Oops! They Did It Again

Photo by Jack GouldAt about 7 a.m. on June 20, two men methodically and quickly began the process of euthanizing at least 53 animals at the Santa Ana Animal Shelter. They muzzled the animals so they couldn't bite, placed a band on their front legs to bring up a vein, injected them with euthanol, and then placed the bodies in a freezer upstairs until they could be removed.

It takes anywhere from three to seven minutes for each animal, longer if it puts up a fight. Generally, someone attempts to comfort the animal before it dies. But there probably wasn't a lot of comforting going on on June 20. It appears there wasn't a lot of deliberation, either.

"Five dogs and three cats killed were on hold for breed-rescue groups," said Sergeant Doyle Smith, the public information officer for Santa Ana Police Department, which oversees animal control. "We shouldn't have done it, and we have to take responsibility for it. We're taking steps [so] that it never happens again."

Taking responsibility is cold comfort to the rescuers who had put holds on some of the animals, such as cat rescuer DiAnna Pfaff-Martin. She had put holds on five pregnant cats and two males, and had already spent in excess of $300 on new cages, which were being donated at cost from a manufacturer.

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"I had to call all my volunteers," says Pfaff-Martin, "and tell them the news, and everyone was sobbing."

With good reason. It's difficult to imagine any way in which killing an animal a minute can be humane. Furthermore, numerous sources in and around the shelter, who requested anonymity, place the number of animals killed at 94 as opposed to the shelter's claim of 53. Some say the discrepancy might come from kittens under the age of eight weeks, who legally don't need to be catalogued. Others just point to the shelter's long history of shoddy record keeping.

However many animals were killed that morning, it's certain the process was rapid, bordering on rushed.

"It was that the facility was overcrowded," Smith said. "We had no place to put incoming animals. There were also miscommunications between [Officer John Riles, who runs the shelter] and the shelter staff."

The official word is that the process stopped after an hour or so because the Grand Avenue Animal Hospital, upstairs from the shelter, had to open. Apparently it would have been too gruesome for hospital customers to see dead pet carcasses dragged into the hospital's freezer. Another theory is that the killings were stopped because the freezer was full.

"The freezer melts," said one source, "and it has a stench you wouldn't believe. The animals aren't put in plastic bags."

This doesn't seem surprising to anyone intimate with the shelter. In many ways, these were the animals that got it easy. Frequently, sick or injured animals remain untreated, despite the fact that shelter owner Larry Day also owns the animal hospital upstairs.

In one case, for example, a poodle was allegedly left with its eye hanging out for four days, until it was eventually put to sleep off-premises. In another, a Chihuahua came in after being mauled by a larger dog. The animal sat in ICU for four days before being given antibiotics, and soon after died of gangrene. Even simple cases are subject to neglect. On June 9, a puppy was observed in ICU suffering from mange. Four days later, the dog had developed bleeding sores from scratching. The dog was killed the following day.

Cats have it even worse, often disappearing without paperwork like coins in a magician's palm. Between the shelter's closing on June 15 and its opening the following day, at least five cats (and an indeterminate number of kittens) vanished, with no record of euthanization.

In other cases, kittens would be placed with surrogate mothers and never checked to see if the cat accepted them. One eyewitness found two kittens that had died because the female cat they were placed with had dried up. The kittens hadn't nursed in about two weeks.

"I don't get a lot of indications that they're trying to keep this contract," says Santa Ana City Councilwoman Lisa Bist. Last year, Bist was among the shelter's loudest critics and only grudgingly countenanced sticking with Day's operation when no one else stepped forward to pick up the city's sizable animal-control contract. The new deal included a nearly doubled budget.

"I get the daily reports, and I don't see the improvement in anything," she says. "We're very disappointed, from a council perspective. We're doing all the work, it seems, and not getting the response we hoped for."

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