In August 2013, Orange County Animal Services received the most publicity it had probably seen in years. Unfortunately, it wasn’t good publicity. The shelter had taken in a brown-and-white pit bull dog named Hershey, and his good looks had helped him beat the odds that face many shelter pit bulls – a family applied to adopt him, and they were ready to take him home. But somebody didn’t get the memo. Before his new owner could pick him up, Hershey was euthanized.
There was a public outcry, during which animal-welfare advocates wanted to know how and why such a thing could be allowed to happen by people who are charged with animal welfare. When a citizen emailed the shelter’s longtime head vet, Dr. Robert Ridgway, to inquire about the matter, he responded by complaining about his job, calling her email “dumb” and comparing her to people who “know everything but know nothing.”
The episode put the shelter, which operates as an open-admission municipal shelter serving all of Orange County, into an uncomfortable spotlight. The dog’s death and Ridgway’s response highlighted the fact that OCAS, as the shelter is called, is neither the most efficient nor the most sophisticated, by modern sheltering standards.
Quickly, though, the shelter’s administrators promised improvements, including a new system in which three people had to sign off on a dog before it was euthanized was implemented. The shelter promised that Ridgway would soon be on his way out and replaced with a new vet. Dil Luther, manager of OCAS, did not respond to a request to discuss the shelter’s issues, but according to meeting notes, he promised at a September meeting of the Orange County Animal Services Advisory Board that OCAS would work on improving communication with the public and rescue organizations. Dr. George Ralls, director of health services for the county, promised to implement an “error reduction” strategy to prevent similar mistakes from occurring again.
But nearly four months later, advocates for animals in Orange County say, not much has changed. The new euthanasia protocol is in place, but Ridgway is still employed by the shelter. Some rescues say the communication from the shelter staff is still seriously lacking, and veterinary care for sick animals needs improvement. Advocates say that although administration promises that change is on the way, it isn’t coming fast enough.
“There need to be more checks and balances in place,” says local rescuer Pam Strickland, who says she used to take dogs from OCAS to place them in rescue. In December 2011, she says, she offered to take in an elderly, emaciated dog from the shelter that had an upper respiratory infection. She named the dog Nicky, and asked the shelter not to neuter the dog because he wasn’t healthy enough to undergo surgery. The shelter refused. When she picked the dog up, she says, he had a fever and green mucus was gushing from his nose. He never fully recovered and died not long after leaving the shelter. Strickland says she would like to see more compassion brought to the shelter’s decision-making process, which she says doesn’t always take into account what’s best for the animals.
“Every time we have a meeting, they agree that things need to be done,” she says. “But nothing happens. The window dressing gets prettier, but nothing inside is changing.”
As a result, a loose-knit group of animal-welfare advocates have been holding so-called “sit-ins” at meetings of the OCAS Advisory Board, the community-based body that makes recommendations to the county about how the shelter should operate. They insist that the shelter needs to be more proactive about finding a replacement for Ridgway, and that it needs to take decisive measures to curb the number of animals it has to euthanize every month. At the board’s Dec. 17 meeting, they plan to urge the county to get its mobile spay and neuter clinic – which the county owns but hasn’t been using because it has been in a state of disrepair since 2012 – up and running. They have been gathering signatures on a petition to request that the county repair the van and get it back on the road.
Orange County resident Drew Paul, a local consultant who adopted both of his dogs from OCAS and says his experience with the shelter has not been particularly negative, says his concern is that OCAS doesn’t do a very good job promoting itself or the animals it has for adoption. He questions how many people actually know where the shelter is located (it’s on 2769 Conroy Road, near the Mall at Millenia), and he points out that for many seeking pets, the hours it is open make it hard to visit or adopt. Currently, OCAS is open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. It’s closed on Sunday. Extending shelter hours is one of the measures Ralls and shelter administration have promised to work on. But Paul and others wonder: What is taking so long?
“I understand logistics, I understand that there’s a lot to do,” says Paul. “The thing is, any time there’s a necessity for change to happen, it’s been an inordinately slow methodology. Nothing happens quickly there, and quite frankly, most of the decisions that need to be made don’t need to take that long.”
Paul Wean, chairman of the county’s Animal Services Advisory Board, a community-based board that makes recommendations to the county about how OCAS operates, says change is happening – but very slowly. “And what is happening is not enough to fix the problems OCAS has,” he says. The advisory board has no authority – it can only advise. But he says it is pushing for critical improvements, some of which are not things that are within OCAS’ control – first and foremost, he says, county government needs to come up with a breeding-registration program and spay/neuter ordinance to reduce the number of animals in the region. On an average month, the shelter easily takes in more than 1,000 animals (during October, by the shelter’s own statistics, it received 946 walk-in surrenders and 753 strays picked up on the street), and Wean says he’s convinced that backyard breeding is the reason those numbers are so high. “We need to regulate breeding to control the population of animals,” he says. “We need to require that breeders be registered and that all animals be spayed and neutered, with some exceptions for show dogs and for health reasons.” Wean’s chairmanship ends this month, but he says that he will continue to push for countywide spay/neuter legislation and breeder regulation.
He says the number of animals killed at OCAS every year is akin to a “holocaust” – a term he has taken some heat for using in the past – that will need political, community and administrative cooperation to address. More education, more outreach and a more holistic approach to reducing the number of animals left at the shelter every year need to be implemented. Long term, he says, people would like to see the shelter go “no-kill,” but “in order to go no-kill, you have to be able to have enough room to keep an animal long enough to be adopted.”
Advocates say they plan to keep the pressure on OCAS – and on the county, which oversees the shelter’s operation. They’ve been attending every monthly advisory board meeting to express their concerns, they’ve embarked on a Facebook campaign urging concerned members of the community to attend the meetings wearing orange to show the administration that people are paying attention, and they’ve been in touch with the media to raise awareness about the shelter and its problems. Many of these advocates say they’ve been trying to draw attention to the issue for years. But sometimes it takes something dramatic to get people to pay attention.
“I don’t know Hershey’s situation as well as a lot of other people do,” Strickland says, “but I’ll tell you what: It was the catalyst. As much as that sweet boy should not have died, somewhere in the heavens he needs to be thanked. Because it was because of that that the media got involved and people started listening to us.”
Number of citizens who visited OCAS in October: 5,279
Number of animals in shelter at beginning of October: 587
Number of animals in shelter at end of October: 495
Number of new animals impounded at the shelter during October: 1,704
Number of animals adopted in October:461
Number of animals euthanized: 858