A history of neglect
For 10 years the city has known its animal shelter is grossly inadequate but has done almost nothing about it
The Chico animal shelter is a grim place. Sitting on a 1.6-acre triangle of property, the aging facility is wedged into an industrial section of south Chico, surrounded by a waste hauler, a welding-supply shop, a golf-cart dealer and a wrecking yard.
High-power lines from the nearby PG&E substation drape over the city-owned facility, which is cramped, decaying and woefully undersized for the 6,000-plus stray, surrendered, unwanted and feral animals it takes in each year.
The original facility was built in the early 20th century. Today it suffers from inadequacies in several areas: ventilation, drainage of kennels, heating and air conditioning. It also has electrical problems.
The shelter is a prison of sorts, but the inmates are for the most part innocent. They are incarcerated for reasons beyond their control: irresponsible owners, our society’s economic woes; poor training; an instinctual desire to roam.
There are 38 indoor/outdoor dog runs in the dog wing, which was built more recently. The runs hold dogs ready for adoption and those who’ve come in as strays. There are three quarantine kennels for sick dogs and five pens for the smaller dogs.
Behind the building are 19 outdoor pens for strays, and out front are 18 outdoor pens for dogs up for adoption. It would seem that as many as 70 percent of the dogs have at least some pit-bull blood in them. A shelter employee said that should not be blamed on the misperceived notion of pit-bull owners’ general irresponsibility, but rather because it is such a popular breed, both in Butte County and across the nation.
Inside the dog wing an almost constant cacophony of barks—some warning, some greeting and some downright pleading—fills the air.
The cat wing consists of 20 cages for strays, 16 for quarantine, 12 cages for feral cats and 12 cages for surrendered cats. (Within the last few weeks, the old cages in the quarantine/feral room were removed. Temporary cages will be used until newer, more comfortable and easier-to-clean cages can be installed. The shelter had asked the city to replace the cages, but was told there was no money to do so until July at the earliest.)
There are two community cat rooms where those looking to adopt can meet and greet potential feline pets. The rooms, where cats lounge on beds and even watch a flat-screen TV featuring bird videos, are among the calmer areas of the shelter. The cats, one employee told me, really do seem to enjoy the videos.
The lobby is cramped: Employees bump against each other as they deal with members of the public bringing in strays, looking for missing animals, adopting cats and dogs or surrendering the same.
And this is where the city’s animal control officer fills out the paperwork on those wandering canines caught loitering in the streets of the city.
It’s always bustling, if not downright chaotic.
Officially called the Butte Humane Society, the shelter is an independent operation that has contracted with the city since 1987 to handle the town’s pet problems. It’s run by a staff of 15 paid workers, a number of volunteers who in December logged 892 hours, and a board of directors whose size varies. The board president, Linda Klein, recently stepped down, reportedly burned out after years of frustration.
And just before that the board cut loose the shelter’s executive director after a year and a half on a job that can be emotionally draining. In fact, that emotional atmosphere has led to quarrels among the workers and volunteers, with finger pointing and blaming that has played out in the press, with labels like “Cat Militia” getting tossed about. All of this, of course, does little to enhance the shelter’s public image.
The city funds about half of the shelter’s $850,000 annual budget. State law mandates the city do something with the thousands of pets that fall through the cracks.
Last October the BHS received a report it had commissioned from Shelter Planners of America. That report effectively documents the problems the local shelter faces.
“Butte Humane Society serves a people population of approximately 87,713 in Chico,” the report begins. “When the entire metropolitan area is included, the people population increases to 108,094. The only other organization serving the area is the Chico Cat Coalition, which removes feral and domesticated cats from Bidwell Park and places them in foster homes or in a feral cat colony on private property. The number of stray, abandoned and unwanted dogs and cats currently handled yearly by the Butte Humane Society is approximately 6,029. This total is composed of 2,393 dogs and 3,248 cats.”
The report goes on to say that if the local population increases at a rate of 2 percent per year, a fairly accurate rate, then the animal intake will jump to more than 7,000 in 10 years and more than 9,000 in 20 years. While those numbers may not be staggering, the goal of the shelter, the report says, should be to reduce the number of unwanted animals as the human population increases.
“The underlying overpopulation of pets is caused by irresponsible pet ownership and uncontrolled breeding of pets,” the report says.
Of those animals currently coming into the shelter, 35 percent (2,080) are adopted out; 14 percent (809) are returned to their owners; and 36 percent (2,155) are euthanized.
The more modern and visitor-friendly shelters, the report says, have adoption rates as high as 60 percent, return-to-owner rates of up to 20 percent, and euthanasia rates as low as 15 percent.
“As can be seen from the numbers, the Butte Humane Society and shelter staff are doing an excellent job at adoptions and returns to owners,” the report says. “With a new facility, the Butte Humane Society will be able to strengthen its programs to increase adoptions and increase returns to owners to an even higher level.”
The report says the 5,570-square-foot facility is only a quarter of the size its operations call for. Not only is it falling apart, it is also much too small to handle the number of animals coming through its doors.
The shelter is caught in a bind. It needs city funding to continue operations, but its workers and board believe a new, much larger and higher-profile facility is needed. It’ll cost an estimated $4 million to $5 million, and the city would rather the shelter stay where it is and simply rebuild on that cramped triangle of property.
The shelter must try to balance spending money on maintenance to keep its animals as comfortable as possible, while trying to squirrel away money for a new facility. The BHS owns 20 acres of open land north of town off Highway 99 purchased 10 years ago when relations with the city were particularly low. The land, whose location across from the Centerfolds “gentlemen’s club” would not exactly enhance the shelter’s public image, is valued at $140,000.
The BHS board of directors has had its collective eye on the old Grocery Outlet building on East Park Avenue. It would provide high visibility and make for an easy move, as it is within a quarter-mile of the current shelter. However, as recently as last October, Chico Country Day School was in negotiations to buy that site, and just last week the building reportedly went into escrow with a local developer. That could not be confirmed by press time.
Folks at the shelter believe it’s still up for grabs, however. On March 9, the shelter’s executive director, Christine Fixico, e-mailed members of the City Council requesting a redevelopment-agency loan to purchase the Grocery Outlet site.
“The existing shelter is a community embarrassment—rundown, overcrowded, unsanitary and inefficient,” Fixico’s memo reads. The proposed site, it continues, “is highly visible, accessible and suitable for a shelter. … We have the opportunity to purchase a prime piece of real estate at a reduced price and we will replace a blighted corner with a state-of-the-art sustainable, full-service animal shelter which will become a vibrant community destination.”
The letter was set to be discussed at the council’s meeting Tuesday, March 16.
Will the council go for Fixico’s suggestion? Councilmembers Tom Nickell and Larry Wahl have expressed concerns. Nickell has met with BHS board members and suggested they contact the Helen Woodward Animal Center in San Diego County’s Rancho Santa Fe. Nickell has family ties with the center, which helps instruct other shelters, in its words, “how to successfully market and promote their programs and stop the senseless death of thousands of animals.”
Wahl has long been known as an advocate for the center and agrees that it is in deplorable shape right now. In a March 9 e-mail to his fellow council members, he says Fixico’s proposal “is worthy of very serious consideration” and asks them to “consider this well-thought-out proposal.”
As the newly appointed executive director, the aptly named Fixico has inherited the job of righting a sinking ship. She was a board member who stepped down from that position to take the job after Heather Schoeppach was let go in January.
Fixico’s office is across Park Avenue from the shelter. She is petite and pleasant and carries an air of quiet confidence. A Butte County native, she graduated from Paradise High School and Chico State.
She has an impressive résumé. She became a volunteer at the shelter in 1996. She’s also volunteered for Orland’s Farm Sanctuary, served as a grief counselor for the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement, and worked with the Nevada Humane Society and the Best Friends Animal Society. She served most recently as hospital manager at the Emergency Veterinary Clinic on the Skyway.
“Last year I became interested in getting on the board, which I did in April,” she said of BHS. “The board meets once a month, and while the meetings are not contentious, they can last anywhere from two to five hours.”
While half of the shelter’s funding comes from the city, the rest comes from service fees and donations.
Fixico is responsible for the overall running of the shelter, evaluations, general operations, animal care and budget matters.
She recognizes the shelter has problems. Its poor physical condition, combined with volunteers who are, shall we say, very passionate about what is going on, can send a bad message.
“The criticism [as played out in the press] can seem personal,” she said. “I understand that members of the public might not be able to see in a single visit the whole picture. It is easy to see the animals not getting the best of care.
“Our feeling is that we would like to move to a new facility. The current one is not really feasible to remodel to meet our needs.”
She said if local economic conditions worsen, the shelter can expect the number of unwanted animals coming in to increase. “There are 230 here right now, including 90 that are getting fostered by employees, which means they get to go home at night, until they can be adopted.”
The shelter receives almost twice as many cats as it does dogs. The cats, she said, being creatures of habit, are more upset by the harsh conditions of the shelter. The stress from over-population, improper ventilation and noise is very hard on them. As a result, 30 percent get put down.
“We are doing the best we can with the facility we’ve got,” Fixico said. “But we need more people, more support. Moving is long-term, but foreseeable. We have to raise awareness that we are in need. The financial aspect of that is way beyond what we can handle now or in the near future. But we need to get community confidence that we can run the shelter we have and have them put that confidence behind us in getting a new facility.
“I want to be able to address people’s concerns, get things out in the open and get a dialogue going with the community, keep it going with the city, and make people’s relationship with Butte Humane Society the best it can be. Because whether you work here, whether you foster or are a member of the city, you want to see the best done for the animals. That is what we are working for.”
Schoeppach, the former director, is a passionate defender of both the shelter and its workers. She also stands up for the way she ran things at the shelter. Schoeppach, 29, still visits and volunteers. She says the biggest problem facing the shelter is money.
“We need the board to start focusing on that rather than micro-managing the shelter,” she said. “You need more money to hire more staff and be able to retain them.”
She thinks the old Grocery Outlet building on East Park Avenue would be ideal in that it is much larger and more in sight of the general public, which in turn would increase adoption rates.
“In a high-traffic area like that you are just going to have more people stop when they see it, as opposed to where it is tucked away now.”
She holds no resentment against the shelter and recognizes as much as anyone the rampant emotion that comes with the job.
“Some people get it in their minds that they have to be rabble-rousers and activists to get something going. But it’s more like, ‘No, how about you just clean the cage rather than bitch about everything?’
“I just want to help,” she said. “I don’t want to step on any toes or take over. There are things that I know that [the new director] doesn’t. I just want to help.”
She said she had no idea she was going to be cut loose. She looks back now and thinks that maybe she took on too much at once.
“I should have been better about asking for help, I guess. The board said I wasn’t communicating enough. You can do a lot of second-guessing.”
Sarah Downs, the shelter’s recently hired feline-services coordinator, knows the emotional tug of the job as well as anybody. A self-proclaimed cat person who owns seven of her own, Downs has to occasionally put down a cat. It takes its toll.
(A disclaimer: The author works with Downs at radio station KCHO and can attest that she is cat crazy.)
Interviewed while working in the feral-cat room, she explained that wild cats come to the shelter in traps. “You open it up, look at them, and you can tell by the way their eyes are moving,” she said. “Sometimes they are foaming at the mouth because they are so stressed out. Their ears will be flat, and they’ll be backed up into the corner. If you talk to them they’ll hiss at you or lunge at you.”
The wild cats are held for five days, in case, Downs said, somebody comes to claim them.
“That never happens. After five days, they get euthanized because we can’t put them in homes. I’m trying to start a barn-cat program for people who want barn cats, you know, mousers. We’ll get them spayed and neutered and vaccinated, then set them on a ranch. There’s been some interest, but not enough, so I’ve had to continue to euthanize them.”
Some of the cats that come in are not really feral but rather street cats, being fed by well-meaning neighbors. And many of them are feline-HIV positive.
“The problem is they are street cats, and they are going to go out and fight and spread it,” she said. She reached into the crate of a light-colored cat with black features and pet it on the head. The cat pushed its head up hard against her hand. It wasn’t feral. Feral cats crouch in the back of their crates and stare with a look that says, “Come near me and I’ll scratch your eyes out.”
She motioned toward the cat she was petting. “This guy, he started purring. He needs to come up negative for HIV. He is a nice guy. Pretty well fed. He was probably a neighborhood cat that somebody fed. He seems pretty healthy, other than the scratches on his face.
“Nice guy,” she repeated, more to him than to me. “I could probably place him in a home.” She gave him another rub on the head and closed his crate door. A few days later, the cat had to be put down after testing positive for feline HIV.
Judy Alberico has volunteered at the shelter for the past year and a half. She retired from Cal Water in 1995, and now the youthful-looking 70-year-old says it’s getting harder and harder to “slog around the bags of cat litter.
“There is a shortage of volunteers,” she said. “We get great turnouts initially for training, but a lot end up quitting because they get really burned out.”
Volunteering at the shelter is demanding, she said. “I feel like my life has been turned over to the shelter, feel sorry for my family. But it is really rewarding. Every day when I leave the shelter I know that I made them comfortable. That is all you can take with you, and it is going to be better in the future.”
Scott Schulman, co-owner of downtown Chico’s Brooklyn Bridge Bagel Co., has been on the BHS board for the past two years. And like just about everyone else connected to the shelter, he is passionate about it.
“The condition of the shelter is deplorable,” he said. “Ten years ago the city got the same advice that the board received last year [from Shelter Planners of America]. They needed to double the space of the facility, that it did not have the right ventilation, plumbing, drainage, myriad things. Ten years ago! And what’s been done?”
He says he has taken on the role of fundraising for a new facility in a different location, which he says will cost $4 million to $5 million.
“[City officials] want to keep control of us,” Schulman charged. “They want us to build on a site that is only 1.6 acres. [A new shelter] needs four to five acres.”
The key is getting the council’s attention, he insisted.
“But we don’t have a lobbyist, or enough time. We need to get the citizens in an uproar. But right now the city is looking at every dollar it has, and a lot of citizens don’t know we are out there.”
Some higher-profile faces on the board of directors would also help, Schulman said.
He is about to kick off a fundraising campaign for a new shelter and has been working with those experienced in raising large sums of money. “But I’ve been told it’s a one-shot deal,” he said. “If you fail the first time, you don’t get another chance.”
If his effort does fail, however, Chico will still be stuck with a shamefully inadequate animal shelter. Will it take another 10 years before something is done? Or even longer?