Photo by Keith MayOver the Orange County line in LA is Bandini Boulevard, a potholed industrial street of smoking cardboard-recycling plants and double-parked trucks where Orange County's animals come, not to die, but when they're already dead.
Stark concrete and chainlink fences extend into the distance like some architectural experiment in infinity. Among factories in varying degrees of disrepair, amid a stink as acrid as any fine nail salon, D & D Services slouches low on one corner. Each day, D & D sends a truck to the Orange County Animal Shelter in Santa Ana; takes on a load of dead dogs, cats and other "companion animals"; and drops them off here on Bandini Boulevard to be recycled. It's not karma, but it's close.
D & D's front office is little more than a single-story orange shack, the facilities a mixture of open, smoking vats and uncovered pipes. In one corner, next to a large disposal bin, there's a pile of fur.
By the time I pulled into the parking lot early one morning and turned off the engine, a man was standing at my window. He identified himself as Vince Gorman, the manager, and he wanted to know why I was there. I had barely begun my request for a tour when he cut me off. "No," he said. "Absolutely not." He explained that numerous reporters had come around before. "I say no to every single one. Absolutely not." I tried to take a picture. Gorman threatened to call the police.
D & D Services and its employees are the last stop in the tough world of rendering—the process of transforming animal remains into useable products. You already knew that some horses become glue, of course, or occasionally pet food. Your dog, Bozo, the aging critter with cataracts and splotchy fur who you dumped at the county shelter? Federal law says the best he can hope for is fertilizer. It's a great circle of life, like The Lion King but with no soundtrack and all the parts played by house pets.
Rendering is a big business. Across the boulevard from D & D is Baker Industries, whose advertisements ("Through our Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point [HACCP] program, we maintain rigid quality-control standards, assuring the production of safe, high-quality products") appeared in the February issue of the industry's Render Magazine.
Fear of public opinion—a hybrid of natural disgust and the sentimental love of people for their pets—is understandable. Because of its place on the food chain (that would be the very last link), D & D has found itself the subject of a low-profile controversy between animal-rights activists and the county's animal shelter.
Activist Maria Dales wants the county to cremate all animals—no more rendering. Shelter officials say, well, maybe.
"Basically, when people think their animals are being 'disposed of humanely,' I really don't think they have a picture in their head of it being tossed into a metal barrel and then carted off to be boiled down for its materials," Dales says.
The county's preference for rendering is about money. While the contract with D & D Services costs the shelter around $1.50 per body, cremation, according to an official at the shelter, would cost the county anywhere from $30 to $85 per animal. Some of that cost would be borne by owners who bring their dead pets to the shelter; the shelter already gives them a choice between rendering and cremation. But animals who die at the shelter or whose owners can't be identified are sent off with the folks at D & D.
For years, animal shelter officials and activists had bigger fights than this one. But bowing to the activists, the shelter has lately bloomed. Thanks to Dales and others, D & D no longer makes its daily pick-ups when the shelter is open to prospective adopters; the stench of carrion that accompanies the visits is now limited to after hours. Cats are no longer kept in gang cages—contraptions that sardine more than 30 animals of whatever age or health into confined spaces. Nor are they kept in their cages while workers hose down the facility, as they once were. In the new holding areas, prospective adopters can take cats into their arms before welcoming them into their homes. Volunteers have painted many of the cracked walls and have started a project for the beautification of some of the cages of "veteran" dogs. Each cage now has a card describing the animal inside, some even reading "ready for immediate adoption" to promote interest. Management created a new—albeit small—exercise space and added a new grooming room for cats. The increased volunteer force seems upbeat and ready to help prospective adopters with the animals. During a recent visit, an open area was continually full of excited dogs and equally enthusiastic humans. According to one official, the shelter has received positive reviews from 84 local rescue groups.
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"My general observations regarding the Orange County Animal Shelter are now quite positive," said Dales. "We've basically gotten everything we've asked for."
Except an end to rendering. Despite a county budget crisis made worse by state budget cuts, Dales campaigns for cremation. She once urged county officials to sign a contract with a private crematorium, such as Back Bay Veterinary Hospital in Newport Beach. Now she thinks it might be cheaper for the county to run its own crematorium in the new, $13 million facility it's building on the old El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
"The shelter has made a lot of positive strides," says Dales. "This is the next logical step for an enlightened animal care system in a county that prides itself on progressive thinking."
Nor is she put off by news that county officials regard cremation as a luxury. Says Dales, "We don't render human beings, do we?"