There was Gary and Finn, Lily and Flip, Lucy and Lana, Rocky and Bear. Big dogs, all euthanized last year.
The “kill rate” for dogs at Orange County’s main animal shelter shot up markedly under its appointment-centric visitation system, where folks couldn’t browse the full furry inventory at their leisure, data suggests.
In 2019 — pre-pandemic — only 3.5% of dogs taken in at Orange County Animal Care‘s new Tustin shelter didn’t make it out alive, according to shelter numbers. That’s 197 pooches who were euthanized or died in care.
In 2023 — post-pandemic — 6.2% of dogs didn’t make it out alive. That’s 304 pooches who were euthanized or died in care, which must be hard as heck for folks who work there.
This increase in euthanasia comes despite fewer dogs entering the shelter in 2023 than in 2019.
The heartbreaking difference, critics charge, is the shelter’s pandemic-era, appointment-centric visitation system, which persisted long after other shelters had opened up all the way.
Allowing would-be adopters to roam kennels with all available pooches on view increases the chance of life-changing encounters — the whole-booty tail wags, the tender licks, the goofy grins — that hijack hearts and form forever families, they say. To this end, Margot Boyer launched a petition demanding that OCAC fully open in 2022. It has garnered nearly 25,000 signatures, but even now, has not fully achieved its goal.
Rather than throwing the doors all the way open, Orange County stuck largely to pandemic protocol last year, preferring that people peruse pooch photos online, then make appointments to meet those animals in person. That reduces stress on the animals and prevents bites, officials said. “Concierge service,” they called it.
Critics countered that the system benefitted shelter managers, not animals or the adopting public. It’s easier to not have all those pesky outside eyeballs on your operations, they charged.
Over the past few weeks, the shelter has opened more fully to the public — more on that in a minute — but critics say it’s not enough. Letting would-be adopters into all the kennels with available animals during every open hour leads to more adoptions and less euthanasia, they argue, and they won’t rest until that happens.
OCAC doesn’t believe it’s quite that simple, and cautions us about a direct comparison of 2019 and 2023 “that doesn’t account for the significant societal changes we’ve seen from the COVID impact on pet ownership, the recent economic downturn and the nationwide overcrowding crisis,” spokesperson Alexa Pratt said by email.
“Absolute numbers can’t tell a story and that’s why the animal shelter industry has chosen to use save rates to fact check how a shelter is performing. For over a decade, OC Animal Care has maintained a save rate of over 90% for dogs, which means that over 90% of dogs in our care have not been euthanized and meets the standard of a no-kill shelter for dogs. The nuances within that 10% are varied because … the condition of animals arriving at a shelter is largely outside of the shelter’s control from year to year. It’s why a shelter like OC Animal Care evaluates each animal individually based on its needs. Community members who are not experienced in the management of large shelters might not be aware of this difference, or that our animal welfare software manages dogs by pounds and not by description.”
As a municipal animal shelter, OCAC is responsible for balancing public safety and animal welfare, she said. It’s a safe haven for animals and no stray dog is ever turned away. They often come sick, young or injured from abuse or neglect, many found wandering the streets alone. A licensed veterinarian leads its medical team, a certified dog training professional leads its shelter team, and staff and volunteers “work tirelessly to ensure that each animal receives the love, care and attention they deserve while they await their forever homes,” she said.
Which is all well and good, critics say. Just not good enough.
When most every other shelter had returned to pre-pandemic open-door policies by last spring and OCAC did not, Zorro with a spreadsheet/data cruncher/fired shelter volunteer Michael Mavrovouniotis did some granular analyses of shelter data and found that euthanasia rates for big dogs — the hardest to place — had skyrocketed.
People were furious. Activists protested at the shelter. They sounded off at county Board of Supervisors meetings. OCAC’s director stepped aside.
Then the Orange County grand jury issued a scathing report echoing critics’ complaints — “The rate of behavioral euthanasia of dogs has increased significantly over the last 2 years…. The current adoption appointment system restricts public access to the dog kennels, thereby limiting potential adopters’ access to all available animals…. Orange County Animal Care does not employ a professional or trained and certified animal behaviorist to oversee the shelter’s dog enrichment program, resulting in dogs with declining behavior being placed at greater risk of being euthanized” — and flagged problematic understaffing, low morale and a lack of clear guidelines for which animals are euthanized for behavioral issues as well.
It must fix all that and open the shelter all the way, the grand jury concluded.
The county disagreed rather pointedly in its response. Behavioral euthanasia is not decided willy-nilly and depends on the condition of the animals coming in, it said. Staff morale is indeed affected by protests and “organized efforts to destabilize OCAC,” but is in steady spirits nonetheless. “The adoption model has restricted unescorted access, but all adoptable animals have always been accessible to the public through online viewing and in-person visits,” it argued.
Despite the defensive response, more change soon came.
New programs began in July “aimed at continuing the shelter’s efforts to connect adoptable pets with loving families,” including Kennel Connection, which finally allowed people to roam dog kennels without appointments — but only from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Mavrovouniotis employed his data-crunching Pandas to join disparate shelter data and found that Kennel Connection was a much bigger success than the county acknowledged, spurring big increases in big dog adoptions.
“A large dog in Kennel Connection was more than five times more likely to get adopted,” Mavrovouniotis concluded in his analysis. “Letting visitors into the kennels leads to more adoptions.”
State Sen. Janet Nguyen, R-Garden Grove, came down hard on New Year’s Day. “It’s with sadness and anger that I’ve seen our new $35-million state of the art animal shelter turn into some gulag where healthy, happy would-be pets are secretly killed for no apparent reason and those with catastrophic injuries die waiting for proper medical care,” Nguyen wrote in an op-ed for this news organization.
“All of this takes place outside the watchful eye of the public, as they are forbidden to freely peruse the ‘animal care’ facility they paid for with tax dollars…. It’s unbelievable that the Board of Supervisors, which is the only body that could rectify the situation, has not implemented all of the findings of the Grand Jury report.”
Some two weeks later, OCAC expanded the Kennel Connection model to every day of the week, but only from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Three hours every day is better, critics said, but all the kennels with adoptable animals should welcome the public every hour they’re open.
Nationally, just like here, the number of animals entering shelters dropped between 2019 and 2023 (3.2% nationally), according to the national database at Shelter Animals Count.
And nationally, the number of dogs who were euthanized or who died in care rose as well. But while that jumped 12% nationwide, it rose 54% in Orange County. That, Mavrovouniotis maintains, shows O.C. is doing something wrong.
“By any metric I looked at, national trends don’t explain OCAC’s decline,” he said.
OCAC’s Pratt said data is important “and we track it consistently for trends and indicators of how we can increase positive outcomes for the animals in our care. But when we spend excessive time on statistical review and debate, it threatens to compromise the time available to care for our animals.”
She tells us about Niles, a stray 4-year-old Siberian husky mix, who chewed through two leashes before he even got out of the animal control truck. He was fearful and defensive. The kennel team started working with Niles to create positive associations with people, working with him daily, plying him with hot dogs and treats and patience. There was a huge breakthrough when he allowed staffers to pet him on the head, then groom him. Niles gained confidence and social skills over months of work and is now a happy pup available for adoption. He enjoys scratches and going on walks while waiting for his forever home, Pratt said.
Then there’s Hawkeye, the 3-year-old pit bull who entered as a stray with an arrow shot through his left front paw. He had surgery to remove the arrow and address the fracture it created. The wound is fully healed and handsome Hawkeye awaits his forever home as well (see www.ocpetinfo.com).
“Niles and Hawkeye are just two recent examples of dogs who come to us in need of help,” Pratt said. “Every dog that arrives at OC Animal Care has a story, and our team evaluates each one independently to develop a plan that best fits his or her needs. In 2023, OC Animal Care was able to find positive placement for 4,642 dogs through reunification with their families, adoption to our community and through our rescue/transfer program.
“We encourage the community to focus their energy on tangible actions that will benefit our shelter animals. There is a multi-faceted problem going on across the country and it takes all of us working together to reduce the number of animals in our shelters. Whether it’s adopting, fostering, volunteering, or spreading awareness on responsible pet ownership and alternatives to shelter surrender, there are numerous ways to support pets in need and make a meaningful impact to help OC Animal Care improve the lives of pets in our community.”
Yes, folks, please, absolutely. Foster! Volunteer! Help our unwanted animals be wanted and loved again! Let them sleep on the bed!
We may be a bit naïve, but it seems that supporting the shelter, and opening it wider as activists demand, are not necessarily mutually exclusive things.
“It’s quite simple, really,” said Boyer. “They need to open up the shelter all the way, all the buildings, so people can walk through and look at all the available dogs. It was working fine before COVID. Why don’t you back to doing what you did?”
The numbers, Boyers maintains, understate the full magnitude of the problem. “Because of slow adoptions, the shelter got severely overcrowded in the fall. A lot of dogs weren’t going to make it out alive, but the hangar fire brought in the ASPCA that saved 100+ dogs.
“Under the partial re-opening, the public can view only about 65 to 70 dogs. But the shelter has about 100 dogs available for adoption. Visitors should be able to see all of them in their kennels. The shelter shouldn’t be hiding 30 to 35 dogs out of sight.”
OC Animal Care volunteer Elaine Perry got a smooch at OC Animal Care’s drive-through pet pantry in 2021. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)[/caption]
The hairball clogging the drain is the shelter’s pandemic policies, he said. They worked fine when the faucet was running slower (fewer intakes). Once the faucet flow picked up, however (more intakes), shelter management refused to fix the drain. “And this is where the analogy breaks down,” he said. “Because the overflowing sink meant more euthanasia.”