Directorless, vetless, feckless, the Orange County Animal Shelter has problems: paperwork screw-ups lead to dead animals, animal cages are exposed to the elements, adoptions are complicated by Byzantine policies and hours, volunteers leave after repeated rows with staffers they describe as jaded.
Some critics have held up the shelter as evidence that government doesn't work—that it can't work—and that the only humane alternative to the place that is called Pet Hell is privatization.
Those critics should consider the case of the privately run Santa Ana shelter.
The city of Santa Ana contracts with the nonprofit shelter, which is located beneath the Grand Avenue Animal. As you open the door to descend into the pound below, the stench of animal feces and urine burns at your sinuses; it's an act of will not to vomit in response. The yelps of dogs echo through the humid air. Despite the cold outside, your brow sweats as you descend the steps to face begging eyes staring from narrow, overcrowded cages.
A pit-bull puppy sits with a deep open wound in the back of his neck; the wound is infected and oozes green puss. Elsewhere, a black German shepherd mix—hit by a car and left with a broken hip—crouches at the front of her cage, out of reach of a water bowl. Farther down, a golden Shar-pei sits with an injured paw raised delicately in the air. Nearly half of the cages don't have food or water; several are covered in shit. The floor is a slip-and-slide of feces, urine and other fluids. You balance yourself on the cage fronts. As you round the corner, you notice blood stains on the floor.
The cat room is just as bad. A beautiful gray cat with yellow eyes slowly opens its mouth, revealing a bubble of vomit. The attendant is unconcerned—he's banging the top of a cat carrier, trying noisily to evict a pregnant feline.
When asked about the lack of food and water, he becomes irate, absently waving a kitten with one hand while shouting, "Why are you asking that sort of question? That's mean. Instead of criticizing, you should thank me for cleaning cat cages." He then proceeds to point toward stacks of dirty linen and soiled cages, saying, "You want to criticize? You can clean these!"
An employee who requested anonymity confirmed that the mess we found was no rarity.
"When your business is caring for animal lives, your operation needs to run like a well-oiled machine," says animal-rights activist Maria Dalles. "The city of Santa Ana's animal shelter runs like a rusty Slinky."
But this business is not so much about animal lives as animal deaths. Larry Day, who owns the Grand Avenue Animal Hospital upstairs and runs the shelter with his wife, Diane, says he's not paid to adopt out the animals. Nor, he says, is he allowed to treat animals without county approval —approval that rarely comes, he says. (John Riles, supervisor of Animal Control, declined to comment.) In any case, it barely matters if the animals are treated: by Day's reckoning, half of them will be dead at the end of four days—the legal minimum he's required to keep them.
Day's contract with the city is an exclusive one, and he says he got it because he beats the county's prices. There's a catch, of course: Day's operation is strictly economy-class—no volunteers, no fund-raisers, no public outreach. "The city only pays us to euthanize the animals, not to get them adopted," he says, paradoxically bragging about the amount he saves the city and complaining that he doesn't have enough money to do a better job. But never mind: "We do this out of love."