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Better Days for Some East Bay Companion Animals

Uploaded: Nov 9, 2015

Good news reported recently for local animals in parts of Alameda and Contra Costa Counties - shelter reform has taken hold in the former - and it now has a shot in the latter. The lives of Fido and Sylvester are being made significantly more secure, especially if they find themselves placed at the mercies of two of our local shelters.

First, Contra Costa County has finally concluded a protracted (one year+) search for its new Director of Animal Services (ASD). She’s Beth Ward, a careerist in the animal welfare movement, who was most recently in management at the Humane Society of Silicon Valley. It is notable both that she comes from the non-profit sector, and that she’s been primarily engaged in the humane rehoming end of sheltering.

Too often and most recently, CCC Animal Services’ leadership has reflected the enforcement and policing emphases of a bygone era. Shelters were traditionally a policing and disposal function, and dismal survival prospects of impounded animals ensued. Field Services remains important, but as County Administrator David Twa noted in announcing Ms. Ward’s appointment, "there is a greater community expectation in terms of the role of the animal services department, … to reduce euthanasia and to provide adoptive homes for the animals that are brought to a shelter."

This change of emphasis reflects a nationwide ‘evolution’ in perspectives among humane organizations. The big national organizations – notably ASPCA and HSUS – traditionally condoned shelter killing as inevitable, blamed an uncaring public and focused on excusing and supporting those consigned to do society’s dirty work. Spurred, grudgingly, by the demonstrated successes of the misnamed “No-Kill” movement, however, both “the A” and “the H” have more recently embraced strategies that put shelter pets top-of-the-mind to become folks’ new best friends.

As noted elsewhere in these columns, CCC ASD has operated for many years at a so-called “live-release” rate of around 70%. That’s better than a few shelters in the region, but the best ones operate in the 90s – Alameda finished last year at 97%, Berkeley at 91% and Reno, NV is routinely in the mid-90s% on up-to-16,000 in-taken animals/year (all these comparison operations are open-admission, meaning that they take all-comers). In candor, CCC ASD’s rate is only as good as it’s been grace of the remarkable, sustained dedication of its volunteers – it has taken tireless, merciful commitment to keep bailing the boat when no one was fixing its leaks.

For the record, Contra Costa takes in about 11,000 animals/year – such that the distinction between 70% and 90% is fully 2,300 dogs and cats destroyed by the difference, and indifference, Every year. Ward spearheaded formation of a coalition among five South Bay shelters that are expected to hit 90% this year.

Ms. Ward started work last week in Martinez and has called for an end to the routinely contentious relationship between shelter personnel and its critics. "It's possible to save more lives by working together," she says. She wants to focus on expanding spay/neuter and trying to keep animals out of the shelter, via several different species of community collaboration.

It’ll be a big job. On her third day of work, “Diego,” a lively 11-month old Jack Russell terrier blend got the needle as a family was in the process of adopting him. Now, all euthanasia orders must be specifically approved by the Director – standard operating procedure elsewhere, where pet lives matter. Of course, had she been hired six months ago, more than 1,000 other Diegos might’ve found their ways out the front door, on their feet.

The job won’t be made easier by the following sentiment from Administrator Twa, as reported in the LaMorinda Weekly: ‘Twa said that since the county shelter is public, and must receive all animals in need, it would not work to set what he called an arbitrary number as a percentage save rate objective.’

Yikes. There is nothing – Nada – the least bit ‘arbitrary’ about setting humane objectives based on the demonstrated experience of other open admission shelters. ‘Save’ or ‘live release’ rates are the common language of sheltering, according to the so-called Asilomar Protocols promulgated nationally more than a decade ago – for the very purpose of gauging, comparing and improving humane performance.

Two relevant axioms come to mind: “That which gets measured, improves” and conversely, “if you don’t care where you’re going, any map’ll do.” The management objectives set for the CCC ASD in recent years were activity-based (vs. results-based) and non-quantified; its mediocre humane outcomes on the actual numbers are thus unsurprising, and individually tragic.

The other bit of good news lately comes from Oakland Animal Services. After one year of capable operation under its new Director Rebecca Katz (really), abetted by able and creative volunteers, OAS has turned-around its own save rate from the high 60s% to fully 85%. No magic, smoke or mirrors – just a Lot of hard, smart work, with all eyes on the non-arbitrary prize. Take heart, Beth Ward!

Finally, I don’t want to ignore the Pleasanton environs, which also need a lot of help. The East County Animal Shelter on Gleason Drive in Dublin reported 2014 statistics of around a 66% save rate. Right here, at our modern facility in Dublin, with East Bay SPCA, Valley Humane and TVAR all in the vicinity.

As the CCC ASD and Oakland OAS experiences demonstrate: these fundamental, life-or-death stats don’t get better on their own. They can get better though, much better, with the right effort, passionately applied to the problem.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Cholo, a resident of Livermore,
on Nov 10, 2015 at 3:05 pm

It's painful knowing that small animals are put to sleep/killed.

I try to do my part and so do my Senior buds with donations, volunteer work, and walking older dogs who love to stretch!

Thank you for the story Tom.

It would be way cool if students would provide 20 hrs. annually to all animal shelter. It's worth course credit.

Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Alamo,
on Nov 11, 2015 at 9:14 am

It's a great idea, Cholo. Kids 'get' what their elders too often forget about animal welfare. Very good to get them involved directly before those concerns recede.

I'm glad you modified 'put to sleep.' There is true euthanasia available for irretrievably infirm companion animals, for which we may all be grateful (someday, I Will write the third installment of my series tribute to my 'Genghis' collie).

But most shelter killing is just that -- destroying a life with plenty of life left in it, for reasons that have nothing to do with mercy. So, I resist the term "put to sleep" which is the adult equivalent of saying you've sent Rover to a farm upstate, where he can romp and play. I call that "euphemasia," because it really is a misuse of the term. Some shelters even put their doomed animals on a 'PTS list.'

I think you have to start the process of addressing shelter reform by calling things what they are. Shelters do have a responsibility to protect the community from dangerous animals, which is why they do not hit 100% in their save rates. But most shelter killing is just that, and ought not to be disguised in semantics that suggest you're doing the creature any favors.

Posted by animal lover, but . . ., a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood,
on Nov 13, 2015 at 9:34 am

You need to state the obvious that those at fault for the killing are the owners of pets that are not spayed or neutered. The owners who allow their cats to roam outside day and night. The people who do not care enough to stop the senseless overpopulation of dogs and cats. Any pet owner who has to reclaim their animal at a shelter should be severely fined and required to volunteer many hours at the shelter to pay back the stupidity of allowing their pet to roam free.

If the owners were responsible, there would be little if any need to ever kill a non-lethal animal.

Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Alamo,
on Nov 13, 2015 at 2:10 pm

Hi ALB: that was almost precisely the traditional, hopeless argument put forth by ASPCA and Humane when 16M animals/year were being slaughtered in shelters. The three legs of that stool were Legislate (leash laws, breed bans), Educate (otherwise irresponsible owners) and Spay/Neuter.

Spay/neuter has been a terrific success, with about 80% of companion animals having been 'snipped.' That last 20% would be subject to the old 80/20 rule regarding effort.

But here's the thing -- you can spend money and effort trying/failing to corral that last 20%, or you can spend it much more effectively by working the adoption end. Here's the math: 20M people seek out new dogs or cats every year, whereas about 4-5M dogs and cats are still killed in shelters. The matching-up of shelter supply and public demand is where it's at. Now, some animals may just never be wanted, but they are very few. Look at Muttville, the Bay Area non-profit that specializes in older, and less adoptable animals -- they are going great guns and really making a dent.

So I beg to differ -- you can blame the owner of the yowling midnight cat -- and get nowhere. Or you can seek your next best friend from a shelter, and draw down that 4M toward equilibrium. I think that's the better route.

Posted by Lauren, a resident of Amador Valley High School,
on Nov 13, 2015 at 5:02 pm

And CCAS does have exorbitant reclaiming fees, and it doesn't do one whit of good. Instead, folks who can't pay the fees are forced to surrender their pet, and there's another animal on the shelter conveyer belt. Meanwhile, accidents still happen, dogs slip their collar, gates get left open, and fences are blown down by weather.

Exorbitant fees do not work as a deterrent to strays. Period. Why are some so convinced that strict punishment encourages responsible behavior or prevents accidents when there is zero evidence to indicate it is so?

Posted by Cheryl, a resident of another community,
on Nov 13, 2015 at 5:32 pm

I have been grieving for Diego for a week. I am an active on-line presence commenting and sharing so that we can help re-home these wonderful creatures who do so much for the human race.

No pup should have to be euthanized. However,please do not blame it solely on people who let their dogs mate. That is a simple, one dimensional criticism.

I am glad we have a new Director here at Contra Costa Animal Shelter and I have told numerous people that we need to support her rather than demonize her for something that happened on her third day on the job.

As for exorbitant fees, once again we have to work together to bring these down so more animals can be adopted.

Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Alamo,
on Nov 14, 2015 at 7:31 am

One of the things that individual rescuers always grapple with is whether to focus on the animal or the owner -- the latter is most often the cause of problems with the former. Some shelters have established training classes and even behavior hotlines for willing people to try to keep animals in their current homes. It helps.

But as much as thoughtless humans cause problems, it's quite difficult to 'punish' them in ways that work out well for their animal -- redemption fines being one example, as Lauren and Cheryl both note. We've all got a million stories about jerks we'd like to throttle. So you accept that some portion of the population shouldn't have animals, but does, and you grit your teeth and focus on getting the animal out of harm's or neglect's way. Eyes on the prize.

That said, there's much more that can be done systemically to improve the "live throughput" of shelters. Portland OR has had great success with treating their region as a network, instead of isolated facilities, and by reports, what Beth Ward was doing in the South Bay may be similar. Much to be done, using the unique faculties of this species.

BTW, here's more on Web Link

Posted by Cathy Roberson, a resident of California Reflections,
on Nov 16, 2015 at 1:41 am

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

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