Friday, February 6, 2009

Hank's In The Doghouse Over Economy

Three months ago, Hank and his siblings were siting in a cell. A cell at the Long Beach, CA animal shelter to be precise.

One by one, each puppy was rescued, except for Hank, a beautiful if lanky doberman/hound mix weighing 25 pounds at an alleged 14 weeks old.

The Long Beach shelter is one that does not adopt dogs out to the public. Rather, the dogs/cats must be exonerated by qualified rescues as odd as that may seem (and it is odd).

A "small dog" rescuer didn't blink when the shelter staff asked her to exonerate the very large Hank. Hank ended up here where he stayed for a few weeks, finally finding a fabulous home with a loving family and a doggie playmate. Hank was destined for great things.

Hank was in training to become a therapy dog. His dog sister was already playing the role. Hank's training started almost immediately after leaving our rescue in the grips of a happy, excited and forward-looking family.
Hank, 14 weeks old

Hank is not the first dog in training--and among those that succeeded--from our rescue to become a rescued therapy dog or "rethog" as I have come to call them. Not one of these, by the way, is a purebred.

Just like me--and as Obama humorously tagged himself--they are all mutts.

Now, Hank is in the doghouse through no fault of his own. More correctly, Hank is doghouse-less. He has been foreclosed upon by the flailing economy.

Hank's human family is facing a huge economic crisis. The husband, a Ph.D., has lost his income (he is in housing development) requiring Hank's stay-at-home human mom to return to work.

Because Hank is about six months old now and still in the extended puppy stage (and purportedly dangerously eating his way through their yard when unsupervised), and because Hank simply cannot spend this much time alone daily and the family cannot further afford doggie daycare, Hank is being returned. Returned to our rescue, that is.

These situations have legs. As a result of Hank returning, we had to cancel the taking in of another large, senior shelter dog that may not--in fact almost certainly will not--make it out of his cell alive. Like tens of thousands of others, his limp body, along with other dogs, cats, bunnies and others will be stuffed into 55 gallon drums, then driven to a factory and boiled (with chemicals) and rendered into something else unrecognizable as the sweet lab mix that his family dumped (or perhaps more kindly if the situation warrants, left) at the shelter.

As the economy worsens, the numbers of cats, dogs, bunnies, birds, reptiles, amphibians and farm animals at this and all other municipal shelters will increase and more will find the drums their next home. Most rescues, just like our rescue, are at capacity. We operate on a permit and cannot expand our numbers and will not violate them.

Saving more animals by cramming them together and lessening standards and safety isn't an option for us and shouldn't be an option for others, either, though the results are heartbreaking. We take in many sick and injured animals requiring a lot of individual care and to even think about raising the numbers and lessening the space and standards is off the table as much as it breaks our hearts.

At the main Orange County, CA shelter, killings, as predicted, increased dramatically in the last year.

On Wednesday, an article (previous 26 January OC Register article here) in the Orange County Register revealed that 23% of dogs entering the shelter were being killed.

As both a cat and dog rescue, we were deeply saddened by the cat killing statistics as well: 3 of 4 cats entering the shelter were being killed, but this figure is drastically lower than in some shelters where cat euthanizing takes over 95% of the cats entering, which is literally tens of thousands, annually, at one shelter alone.

As the above second article points out, this dreadful news followed Orange County's Board of Supervisors rejection of a Grand Jury recommendation for mandatory spay and neutering, the Board kneeling to the powerful dog breeding lobby though provisions were made to accommodate showing (not careless backyard) breeders, and after the most recent shelter director--basically a bean counter with no animal shelter experience--resigned.

None of this bodes well right now for the animals in this shelter or those who will enter.

As the economy worsens, the numbers of cats, dogs, bunnies, birds, reptiles, amphibians and farm animals at this and all other municipal shelters will increase. Fewer will spay and neuter and moneys to help with free and low cost spay neuter are dwindling.

Problems for pet owners, and particularly rescues, mount with a proposed CA 9% veterinary tax and increased food costs.

Rescues are being hit on all sides with donations and adoptions down. Animal abandonment (whether left behind in a house/yard or cruelly abandoned along roads in rural areas) is up.

Some think rescues are a pain in the ass. I won't validate that or ignore it. For us, it is about making the best decision we can for the now-healthy and behaviorally understood animal up for adoption. We are nice, but very careful. We learn a lot by seeing and listening.

Our rescue requires not only an approved application with veterinary and personal references and a home visit, but a contract for life.

One stipulation of our legally drafted four-page contract is that the animal be returned to us regardless of when or why for the life of the dog/cat. We don't care where the animal is living, geographically, at the time and we hold the first contact on all microchips. We will make arrangements to get him/her safely back to us. We do this for the animal's safety and Hank's situation shows exactly why this is so important.

Whether Hank is 6 months old or 16 years old, he comes back to us, no questions ask and no cost to the owner. Forever.

Meanwhile, the shelter builds up animals. Or does it?

For almost a quarter of a century, Orange County has talked about--but has not built--a new Shelter. I'm old enough to know. Adding to the problem, the Orange County shelter is no stranger to management problems.

In the late 1990s, a huge group of rescue and humane advocates--in a tornado like vortex of considerable proportion--took the shelter by storm. Contentious shelter meetings often devolved into near screaming matches many over procedures and mismanagement. Veterinarians on the shelter's Advisory Board took on the shelter vet--then referred to as "Dr. Kill" by furious public advocates--over gang-caging of cats which was causing a horrible, extremely contagious and nearly always fatal cat disease, panleukopenia, to spike--again.

I was so angry I quit my job to spend time documenting the carnage and was pulling (at regular cost) dozens of cats from the shelter every week and taking them to different vets for health assessment.

Eventually, the practicing vets were well aware--between my work and that of many others--of the extent and severity of illness in the shelter and many veterinarians authored detailed and often angry, strongly-worded letters to the advisory committee on the condition of released animals. The committee was then led by a veterinarian most could only hope to emulate.

It is important to note that when the shelter releases an animal to the public (true then and now), which is how I adopt, they state that the cat/dog/animal has been examined by a shelter veterinarian and is deemed healthy. I literally drove adopted cats directly, non-stop, from the shelter to these veterinarians.

I was personally threatened by shelter staff with arrest for photographing and documenting sick animals and sickening and often illegal conditions at one point with cats so ill and suffering some were almost comatose in their cages. The arrest was welcomed by me as it would have landed the issue, once more, on the front page of the county papers. I don't go quietly and I don't go without legal support. I was prepared, almost inviting.

The county's legal counsel (who knows me from work on land use and animal issues), however, intervened advising shelter management to back off. So we took it to the Board themselves including objections found by the county's Grand Jury, though we believed the report was weak.

No Board likes an angry mob let alone an angry mob of extremely passionate, pissed-off animal lovers staring them in the face. The situation is the stuff of nightmares and the press coagulates which makes it even worse as this loon Libertarian columnist for the OC Register, Gordon Dillow, surmised:
Dogs and cats can be really, really dangerous.

No, I don't mean that simply having a dog or a cat is dangerous. What's dangerous is writing about dogs and cats – as I found out a couple weeks ago when I wrote a column about California Assembly Bill 1634.
Politicians simply cannot win the issue when framed correctly. And we framed it pretty perfectly.

There were so many experienced, brilliant minds and committed souls among us, at that time, and once educated on the issue, many sympathetic staffers in district offices. There were also quietly supportive shelter workers among those that would have liked to tear our heads off, mine among the first.

Later, in 2004, another management problem occurred, with a rather scathing Grand Jury Report. We are long over due for another.

I visited the county shelter last week and there were 42 open dog kennels. 42. Much of the cat trailer area was empty, and while I reported three cases of URI to shelter staff, while I was there, two hours, not one was removed or observed for treatment.

I feel like I am moving backwards towards 1999, again. I am getting really pissed off. This time, I don't have a job to quit. I have a cell phone, a digital camera and a readily waiting attorney. If we have to organize, once we have what we need, God help them.

I am beginning to document the shelter situation closely and am quietly pulling in some rescues and humane workers to start the fight. This won't be nice. I have written, this morning, an open records act request to Animal Care and with that shot over the bow, they are forewarned. So those of you from the shelter reading this, be aware.

Meanwhile, dogs like Hank are safe with good rescues while the shelter has room to hold more dogs longer but apparently doesn't want to.

I am desperately looking for a foster home for the shelter senior that will die without our help. Every rescue I know is trying to find fosters, as well. I'm not optimistic. We're all looking for space to save just one more.

Kitten and puppy season is right around the corner, a dreaded time even in the best of years. This one will be ugly.

Almost all of the adult dogs/cats will die in shelters when puppies and kittens--many of which will end up in the shelter dying as teens or adults as they are discarded later--arrive thanks to irresponsible owners that don't spay or neuter and don't seem to give a rat's butt about it, either, while unprohibited breeding via backyard breeders pumps out badly bred, under-the-tax-radar dogs by the thousands. And this is supported by alleged pro-animal breeder lobbies who don't care about breed health and which lobbies against mandatory spay and neuter under the guise of stopping legitimate breeders. Laughable, but tragic.

I wish these folks, along with pet-store-bound breeders of puppymill dogs, were forced to personally IV the blue juice into the vein of thousands of animals they are responsible for. Maybe this would kick their seeming on-hold consciences into gear, but probably not. Greed doesn't seem to know bounds or conscience when compared to bank accounts.

I spoke to a young kid a month or so ago who thought spaying and neutering was "unnatural". And the blue juice is natural?

I tried to talk to him gently about the issue, but this child, from known uber right evangelical parents, doesn't believe the shelter even kills anything. God knows what he has been taught. He is also home schooled and his sisters, who have now passed 12th grade, have said they don't even know what an essay is having never written one. Scary beyond words.

Without a good stiff drink, I am not at all sure I want to know what he believes about climate change. I fear I would just cry myself to sleep.

So sometimes, if we rescues seem grumpy, please forgive us. Or better yet, volunteer for us and you will understand why we are so concerned.

And, just so you know, Hank will be sleeping comfortably in the house with a few old friends (including my own dogs) at night and will meander with my own and others that are healthy in between. He will need a lot of reassurance after yet one more rejection.