By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Orange County Humane Society(OCHS) in Huntington Beach claims to be a "no-kill shelter." That means the non-profit organization is supposed to keep stray animals found in Costa Mesa and Westminster healthy and happy until homes are found for these wayward pets. But protesters who have gathered in front of the Newland Avenue shelter for the past several weeks claim OCHS has become little more than a slaughterhouse for hapless strays.
Specifically, the protesters allege OCHS has killed hundreds of potential pets that have fallen ill amid unsanitary conditions and overcrowded kennels at the shelter. Radical animal-rights activists making wild claims about facilities that warehouse strays is not unusual in Orange County or anywhere else. But this protest is different: those making the allegations are former shelter volunteers.
"When I first started volunteering at OCHS in 2002, I felt they operated within their best ability considering the conditions and what I assumed to be a lack of funding," said Shelley Hunter, a Huntington Beach resident who helps organize the ongoing protests. "As I became more involved, it seemed to me that the animals did not receive proper veterinary care."
Conditions quickly worsened in July 2003, when the shelter radically increased its intake of stay animals, according to Hunter. Dogs and cats were left covered in their own feces, which piled up in their kennels, contaminating their food. Animals—especially rabbits—were fed so infrequently they showed signs of starvation. Dogs that had been wounded from sharp wires sticking into their kennels were left to suffer without treatment, causing painful infections and reducing their chances of adoption. Mass euthanization of sick animals occurred on a routine basis.
Hunter provided the Weekly with a photograph she claims was taken in the rear of the shelter: it shows a dead dog lying on top of an overstuffed freezer.
"The freezer where the euthanized animals are kept was so full, they just threw the dog on top of the freezer," she said. "Dead bodies would be stacked up in the hall or left outside for days. There was no place to isolate sick animals, so disease started spreading. We continually found animals without food and water in diarrhea-filled kennels without even a clean, dry place to lie down."
According to Hunter, the lack of medical care led to 15 dogs being killed between December 2003 and February 2004 after they contracted distemper-like symptoms. "The volunteers were told the dogs had a rare pneumonia and we should not be concerned," she said. "But many of the dogs that were euthanized were left to suffer horrendously, without care, before finally being put down."
Hunter provided the Weekly with copies of euthanization reports OCHS sent to Westminster and Costa Mesa during the past few years. Those records show that OCHS reported to Costa Mesa that it had killed an exactly identical number of animals in both 2001 and 2002: 70 dogs and 220 cats. Meanwhile, OCHS reported to Westminster that it had killed 145 dogs and 455 cats in 2001, 109 dogs and 260 cats in 2002, and 99 dogs and 327 cats in 2003.
Dr. Samir Botros, the shelter's owner, agreed that his facility experienced a major increase in adoptions in the past few years. "We had a couple of shelters in Pomona that were going to kill older dogs, so we got them," he said. "But the protesters have fliers saying we put 400 cats to sleep, and that's not true. We had 2,000 animals adopted last year, so how can you claim that the animals are sick and starving?"
In August, Botros suspended the volunteer program at the shelter after discovering that several unpaid helpers had been surreptitiously documenting conditions there. That month, complaints from volunteers led to an inspection by the Orange County Health Care Agency, which discovered nine violations ranging from unsanitary conditions to broken kennel doors but no evidence of ongoing animal abuse. "They found some problems because the building is very old, but they were suggesting repairs that have nothing to do with abuse," Botros said. "They gave us 30 days to fix it, and we did. They came back yesterday and said everything is okay."
Botros said the law permits him to put any dog or cat that is sick to sleep. "But we don't do that," he said. "This is a no-kill shelter. Some dogs come in very sick or aggressive and bite, and we put them to sleep. We're not doing anything against the law. We wish we could save them all, but we can't."