Breaking down barriers
City of Chico and Butte Humane Society forge a new partnership—and the animals benefit
Walking through the oldest part of the Chico animal shelter, Trent Burnham pointed to the outdated cages and poorly sealed bricks. A newly installed swamp cooler kept the temperature comfortable, but the dim lighting and dampness in the air left much to be desired from a facility housing Chico’s lost and surrendered pets.
Out back, dogs paced in their chain-link enclosures, and a puddle of water pooled in front of them, runoff from a hose being used to clean off soiled equipment.
“These are people’s pets,” said Burnham, who has served as shelter manager at Butte Humane Society for almost a year. “We want people to feel like they’re in a good place, that they’re being taken care of.”
Despite the somewhat gloomy atmosphere, Burnham remained upbeat, a broad smile plastered on his face. The future, it appears, is bright, thanks to the recent partnership between the city of Chico—which owns the Fair Street shelter—and BHS.
State law requires that, for a period of five days, municipalities provide shelter for stray animals and pets surrendered by their owners. Since 1987, the city has contracted that service out to BHS, which then adopts out the animals that have not been retrieved by their owners. Starting in February 2012 all that will change.
Last Tuesday (June 21), the City Council signed onto a plan for the Chico Police Department’s Animal Control Unit to take over the city’s state-mandated sheltering services. BHS will then concentrate on adoptions and community outreach.
“Only a small portion of what we did was those five days, but it took a lot of time to do it,” explained Kristen Staggs, president of the BHS Board of Directors. “So much focus and attention was always on those five days that a lot of other things were put on the back burner.”
This willing partnership is somewhat of a coup for the city, which has proposed such an arrangement since 2004 but until now was met with resistance from the BHS. Things got so bad then—and again in 2006—that the shelter staff threatened to walk if the city didn’t renew its contract.
The current contract is set to expire in July 2012. The city and shelter have come to an agreement, however, to shift responsibilities five months ahead of schedule.
“That’s a true testament to how our relationship has changed,” said Jaime Veglia, administrative services manager at Chico PD. As she oversees Animal Control already, she’ll take on the role of shelter manager come February. “We’re both hoping to improve our reputation and have our staffs work together.”
Staggs is just as upbeat about the upcoming changes at the shelter, though she admitted her long-range goal for BHS is to relocate, rather than renovate the current facility. That’s something officials at the shelter, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, have discussed for almost a decade. The oldest section dates back to the 1950s, with the newer portion, where adoptable dogs are held in indoor-outdoor kennels, having been built in the 1980s.
“The organization is 100 years old. Any time you have an organization that’s been around that long, you have to take time to refresh,” Staggs said.
Five years ago, a tour of BHS revealed so much that needed improvement it was hard to know where to start. The cat rooms were overfilled, and cages chock full of kittens lined the main lobby. Some of those kittens looked sick, or on the verge of becoming sick, with food stuck to their noses and gunk in their eyes. The stench of animals, urine and feces permeated the adoptable-dog wing, and barking drowned out all other sounds. Staff seemed unhappy, and there were complaints about mismanagement and disorganization.
At that time, the city of Chico renewed its desire to rearrange the BHS contract, in light of community and city staff complaints as well as a Butte County Grand Jury report that offered serious criticism about the way the shelter was being run.
“The logic of what we’d proposed got drowned out by the emotionality,” explained John Rucker, assistant city manager and the city’s point person when it comes to the shelter. “What we did negotiate was a change in the contract. Prior to that, BHS had had full autonomy, since 1987. So in this [current] five-year contract, the city started to take on more of a landlord-tenant role. We charged them rent and paid them for operations. It was all broken down in the contract.
“The end result is that the city pays them for housing animals during the five-day holding period,” he summed up. “Then ownership of the animals goes over to BHS.”
In late 2009, the shelter received a report it commissioned from Shelter Planners of America. Among other observations, the report noted that the 5,570-square-foot facility is only a quarter of the size it needs to be to handle the number of animals—5,633 in 2010—it serves.
“The existing shelter is a community embarrassment—rundown, overcrowded, unsanitary and inefficient,” former Executive Director Christine Fixico wrote in a memo to the City Council last year. She was requesting a loan to lease a building on East Park Avenue for a new shelter site. That request was denied.
A lot of good has come in the past few years, however, even if it didn’t come in the form of a new facility. In 2009, under the leadership of Heather Schoeppach, BHS won $50,000 in a shelter-makeover contest sponsored by Zootoo.com. After she was fired rather abruptly, board member Fixico took her post. Last summer, before being let go herself, quietly, in September, Fixico helped open a spay-and-neuter clinic around the corner from the Fair Street shelter on Country Drive. That facility—much nicer than the drab shelter—also became a home for adoptable cats, which were overflowing in the old facility and often were stressed because of the nearby barking.
The city and BHS haven’t always seen eye to eye, but after talking with representatives from both sides, it’s clear a new friendship is forming.
“I’ve been involved [with the shelter] for almost three years—I haven’t seen more energy and excitement,” Staggs said during a recent interview.
Since November 2010, the city has been hosting monthly community meetings of a newly formed Chico Animal Welfare Group in the Old Municipal Building. Veglia, along with other city representatives, including City Manager Dave Burkland and Animal Control officers, have tried to reach out to BHS, other animal-welfare organizations and the community to agree on a path for the future. These meetings have provided the animal-loving community an opportunity for open dialogue, and it’s gone a long way toward mending the broken friendship.
“[Five years ago], the city didn’t really understand because they have a lot of things to do and the shelter is only a small portion of their responsibility,” explained Staggs. “We also didn’t understand how difficult it was for them to provide us with what we needed. We were both so busy, it was hard to find time to sit down and play nice. Working on the relationship has been an important piece of how we got to where we are today.”
Jaime Veglia is a personable woman. Pretty and petite, she’s a true animal lover. She lives on five acres in Palermo with 11 animals—“all rescues,” she said—including dogs, cats and horses.
“I’m pretty sure I was born an animal,” she joked.
Before taking her job in Chico three years ago, she worked as an analyst in Sutter County, where she oversaw the Animal Control division and the shelter. As a girl, she volunteered at her local animal shelter.
“I asked to take on this assignment,” she said of the beginning of her Chico career. She signed on just as Rucker left his post as a police captain overseeing Animal Control to become assistant city manager. “I thought I could do a little more with it. I’m very passionate about animals.”
When others speak about Veglia, it’s clear her love of animals has not been lost on them.
“I love Jaime; she’s amazing,” said Staggs. “Thank god we have her on our side when it comes to animals.”
The plan for the future isn’t quite set in stone. The city has yet to formally propose details of the upcoming changes to the City Council for approval, but has promised to do so by September. With that said, Veglia started on a long list of ideas she has for improving the shelter.
First of all, the building at the Fair Street location will be run by the city. Animal Control, which consists of two officers and one supervisor, will relocate there from Chico PD headquarters. In addition, Veglia said, she hoped to add eight full-time positions—a registered veterinary technician who could administer vaccines and care for sick animals, an animal-care technician to oversee the kennels, two Animal Services representatives to interact with the public, and four animal-care attendants to tend to day-to-day needs.
For the first five months, Veglia anticipates hiring on some of the current BHS staff as hourly employees to fill those positions. By next July, the positions would be advertised to the public as full-time.
“I do see a benefit to bringing on key people from [BHS],” Veglia said. “They know where everything is, the nuances of how things work. We’re going to try to make this transition as smooth as possible.”
While the major transition won’t happen until February, the city is already working on improving the shelter. It recently purchased and installed two new swamp coolers, and a plan is in the works to get a new roof put on by the end of summer.
Veglia and City Manager Dave Burkland emphasized that, at least for the 2011-12 fiscal year, the move will be budget-neutral. The current contract calls for BHS to invoice the city each month for services rendered, minus rent for the facility and money taken in for surrenders, adoptions and fines. That equals about $380,000 a year. Because the contract will be shortened this year to just seven months, the remainder—the amount not paid BHS—will go toward paying city employees and making fixes as possible.
As for BHS, it won’t be left to fend for itself—a portable building to serve as an adoption center is planned for the east side of the property. The outdoor pens will house the adoptable dogs, with an enclosure proposed for the small dogs that won’t do well outside. The cats will continue to be housed at the nearby Country Lane facility. In addition, though rent on the portable has not yet been decided, BHS will keep the money it receives for adoptions and spays/neuters.
“This is a million-dollar organization,” Staggs said. It costs $650,000-$700,000 to run just the adoption, foster and education programs, and an additional $300,000 to run the spay/neuter clinic. (That does not include the $380,000 from the city for the contract work.)
One of the problems with the current shelter is there’s not enough space in the lobby. Shelter Manager Burnham pointed to the two rooms that previously housed cats as an example of their desire to give people space to mull over an adoption, say goodbye to a beloved pet before having it euthanized, or to go through paperwork for vaccines or reclaiming a lost pet.
“The challenge we’ve always had with that front area is it’s very cramped,” Staggs said. “We’ve never had money to build a new shelter or adoption center. It’s very difficult when you have a 20-year-old girl who doesn’t have a ton of experience, and she’s trying to manage a screaming guy who wants to get back his dog without paying a fine, someone else who has an animal that needs to be euthanized, and then there’s someone else who wants to adopt.
“We’ll be able to separate the positive and negative experiences,” she added. “Then we don’t have to manage all those different things at one time. I don’t know how these kids do this all day long.”
Beyond the personnel move, Veglia foresees some immediate fixes to the facility, such as resealing the walls inside the shelter and paving over outdoor areas where dogs are kept to better contain diseases. She’d also like to see the tarps, which cover many of the outdoor pens, disappear in favor of permanent roofs. A few of the pens already are covered, courtesy of a group of Chico State construction-management students.
She’s thankful that BHS has been cooperative, emphasizing how much smoother the transition will be with willing partners, rather than something seen as a hostile takeover.
“We want to play to our strengths,” Veglia explained. Butte Humane Society’s strengths are in outreach, adoption, its spay/neuter program, education and animal foster care, she said.
“Here at the city, we’re wrought with policies and procedures—we have policies to spare,” she half-joked. “The services the city is mandated to offer are very much a policies-and-procedures operation. That’s our strength.”
Back at the shelter, Burnham echoed Veglia’s thoughts.
“BHS is really excited to run the adoption program for the city—that’s what we’re good at,” he said. “We want to reverse the negativity that’s been here. We’re done with the past—it’s time to look toward the future.”
While gearing up for all these changes, staff on both sides emphasized that their hearts are in it for the animals, and that their primary focus will be to ensure they’re healthy and comfortable. That does not change the fact, however, that all these changes will be happening at a facility that needs more than just a makeover (more like a do-over).
Staggs and the rest of the BHS board foresee a future in which the shelter is the go-to place north of Sacramento for adopting or caring for animals.
“Speaking on behalf of the board, our vision is to get a very large piece of land and build an animal community center, for not just Chico but beyond,” said Staggs. “Our dream is to be a hub for animal welfare and education in the North State.”
That would be wonderful, but Burkland and Rucker say it’s just not in the cards—at least not now.
“That spot [on Fair Street] is already vetted. It’s difficult to locate an animal shelter,” Rucker said. “We try our best to make them as positive as possible, but a lot of people think, ‘It’s a great thing, but I don’t want it next to my house.’”
Burkland agreed, adding that there simply isn’t money in the budget to build a new facility.
“It would almost be less expensive to build a new facility than to fix the old one,” he said. But a project of that magnitude would run upward of a couple million dollars, he said, and much of that money would have come from city redevelopment funds. Unfortunately, that money is currently in limbo while the state decides whether to reroute those funds to schools.
In the meantime, the folks from the city will work to incrementally fix the failings of the old shelter, while BHS re-creates itself on the same site. Both organizations acknowledge that their primary concern is with the health of the animals and the education of the public. Unless Chicoans take charge and ensure their pets are spayed or neutered—or don’t breed—the overpopulation of unwanted animals will continue.
“We have a combined goal, which is part of what brought us all together,” Rucker said of the city, BHS and other animal-welfare groups, like PAWS of Butte County and the Chico Cat Coalition. “For every single group, our goal should in part be to reduce the number of euthanized pets in this community. We want to maximize return-to-owner and adoption programs. We need an effective spay/neuter program, and we want to improve the quality and capacity of the shelter. These are things that, regardless of our differences, we can all get behind.”
In 2010, BHS took in 5,633 animals—3,118 cats, 2,093 dogs and 422 others. Of those, 40 percent were adopted, 14 percent returned to their owners and 33 percent euthanized.
Those numbers are actually a bit more attractive than in 2009, when the euthanasia rate was 36 percent and adoptions were at 35 percent (the return-to-owner rate stayed the same).
The spay/neuter clinic is one way the BHS has chosen to combat the problem with too many animals filling the shelter.
“It is something that we are passionate about because we see the other end of the companion-animal overpopulation and we are tired of seeing the suffering that innocent animals go through when they are abandoned, lost and surrendered,” Staggs said. “It was worth putting money into the clinic as an investment into the future of animals in our community.”
Education will be a large part of BHS’ focus moving forward. Staggs and Burnham both envision offering workshops in schools and bringing the mobile unit out into the community more to get the word out about low-cost spay and neutering, as well as vaccinations and microchipping.
“Our population of animals is growing exponentially. People are breeding for money, people aren’t spaying and neutering,” Staggs said. “It’s unbelievably overwhelming trying to figure out what to do with all these animals. And we’re having to make very difficult decisions because of it.”