Pets Held Hostage!

The county's troubled animal shelter has a new problem: activists charge that Animal Control officials may be subsidizing top-employee salaries with money earmarked for spaying and neutering.

Animal-rights activist Sherry Meddick recently filed a Public Records Act request with the county for an accounting of how the money is being used. County officials told her the money is used primarily to offset the salaries of shelter employees for the time they spend in spay/neuter activities. The county offered no detailed breakdown of those hours.

The money in question comes from a state law requiring shelters to collect a deposit for any cat or dog that is adopted out unneutered. When the new owner has the animal neutered, the deposit is returned. Nonreturned deposits are supposed to be used to attack the problem of pet overpopulation through education and other services. In Orange County, this amounts to about $80,000 per year.

This might not seem like much compared with the shelter's annual budget of $6.5 million, but used effectively, activists say, $80,000 could translate into significant savings. It costs an average of $70 to house, care for and, if necessary, euthanize an animal. That $80,000 could be used to mount an effective campaign that resulted in the spaying and neutering of, say, 3,000 animals; in just the first generation, some 9,000 potential offspring would be prevented. Not having to care for 9,000 unwanted dogs and cats would save county taxpayers $630,000. And the savings would increase geometrically as future generations of unwanted animals were prevented as well.

The latest charge follows a catalog of others. Following a May 14 Weekly story detailing long-standing problems at the county's animal shelter, officials promised sweeping changes for the drab, user-unfriendly facility that one former employee famously termed "an ill-run bureaucratic relic."

More than two months have passed since officials promised to improve the shelter's appearance, teach employees about customer service, market the center's adoption programs, and expand hours of operation. (The shelter is now closed all but one evening per week, when working people can get there, and is also closed Sundays, a prime day for family pet adopting.)

A recent visit to the shelter, which is off the City Drive in Orange, revealed it to be precisely the same drab, ill-run and user-unfriendly place it has always been. Lines at the checkout windows were long and filled with irritated people. No shelter employees sought out visitors to ask if they needed help. Animal water dishes broiled in the sun. Several dogs were infested with fleas and ticks, one so badly that it had an open sore on its ear. While euthanization of dogs continued its daily pace, numerous dog cages were empty. A few dozen individual cat cages were empty as well, while gang cages for cats remained overflowing. Literature on pet spaying and neutering was almost invisible. Signs were obtuse. The whole place still looked seedy. Almost as infuriating as all the rest of those things put together was the fact that one-third of the dog cages bore no cage cards, the typewritten cards that provide critical information to potential adopters, such as age, breed and whether the animal is neutered or housebroken.

The fact that the cards were missing isn't unusual. Animal activists have been complaining about this easily remedied dereliction for years. In fact, the problem was raised by a member of the public at the June meeting of the Animal Control Advisory Board. Interim director Mark McDorman promised that if there were a problem, he would fix it. So much for promises.

(Neither McDorman nor his boss at the Health Care Agency, Len Foster, returned calls inquiring about the state of affairs at the shelter.)

Meddick said she isn't satisfied with the county's response on the spay and neutering deposits and will file another request for information. Meddick added that she's also seeking a meeting with county Supervisor Todd Spitzer and other officials to discuss the broader issue of shelter operations and to request that the process of selecting a new shelter director be restarted. Longtime director Judy Maitlin resigned in March and was succeeded on an interim basis by her hand-picked assistant, McDorman, who immediately seemed to have the inside track on the $79,000-per-year job. This angered activists, who saw McDorman as part of the management team that had ignored shelter problems for years. At their insistence, the search for a new director was broadened. But it fell into disarray when a member of the five-person hiring panel was disqualified for a conflict of interest and another withdrew. The process has been so delayed that activists fear many top prospects will drop out to take jobs elsewhere.


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