Local News

Friday, Sep 06 2013 10:00 PM

DECADE OF FAILURE: As Kern spent millions killing animals, key solutions went ignored

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    By Autumn Parry / The Californian

    A female pit bull from Arvin stands up against her cage at the Kern County Animal Shelter on a recent Tuesday. Despite a decade of effort and millions spent, Kern County has made little progress battling its overpopulation problem. It could learn lessons from the city of Jacksonville, Fla., with which half the budget has made huge strides reducing shelter intake and euthanasia numbers.

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  2. 2 of 4

    By Autumn Parry / The Californian

    A group of pit bull puppies sleep together in their cage at the County of Kern Animal Shelter one recent Tuesday.

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  3. 3 of 4

    By Autumn Parry / The Californian

    Mario Robledo tries to relax his nephew's pit bull, Miclo, 7 months, before handing Miclo over to the Kern County Animal Control shelter one recent Tuesday. Robledo's nephew moved into a new apartment and could no longer keep Miclo. The county has long battled high shelter-intake numbers, which are in large part fueled by irresponsible pet ownership. Far more shelter animals are turned in by the public than picked up on the streets by officers.

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  4. 4 of 4

    By Autumn Parry / The Californian

    The city of Bakersfield has given the Kern County Animal Control Department until Sept. 30 to move out of the shelter.

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BY JAMES BURGER, Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

For a decade, Kern County has been mired in a futile, expensive quest to reduce the annual killing of tens of thousands of unwanted animals.

The next 10 years don't have to be the same.

Related Info

ABOUT THIS SERIES

Improving Kern County's animal overpopulation problem is not rocket science. The city of Jacksonville, Fla., did it with half Kern's budget -- by finding out where its unwanted animals were coming from and helping get them fixed. Kern can do it, too -- if it has the will.

TODAY

* Jacksonville has succeeded where Kern has failed, miserably.

* Kern's animal control budget has doubled since 2006 -- with little to show for it.

* One local nonprofit knows how to get the job done.

SUNDAY

* How exactly did Jacksonville do it? We lay it out.

* Kern doesn't have a money problem. It has a data problem.

* Now that Kern County and Bakersfield animal control are divorcing, can a spay-neuter push succeed?

Lessons can be learned from Jacksonville, Fla., which a decade ago had the same sad animal welfare story as Kern.

Both communities -- which have similarly sized populations of diverse low- and middle-income people -- were taking in roughly 30,000 stray, lost or unwanted animals a year and euthanizing 20,000 of them.

But while Kern is killing about the same number of animals today as a decade ago, Jacksonville's city animal control agency euthanized only 5,090 animals in 2012. And that's with a $3 million annual budget, compared to Kern's $8.1 million.

Jacksonville's story is different because in 2002 it focused on spay and neuter programs that targeted the neighborhoods producing most of the unwanted animals.

Kern County, by contrast, pursued a series of short-lived, reactive programs implemented on the fly with minimal analysis or understanding of how they would reduce intake or euthanization numbers.

The situation here got even more challenging when a decade-long animal partnership between the city of Bakersfield and the county of Kern dissolved last month amid a flurry of insults and recriminations.

So the question remains: how did the leaders of a tightly run city and county in one of the most fiscally conservative areas in California blow millions of dollars in a failed effort to solve a problem when the solution was there for all to see?

 

THE JACKSONVILLE APPROACH

In 2002, Jacksonville began identifying where most of its unwanted animals -- generally strays and pets of people too poor to fix them -- were coming from.

Jacksonville businessman Rick DuCharme, a sales and marketing professional in the heavy equipment industry who developed an interest in animal welfare causes, launched a nonprofit called First Coast No More Homeless Pets. It was developed with cooperation and financial support from the city of Jacksonville.

DuCharme's goal, based on a successful New Hampshire program, was to analyze where most of the unwanted animals that entered Jacksonville shelters came from and stop the flow at that source.

He marketed free spay and neuter surgeries to pet owners in those areas, generally low-income communities where residents couldn't afford even a reduced-cost surgery for their dogs or cats.

The key was not just to spay or neuter animals. It was to alter the animals most likely to produce litters of unwanted animals over and over again, year after year.

It worked.

"We've had (the city) contract now for 12 years," DuCharme said. "Every year we saw about a 10 percent decrease in shelter intakes."

The program's goal is to do five surgeries for every 1,000 residents of a community every year. That totals about 4,000 surgeries annually.

 

IN KERN, GUIDANCE NOT TAKEN

Kern County has had to euthanize more than 250,000 unwanted dogs and cats since 2003. Consultants have long told the county that the best way to stop the tragic grind is to stop adding animals to shelters. And the best way to reduce shelter intake is to spay and neuter the pets producing unwanted puppies and kittens.

A 2005 report from county consultant CityGate suggested Kern make Animal Control a standalone department, consolidate city of Bakersfield animal control operations into the county's, build a new shelter to provide more modern care, build a veterinary clinic into the shelter to provide care to shelter animals and spay-neuter services, and launch an aggressive, 20-year education plan to promote responsible pet ownership.

The CityGate report also warned that without a low-cost or free spay-neuter program, Kern County would never solve its overpopulation problem.

"The bottom line is that this is the single most important program that will have the greatest economic and reduced euthanasia rate impact," the report read.

But, with the exception of an underused spay-and-neuter voucher program, Kern County did nothing to pursue that program.

Government officials and animal welfare advocates say they're committed to launching an effort to reduce shelter intake and the pace of animal euthanizations.

But there is no consensus on what that effort should look like.

The Kern County Board of Supervisors has voted to spend $250,000 this year to implement a spay-neuter plan.

On Tuesday, Kern County Animal Control Director Jen Woodard will deliver her plan for spending that money -- a concept that could become a blueprint for the county's future efforts.

But supervisors have different concepts for that plan; from handing out surgery vouchers to hiring shelter veterinarians to partnering with a new Bakersfield nonprofit clinic.

"We all have our own ideas about what a perfect world entails," said Supervisor Leticia Perez. "That indicates the passion that the board has for the issue and the animals."

Ultimately, she said, "we need one plan."

The city of Bakersfield, with the help of the Bakersfield SPCA, will open its own shelter operation after booting the county out of the county's largest public facility on South Mount Vernon Ave.

The SPCA has tried to pull together a community-wide spay-neuter coalition in recent months.

But now that it has partnered with one party in the acrimonious city-county spat it is uncertain how collaborative that coalition will truly become.

Julie Johnson, the Executive Director of the SPCA, said the SPCA must move forward -- without the county if need be.

"People either work with you because they believe in what you are doing or they don't," she said.

But reducing the number of unwanted animals depends on a community-wide solution because stray dogs and cats are oblivious to borders.

Both the city and county must succeed. Or both will fail.

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