Thursday, March 19, 2009

I Just Had One of Those "Moments"...

A dear friend sent me the following You Tube video. It is of the Kern County, CA shelter. No, I don't live in Kern County but I have a long-standing interest in their animal shelter system.

In 2004, I saw a rescue room post about the shelter conditions in Kern County. I was appalled. Having worked on the Orange County shelter five years prior, I know what it takes to turn a shelter around. But I needed to see for myself. So the following Saturday, I went for a little 380 mile drive from home to Kern's Bakersfield shelter, then to their Mojave shelter and back to see what was really going on.

I cried most of the way from Bakersfield (the first stop) home. I had NEVER seen such dismal conditions, let alone such bizarre policies.

I went first to the Bakersfield shelter to see dogs and cats. In order to EVEN DO that, I had to sign a form, present a driver's license (this was, at that time, done literally nowhere in the state for a municipal shelter), then be "escorted" through two of the four kennel buildings. The other two (housing hundreds of dogs) were mysteriously "off limits". Reaching the first building, after going through a blinded and locked gate (a huge issue there and one the shelter took down after being sued), I was instructed by a terse volunteer of perhaps 18 years of age that I had to walk the center of the kennel. I was to look to my right and left, never stopping before a cage. It sounded like and felt like I was walking through a high security prison, not an animal shelter where the goals should be to have people fall madly in love with a dog and desire to adopt them. No such thing, here.

I then drove over to Kern's Mojave Shelter. I didn't need an escort, but this little shelter had a different and more dismal problem on the one hand: drop boxes. Drop boxes where, at night, people could abandon a cat, kitten or pitbull, for instance, into one of three boxes and walk away. You can imagine what went on in those illegal boxes (these were made illegal by the state years earlier for very obvious reasons).

I drove home knowing I had to do something. I could not have been more upset and more determined.

So, for the next nine months, every Saturday (and often more frequently) I would rise at 5am, take care of my animal chores, then head out in my SUV loaded to the gills with crates to save some of these dogs and cat. By the end of the weekend, I had often driven 1200 miles crisscrossing the state from Bakersfield south to nearly the California border delivering rescued dogs and cats to willing breed or mixed breed rescues.

The entire time, I was working with a group which was preparing to litigate over the Kern shelters given they were breaking so many California laws it was hard to name them all. The Kern shelters also had NO rescue program, so we had to take animals out at full fee for quite some time. I spent about $40K of my own dollars, and every dime contributed.

It cost me, for instance, $600.00 to take out one mother and four puppies (absolutely NO vetting) who were, as I arrived, being led to be euthanized. I put almost 50K miles on my SUV, went through two sets of tires and at least 10 oil changes (not to mention a couple of flat tires) and being, literally, hit on the grapevine by a flying 10 x 10 foot Cal Trans highway sign that damaged the entire front of my SUV.

I knew every back road when the roads were closed due to snow or accident. I cannot begin to tell you what my cell phone bill was. I drove in unbelievable heat and the worst rain I have ever driven in. I saw some of the most beautiful country imaginable, and met some of the most giving and courageous people on the planet. I learned group's vet staffs first names, and where emergency clinics were along the routes. I made a lot of friends, and, at the shelter, a lot of enemies.

When it comes to the safety of animals, I am hardly shy. In fact, though nice about it, I am their worst nightmare. I was up-front and in their faces. I wasn't going away and neither were the litigators. I knew the law and by damn, they were going to abide by it.

The Bakersfield Californian newspaper had a wonderful reporter (Fred and James: this would be James Berger) who had previously reported on the shelter, as had some television stations. I got to know a few of these media folks by first names. We also developed an entire transportation corridor for animals in the process of doing this. So not only did I transport animals FROM the shelter, I drove them north to meet others who would take them from there to their northerly destinations (some as far away as Canada).

Nine months later, the court case was heard and we won. We had also won a lot of battles in the meantime. But, as with all things like this, it leaves its mark on you.

When you have the duty to save, it also comes with the reciprocal result which is condemning unchosen animals to death by the simple act of passing them by. I call it 'Sophie's Choice" because that is what it is.

People in the animal world have hellish decisions to make, and the shelter puller is by far the most stressed person in the chain given they are "the decider". If they are good, they can see beyond shelter stress and spot behaviors, and if the shelter staff is up-front (and not biased, which MANY are, for instance in Kern I dealt with a person who stated to me that they HATED Dalmatians, a breed I am QUITE familiar with), this can help.

A puller has to know their breed calls--often even the rare breeds--and take into consideration the rescues they are pulling for or might be able to contact to take a purebred, high mixed breed, or complete mutt. It's a pressure cooker, emotionally. AND they have to be able to handle almost every sort of dog behaviorally and by size. So... ya gotta know your dogs!

Eventually, I wasn't in this alone. I had someone who opened a website to help rescues learn about the available dogs. At that time, these shelters were not photographing or listing their dogs/cats and prohibited us even photographing the animals, though the latter is patently illegal. That was also changed during this time and their animals are now all listed on with almost all other California shelters.

So, when the wonderful man who helped me so much in 2004 and 2005 who built a website around these dogs/cats in the very early days some five years ago) sent me this video, I had a "moment". Some of the shelter staff in the video I worked with.

I literally sobbed through the entire video. I was there, again, and those old feelings came right up. The individual stories I could relate would chill you to the bone. I look back and wonder, sometimes, why I didn't literally crumble. Maybe it is because I can and do cry (often!).

Yet, this video is about the better news. The shelter is cleaner, bigger, better. And the video shows the efforts of a group taking out 100 dogs and 40 cats! Hats off to them! It is a beautiful statement about, again, compassion and determination.

I don't want you to think that this shelter's problems are in any way solved. They aren't. Their euthanasia rate is still sky high, a full 45% higher than where I live and the rate here is still unacceptable (their monthly euth rate for cats remains above 95%, and dogs euthanasia varies between about 68%-85%, depending). The shelters are underfunded and because of their relatively remote locations, are under-visited by rescues. And Kern still lacks any sort of low cost spay/neuter clinic ANYWHERE in this enormous county, let alone a series of them.

But this is a moving video, and I hope you will watch it.

And God Bless everyone that rescues from this shelter and for the staff that works there that, as individuals, really do care because that is NOT all of them by any means. For those of you that have a heart for animals, you may need a hanky alert for this.