Helter Shelter

Photo by Keith MayThe county's troubled animal shelter still looks like a hell for the feline and canine set, but you wouldn't have known it from the glowing Los Angeles Times story on the shelter's April 9 open house and media spin.

Following that event, Times reporter Peter Warren pointed out—correctly—that cats have been moved to new, larger cages where they're not forced to sleep in their own feces. He praised the slightly expanded hours, now including Sundays. All of that, Warren wrote, suggested that the days of being hammered by the media and animal-rights activists “appear largely behind the facility.”

But if controversy is in fact behind them, Maria Dales—a German shepherd rescuer and a member of the shelter's advisory board—wants to know what the hell took so long. “How they got it cleaned up so fast is the question on everyone's mind,” Dales said. “Why couldn't they have done it sooner, and how long is it going to last?”

The answer was apparent a week after the Times story ran. On April 17, as rain poured from the sky and a cold wind whipped through the Orange facility, rows of dogs stood shivering and exposed. Their cages are supposed to be warmed, but the heaters weren't turned on.

Staring at the damp, miserable dogs, it's evident that the April 9 event was a Potemkin Village —a faade of efficiency and compassion put forward to impress an increasingly critical public.

Those of us taken in by the celebration surrounding the new-and-improved shelter should have seen the quick collapse coming. Just two weeks before the open house, the shelter was still in horrible shape in ways that mere paint and new cages can't fix. A female Lhasa apso—a small, yappy lap breed—was clearly suffering. Her fur was covered in filth and matted into solid plates on her back. One eye was sealed shut, and she could barely rest any weight on her left hip. She was also suffering from some sort of foul skin condition that shelter employees couldn't identify without shaving the dog, which they refused to do because it might prevent the owner from recognizing her. (“Ever heard of a photograph?” quipped Dales.)

“They may be treating her, but the dog is still in horrible shape,” said animal rescuer Kaye Bennett. “It's criminal neglect on the owner's part that it got in that condition and criminal neglect that the pound didn't get it ready for vet care.”

A few days later, the neglected—a cynic might say abused—dog was returned to its owner.

Down treatment row, a beautiful brown German shepherd curled in the back of its cage and whimpered, suffering from an unset broken leg. A consulting veterinarian for the shelter claimed the dog wasn't in critical danger and that it wasn't on painkillers because “we wouldn't want him to do something stupid.”

The next day, the dog's leg had doubled in size; observers said it was most likely infected. Elsewhere, an attendant sprayed a yelping shepherd with a hose, driving him cowering to the back of the cage. The rubber-hose treatment made infamous by the Philadelphia Police Department isn't dead; it has apparently become a part of animal control.

Dales said the lack of lasting change and “innovation” at the shelter leaves the public in charge of monitoring the facility's problems. “There hasn't been a single reform there that hasn't come from public pressure,” she claimed.

Part of the problem is the lack of leadership —there's still no permanent director or head vet. Dr. Richard Evans, the previous veterinarian, was placed on administrative leave on June 4 after superiors blamed him for an outbreak of feline distemper at the shelter. A new shelter director is supposed to be named within a few weeks; meanwhile, interim director Russ Patton says he's “not here to kick butt and take names.”

Sadly, neither is anyone else. The leadership void runs straight up the county administration to the Board of Supervisors. Two days after the glowing Times story, The Orange County Register ran a short piece on Marisol Lopez, a Garden Grove woman whose dog was brought to the shelter on a routine quarantine after a scrap with a neighbor's dog. The phrase “DO NOT EUTH[ANIZE]” appears four times in five pages of the dog's paperwork, but shelter employees killed it within four days. Lopez, who had arrived with her children to collect the dog, was reportedly told dispassionately that he was dead and offered a choice of any other dog up for adoption. Outraged by the pound's ineptitude, she took her complaint to 1st District Supervisor Chuck Smith's office. There, Lopez alleges, Smith aide Dorothy Hendrickson told her that she should see her dog's death “as a gift from God. It was a pit bull.”

Hendrickson was unavailable for comment.

Lopez, who had been largely unaware of the shelter's problems, told the Weekly she “can't believe this happened. This could have been anyone's pet.

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