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By Charles Lam
Photo by Keith MaySanta Ana officials may kill their contract with the city's animal shelter, following a tour of the facility that confirmed a catalogue of public complaints —including untreated sick and injured animals and an adoption program so unsuccessful that two-thirds of all animals arriving at the shelter last year were euthanized.
"We're convinced this is not fixable," says City Councilwoman Lisa Bist. "The trust between [the city and the shelter] can never be regained."
For Karen Evans, Bist's announcement came too late: her 2-month old Lab mix died four days after Evans adopted it from the Santa Ana Animal Shelter (SAAS).
More distressing was the dog's likely cause of death: distemper, an aggressive disease, almost always fatal if not treated early.
"It's a big problem in LA," says Dr. Bill Grant, a veterinarian and chairman of the county's Animal Control advisory board. "And it's something we definitely don't want to spread down here."
Evans' distemper education came after adopting the dog she named LaDonna from the nonprofit shelter run out of the basement of Diane and Larry Day's for-profit Grand Avenue Animal Hospital. Their city contract pays them to house Santa Ana's unclaimed pets for just four days before euthanizing them.
Evans and her friend Richard Miller paid $119 and left SAAS with LaDonna on May 16. Three hours later, when the dog developed a serious cough, Evans returned to the Grand Avenue Animal Hospital.
"They told us it was probably kennel cough," says Evans. But by midnight, LaDonna was vomiting and excreting blood. An animal clinic in Mission Viejo told her the dog was most likely dying from distemper.
The next day, Miller phoned the shelter to warn Diane Day that the puppy—and therefore other animals in the shelter—might have the highly contagious disease.
According to Miller, Day told him, "Yeah, what do you want us to do about it? It's your problem," and hung up.
Evans remained hopeful, defying the urgent-care clinic's recommendation for euthanization. Indeed, LaDonna's health improved briefly, but early on May 20, the hacking returned and was soon followed by a seizure. Heartbroken, Evans had LaDonna put down shortly after midnight.
Because LaDonna was inoculated for distemper shortly before adoption, any blood tests would invariably show her having the disease. Still, as other possibilities—such as pneumonia and parvo—were eliminated, the symptoms matched only distemper.
Miller contacted Day on May 21 to report the doctors' conclusions and says he was met with indifference: "[Day] told me, 'I don't care what they say; her brother's fine.'"
Day says she does not recall either conversation. She says LaDonna's siblings were adopted out but declined to help the Weeklycontact their current owners. "We keep records, but it was a while back, and when we clean cages, we move the dogs around," she says. State law dictates that shelters keep detailed records of individual animals for three years.
Local vets and shelter managers said contacting the dogs' new owners should be routine. By her own account, Day didn't bother. "It's just somebody on the telephone," she says. "How am I supposed to judge? I'm not a vet."
Evans' story isn't unique. Others relate stories of dogs being released from SAAS with parvo—a vicious intestinal disease with symptoms similar to distemper's. Larry Day says it's one of the hazards of dealing with stray animals; they come in sick and hurt. "But we don't send it out if it's sick," he said.
Critics believe prompt veterinary examinations would contain the spread of disease, but Day says the city doesn't pay for that. "I'll feed 'em steak if they'll pay for it," he says.
Although Bist prefers that Santa Ana have its own shelter, she's no longer married to the idea. Says Bist, "It doesn't work now—that's obvious."