Changing the Cat Box

After years of pushing and prodding by animal activists, change may at last be coming to Orange County's troubled animal shelter, “an ill-run, bureaucratic relic,” in the words of one former employee, and the subject of a recent, highly critical Weekly cover story (“Pet Hell!” May 14).

Officials have announced that no longer will the shelter use a method of euthanizing cats that has long been criticized by activists for its sometimes horrific results, is little used elsewhere, and is not recommended by the U.S. Humane Society. In addition, officials said they will study ways to improve the drab, unfriendly appearance of the shelter—which is located off The City Drive in Orange—its hours of operation, the way its employees deal with the public, and the way it markets its programs and promotes animal adoptions. Moreover, the public—in particular, members of humane groups, who have long felt shut out—will be invited to participate in the revolution at the shelter.

How the changes will affect the search for a new director of Animal Control—the person who runs the shelter—remains unclear. Critics have viewed the selection of a new director, a process that is now nearing completion, as one way of injecting new blood and new ideas into the operation of the shelter. But in March, longtime director Judy Maitlen retired and was replaced on an interim basis by her hand-picked assistant, Mark McDorman. McDorman had been the No. 2 person in the department for seven years and was viewed as more of the same by activists; they urged the county to broaden its search. The search was indeed broadened, but McDorman still appears to have the inside track on the $79,000-per-year position. In fact, shelter workers report that he has indicated to colleagues that the job is his and has already picked the person he wants to be his No. 2

Here's the way this all transpired: the Weekly's May 14 story brought together many years' worth of complaints and horror stories about the shelter and added some new ones—how animals have been mistakenly killed, how members of the public are sometimes rudely treated, how little imagination has been shown in promoting pet adoptions, and how the shelter's hours of operation are inconvenient for many working people. And then, of course, there was the method of euthanizing cats, long a subject of criticism. In the method called intrahepatic, the killing solution is injected directly into the cat's liver. The shelter's head veterinarian, Dr. Richard Evans, claimed that there was little pain involved and that death occurred quickly. Others disputed these claims, however, and there were stories that in some instances, it took cats up to 15 minutes to die.

Then, a couple of weeks after publication of the story, the Weekly interviewed Len Foster, who as interim director of public health in the county's Health Care Agency (the county bureaucracy of which Animal Control is a part) oversees the Animal Control director. Foster complained that he found the story “sensationalistic” but went on to reveal a series of moves that directly addressed the concerns it raised. He said he had requested that Evans and McDorman “review and provide an assessment of” the intrahepatic method of killing cats. He added that he would “not be averse” to convening a panel of medical experts to consider the question, an action long urged by activists. But Foster didn't stop there. He said he also wanted a review of shelter appearance, hours of operation, and the image of shelter employees and the way they deal with the public. And he said he would welcome the involvement of animal activists and other volunteers in the shelter. Humane groups should take their ideas and concerns to McDorman, he said, “and if they don't get what they believe is an appropriate response, they should come to me.”

(Ironically, Foster's ideas for change encompass and echo notions regularly broached over the past decade or more by activists—and regularly ignored by officials. They also echo ideas proposed by audience members and participants at a panel discussion on the shelter, which was organized by the Weekly following publication of the story. Representatives of Animal Control were invited to the meeting but didn't attend. However, a couple of shelter employees did show up and, without identifying themselves, videotaped the proceedings.)

Both the complaints about the shelter and Foster's responses to them consumed much of the May 26 meeting of the Animal Control Advisory Board. The audience at the monthly meetings of the board, whose members are appointed by the county supervisors, generally consists of five or six activists. For this meeting there was an audience of a few dozen people. Having apparently concluded the review ordered by Foster, McDorman announced that the shelter would no longer use the intrahepatic method for killing cats. Then, presenting the ideas as if they were his own, he went on to request the formation of committees to review beautification of the shelter, hours of operation and staff appearance. He also said he was contacting various activist groups to solicit their involvement. He put a positive spin on things by adding, “We're going to move ahead and make some great changes.”

The board welcomed his moves, but several of its members grumped about the Weekly's story nonetheless. Robert Bailey, the vice chairman, called the story a “series of half-truths and sensationalism.” Board member Judy Matsen said she was “disappointed.” She added that she wasn't familiar with the Weekly, so she researched it on the Internet and found to her horror that “they were talking about commies and fags on their Web page.” Foster, sitting in the audience, told them he was “surprised and disappointed” at the coverage. But he added that he hoped it would become “a demarcation line.” “Let's do what's necessary to make this a world-class animal shelter,” he said.

Whether that happens will depend in large measure on who is named the permanent director. During his interview with the Weekly, Foster described the selection process. First, the few dozen applications were graded and ranked by a five-person panel that consisted of representatives from two humane groups, a financial expert and an animal control official from Los Angeles. (Significantly, the fifth member of the panel was Judy Maitlen, the former director and McDorman's mentor.) Following this review, said Foster, the top applicants will go before an oral board, among whose members will be representatives of the advisory board, humane groups, and the cities that contract with Animal Control for services. Foster will then make the final decision. He said he did not know when this would occur.

“I'm not specifically looking for someone to change things,” Foster said. “I'm looking for the best-qualified person. But I do want someone who is open to change, when change is appropriate.” Then, in a strong hint about the direction in which the process is going, he said he hoped that everyone would support the new director, even if that person is someone who has had a long association with the shelter.

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