Local News

Saturday, Apr 19 2014 06:00 PM

Have we turned a corner? Local animal euthanasia rates plummet

  1. 1 of 17

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Two kittens rest after recent surgery at the Kern County Animal Services Adoption Center.

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  2. 2 of 17

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    At the Kern County Animal Services Adoption Center, this shepherd is ready for adoption and is currently in the large general population area for dogs that are on stray wait status or are friendly and ready for adoption.

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  3. 3 of 17

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    This brown and white collie mix is about 2 years old and could be available for adoption soon at the Kern County Animal Services Adoption Center on Fruitvale Avenue.

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  4. 4 of 17

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    This 3-month-old small chihuahua is available for adoption at the Kern County Animal Services Adoption Center along with many others.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Maria Rodriguez, an animal care worker at the Kern County Animal Services Adoption Center, works well with the puppies in the small dog room that allows the smaller or older dogs to be away from all the noise, barking, etc. in the main room.

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  6. 6 of 17

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Dogs of various sizes, shapes, breeds and colors are usually up for adoption at the Kern County Animal Services Adoption Center on Fruitvale Avenue.

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  7. 7 of 17

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    This 15-year-old domestic, long-haired cat was a stray and ready for adoption soon at the new Animal Services Adoption Center.

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  8. 8 of 17

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    This German shepherd keeps an eye on things in the animal services adoption center.

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  9. 9 of 17

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    People bring a dog into the Kern County Animal Services Adoption Center on Fruitvale Avenue Friday.

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  10. 10 of 17

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    The Kern County Animal Services Adoption Center is doing a lot these days to make sure each animal worthy of adoption gets every opportunity to do so, resulting in fewer euthanized animals.

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  11. 11 of 17

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Several puppies that were brought in as strays wait to be processed into the City of Bakersfield Animal Care Center. They wait in the medical intake area known as triage where they get the care they need before they can be adopted. They were found in the Planz Road area, south of town.

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  12. 12 of 17

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Dogs keep an eye on visitors in one of several kennel areas of the Animal Care Center on So. Mt. Vernon Avenue.

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  13. 13 of 17

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Two dogs are in kennels side by side hoping to be adopted out of the City of Bakersfield Animal Care Center on South Mt. Vernon Avenue in this April 2014 photo.

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  14. 14 of 17

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    At the City of Bakersfield Animal Care Center, a dog sits in a clean kennel with rays of sunshine coming in on him.

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  15. 15 of 17

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    A cat takes a rest as would-be cat owners come in and out of this room at the City of Bakersfield Animal Care Center. Many cats are ready and available to be adopted out to a good home.

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  16. 16 of 17

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    A cat, one of many available at the City of Bakersfield Animal Care Center.

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  17. 17 of 17

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    This German shepherd was brought in by his owner to be handed over to Julie Johnson, right, of the Animal Care Center while workers Olivia Hernandez, left, and Christy Villazana take the dog's photo for the records. Johnson tried to talk the owner into training for the dog to keep it from barking so much in his neighborhood, but he declined the idea for his dog.

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BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

Every year for 11 years, The Californian has reported the grim tally of cast-off animals that had to be killed by the county of Kern and city of Bakersfield -- more than 250,000 total.

This year there's something remarkable to report: a 19 percent year-over-year drop in the number of dogs, cats, livestock, birds and other critters euthanized, according to city and county data analyzed by the paper.

The total number of animals handled during the year was also way down at county and city shelters compared to 2012 -- by 18 percent.

The question is, why?

Animal advocates point to community momentum building behind government and nonprofit efforts to spay and neuter more animals, reducing the overpopulation that drives shelter intake numbers.

But something else could be in play, too. The bitter, disruptive split of the city and county's joint sheltering operations could have depressed intake -- and not all in a good way.

Not knowing exactly why the trend lines improved so much also means we don't know if they will continue to do so.

GRIM NUMBERS

Declining euthanasia numbers don't necessarily mean success. City and county animal services workers still put down 16,189 animals in 2013, according to their reports.

That's more than 10,000 dogs -- an average of nearly 28 per day -- and nearly 5,900 cats -- 16 daily.

"We have a ton of work to do," said Julie Johnson, who is executive director of the Bakersfield Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and runs the Bakersfield Animal Care Center under a contract with the city. "We still need programs to do more. We're still euthanizing animals."

Still, she said the drop in animal intake is evidence of community programs beginning to pay off. She pointed to the number of animals altered by Critters Without Litters, a nonprofit spay-neuter clinic that opened in October 2012.

Critters Executive Director Vicky Thrasher said the clinic has performed 10,615 alterations, including 6,491 in 2013. Nonprofit animal welfare groups have also been raising money to fund spay-neuter vouchers at a frenzied pace, Johnson said.

Judi Daunell, president of the Friends of the Kern County Animal Shelters Foundation, said the group put out more than 1,900 vouchers worth $58,470. A little more than 40 percent of the vouchers, $23,130 worth, were used.

"We issued a boatload of vouchers last year," she said.

And Kern County supervisors, following the lead of Supervisor Leticia Perez, began to pull money from their discretionary funds to host a variety of spay-and-neuter events across the county. Those efforts spayed or neutered 359 animals.

In mid-2013, they also put $250,000 toward a targeted spay-neuter voucher program -- money that is just now being handed out to nonprofits for distribution to the public.

City and county numbers seem to support Johnson's belief that community efforts are beginning to blunt the breeding of unwanted animals.

In 2012, county shelters handled one of their highest volumes of animals in the last decade -- 31,573. That number rose by 5 percent in early 2013; euthanasia was up 12 percent.

Then the number handled dropped 6 percent and euthanasia dropped 20 percent in June, July and August over 2012 levels.

By the end of August 2013, reports show, 84 fewer animals had been cared for at the Kern County shelter on South Mount Vernon Avenue -- and 462 fewer animals had been euthanized -- than in 2012.

"I do think a significant amount of that could be Critters," Johnson said. "There was (also) significant progress made in some of the mobile spay neuter clinics."

Numbers, however, show that a September divorce of city and county animal control may have made a much larger impact.

SPLIT DECISION

In late August, the city and county broke up a 10-year sheltering agreement after a financial dispute. The city gave the county until Oct. 1 to get out of the Mount Vernon property, where the county had been sheltering both agencies' strays in a building on city land.

The county scrambled to open a new shelter, spending $4.4 million to renovate an industrial building in Rosedale. The city similarly scrambled to rehabilitate the Mount Vernon building for its use, at a cost of at least $879,000.

Bakersfield also contracted with the SPCA.

Amid that turmoil -- between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31 -- the number of animals handled by the city and county plummeted from 2012 numbers by 33 percent. Euthanasia rates in those months dropped by 50 percent.

Why?

As the county prepared to move to a new shelter in September, it pleaded with the public to adopt some of the 700 animals on its hands. The response, powered in part by social media help from animal-loving celebrities like Ke$ha, was overwhelming.

Only 300 animals had to be moved to the Fruitvale Avenue facility on Oct. 1; the rest had found a rescuer or a new home.

The year-over-year kill rate for that month dropped 64 percent to 636 animals.

Also, city and county data show, the number of animals brought in during the period by owners, the public and city and county field officers were sharply lower than they'd been in previous years.

The total number of animals handled were down by an average of 881 in the last four months of the year.

That could be because the split confused the public. People didn't know where to take animals and, if they did go, got frustrated if they went to the wrong place.

That's what Daunell, at the Friends of the Kern County Animal Shelters Foundation, thinks. She was stunned by the drop in animal intake and doesn't think community efforts could possibly account for all of it.

Daunell said she was recently at the county shelter when a man, annoyed he was being told to drive across town to the city shelter to turn in a stray he'd found, tried to abandon the dog.

"He got all upset. He headed to the door and actually dropped the leash on the dog," Daunell said.

A county worker followed him and told him it was illegal to abandon the animal.

"He did eventually take the dog and get back in his truck," Daunell said. "Where it went after that I don't know."

Daunell also thinks that because of all the press, the public knew the shelters couldn't handle more animals and stayed away.

UPSIDE

But Johnson and Kern County Animal Services Director Shyanne Schull said there is a silver lining to the break up.

With two shelters, there are more kennels. Kern County's Fruitvale shelter has 201 large dog kennels, more than doubling the 174 dog runs the county had at Mount Vernon.

The lower intake has also allowed both shelters to keep fewer animals in those kennels and cages.

Under the joint shelter operation, dogs were required to share kennels with one or more other dogs. At the city shelter, big dogs enjoy their own runs. Smaller dogs still have to share.

Having the extra space has improved sanitation and reduced stress on the animals, giving them a better chance of making it out of the shelter alive, both directors said.

While both shelters had to operate around constant construction for the past six months, both shelters look clean and well-tended.

"We made more space so we didn't have (an) overcrowding situation that was forcing euthanization," Johnson said.

Before the split, Schull said, the county struggled to handle a flood of animals that averaged 75 to 110 every day. She said the county was operating in emergency mode.

"We were literally just trying to control intake," she said.

Now the county can focus on individualized care and programs, Schull said, and put effort and money behind spay and neuter programs.

FUTURE VISION

These days the city and county are looking to the future, hoping to take advantage of the chance they've been given to set up systems that will reduce intake in the long term.

Kern County has launched its voucher program, distributing $250,000 to fund spay and neuter surgeries through coupons handed out by county officers, nonprofit groups and programs run by the five members of the Kern County Board of Supervisors.

And Assistant to the City Manager Steve Teglia said staff will present a plan to the Bakersfield City Council to put $20,000 in vouchers -- worth $40 each -- in the hands of city animal control officers for distribution to the public.

But, if the core cause of last year's drop in euthanasia was the city-county split, eventually animal intake will increase, the extra capacity in the shelters will fill up and both shelters will again be overcrowded.

If that happens, euthanization will go up again, too, Schull said.

But that equation is not inevitable.

She and Johnson said if the pace of spay and neuter surgeries continues to pick up, the community can reduce animal overpopulation. And, as 2013 proved, when intake drops so does the killing.

Given Kern County's history of failed programs and stalled progress, some skepticism remains.

"One can hope that this trend is real and continues and is not just some fluke of the split," Daunell said.

But Thrasher of Critters Without Litters said the biggest change she saw in 2013 may have been in attitude.

Government leaders stopped blaming owners of unaltered animals for being irresponsible and realized "people are down for getting their pets spayed and neutered."

Then they asked an important question, she said:

"How can we help them?"

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