischaracterized in them. As Newman went through his list, Grant sat silent, his hand on his chin, scowling. Another incident is equally illuminating. Last year, the advisory board discussed the intrahepatic method of cat euthanasia and invited Evans to state his case. During the meeting, Dales, then the board's president, asked head vet Evans a number of tough questions. After the meeting, Dales was being interviewed by a reporter. Evans walked by and muttered, "Idiot"-loudly enough that both Dales and the reporter could hear.

McDorman is the man temporarily at the top of the shelter bureaucracy, and he would like badly to stay there. During a long interview, he was pleasant and upbeat but unwilling to admit that much of anything could be wrong. His constant refrain was "I've only been in the job a few days. Give me a chance." That response conveniently ignores the fact that he has been with the department since 1982 and was second in command for seven years.

"We're the good guys," McDorman said. "We have a good, positive program."

McDorman insisted that the shelter receives "positive feedback from the cities it serves," that the response time on calls is "wonderful," that "99 percent" of animals with identification are returned to their owners, and that complaints from citizens are few. The new shelter, he said, will be "state-of-the-art."

If there are problems, McDorman suggested, they begin with Orange County's conservative, anti-government right-wingers who, he said, believe people should have a "right to adopt a non-spayed or -neutered animal." Another part of the problem has been finding the money, McDorman said, even though Orange County's budget is higher than average and many other shelters have enlisted local vets to provide low-cost services. Of the controversial, intrahepatic method of killing cats, McDorman would only say, "That is a veterinary procedure, and I'm hesitant to tell them how to do it."

Some animal-rights activists are hopeful. If a new shelter is eventually built, its presence might spur new ways of thinking about animal control in Orange County. The same activists see hope in the search for a new permanent director for animal control.

Meanwhile, things continue pretty much as they've always been.

Animal control is a wrenching job. Many workers, especially those involved in euthanasia, suffer nightmares and other side effects and need counseling. As Evans noted: "We're the ones who have to clean up society's mess. We love animals and don't like to do it, but it has to be done."

Pissed off? Concerned? Interested? Bob Emmers will host an OC Weekly panel discussion on animal control in Orange County at the Lab, 2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa. Tues., 7 p.m. Free. For more information, contact Shelle Murach at (714) 708-8400.

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