(Dolly enjoys the attention of Animal Shelter Director Dr. Jennifer Hawkins. The facility has dedicated space for dogs to run and play –usually supervised by volunteers – every day. (Photo by Tony Richards)
OC Animal Shelter fighting persistent misconceptions
By Tina Richards
The Orange County Animal Shelter is structurally old, ramshackle and primarily concrete, but it is not, as many believe, a medieval warehouse for unwanted pets and strays destined to be euthanized.
The shelter will overcome its physical shortcomings when it moves into its new home sometime next year, but it must still shake off misperceptions that it treats animals poorly, and then kills them after four days (the state-mandated waiting period).
“Our goal is to find homes for animals, not euthanize them,” Dr. Jennifer Hawkins, shelter director, emphasizes. “People think we kill them because we need the space to house new animals coming in. That’s simply not the case.”
Indeed, a walk through the aisles of dog cages reveals most of them are empty. And the population of cats in the feline trailer is spare enough to give each animal access to the space in two adjoining cages.
“In some respects, spay and neuter programs are working,” Hawkins says. “We are getting fewer animals. Because we have room, we keep healthy, adoptable dogs and cats as long as we need to, in order to find them homes.”
They can go home again
It usually isn’t that long. To augment onsite adoptions, the shelter is working with some 180 rescue organizations to adopt out dogs, cats and rabbits. Some are breed specific, some are not. Either way, once an animal has been held long enough for its owner to find it, treated for minor medical issues, and ready for a new home, rescue groups come and get them.
Even dogs with behavioral problems are not lost causes. Some rescue groups specialize in abused or overly aggressive canines, and the shelter works closely with them to ensure that dogs that can be socialized, are.
The shelter has a dedicated community outreach staff that places animals with willing organizations, finds volunteer foster “mothers” to bottle feed neonatal kittens and puppies, and seeks medical care for animals in transition, whether they reside on-site or with a rescuer. OC Animal Care also sponsors a low-cost spay and neuter clinic once a month.
Shelter animals waiting to be adopted or stuck in the four-day holding period are cared for by staff and a phalanx of volunteers. Dogs are bathed, groomed upon arrival, and walked every day. An activity area gives them room to run and play. Cats are also attended to every day, with volunteers giving them individual attention in a well-appointed “visiting room.”
“Happy, healthy animals are adoptable,” Hawkins stresses. “And that’s our priority. Our live release rate for dogs is 94 percent. Those that are euthanized are either suffering a terminal illness, or so aggressive that they are a danger to the public.”
Cats don’t fare as well, primarily because of the large feral population in the county, and because some pet owners discard them when they become inconvenient. “Our live release rate for cats is 43 percent,” the director sighs. “We get a lot of orphaned neonatal kittens that people find on the street, or stray cats that have been abandoned. Some litters arrive so weak that they don’t survive. Street cats come in with such severe injuries that the only humane thing to do is euthanize them.”
As testimony, the shelter took in 16 neonatal kittens during a single two-hour period one day last week. Those kittens, as with every other animal that enters the shelter, meet the staff at the “drop off” window before being whisked to the medical facility for a checkup. On days when volunteer Liz Hueg is there, however, some animals go back home. “Some people will bring in a pet with an injury or illness they can’t deal with.” Hawkins says, “Liz offers alternatives.” She works with the shelter’s medical referral staffer to find affordable vets and offers nursing kits and instructions for desperate “parents” overwhelmed with orphaned litters. She also suggests alternatives for animals brought in for euthanasia.
“Sometimes, it’s a pet that people just don’t want anymore,” Hueg says. “I let them know that we can find a new home for it, if they’ll let us. Euthanasia is not the only answer.”
“We are here to help both people and animals, alike,” Hawkins says. “Animal sheltering is a response to community challenges. Partnerships with programs such as Liz’s OC Shelter Partners are a good part of the solution.”