Gimme shelter

City, humane society tussle over facility’s future

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Chico’s sheltering arrangement
Under state law, municipalities are required to hold stray animals and pets surrendered by their owners for five days. Chico has contracted out this service to Butte Humane Society, which uses the city-owned Fair Street facility both for this mandatory sheltering and housing animals for adoption. BHS has been working without a contract since the end of June.

More on this story For the editor’s take on the Chico-BHS negotiations, plus a couple quick updates, see In My Eyes.

Shelter animals have a way of tugging at heartstrings. Whether their faces reflect trepidation, sadness or optimism, wayward pets stir emotions in caretakers and adopters alike.

“The people in Chico care a lot about their animals,” said Kathy Wintroath, Animal Control supervisor with the city’s Police Department. “They should have a shelter that shows that same pride.”

Everyone can agree with her. But Chico’s shelter has problems, and the two agencies responsible for it are doing some tugging of their own—they’re in a tug-of-war, and one of them has threatened to let go of the rope if it doesn’t get its way by Nov. 1.

Butte Humane Society and the city of Chico have sparred for months—politely, at least in public—over who will operate sheltering services at the facility. BHS has done so for 19 years and continues to do so, even though its most recent contract expired in June. That was around the time city administrators announced its Animal Control division would take over at the start of 2007.

The parties have met a handful of times over the past few months, with no resolution—and perhaps none on the horizon. The city offered BHS an extension through next June, with the hope the sides can work out their differences and come to a long-term understanding. BHS doesn’t want to play any waiting game—Executive Director Cathy Augros said the humane society would not agree to those terms and wants a stable, five-year contract.

“It doesn’t do us any good to keep going back and forth,” Augros said last week, seated in her close-quarters office at the shelter. “They have to make a decision.”

And she wants it by Nov. 1. “We won’t walk away without making provisions for the animals,” Augros said, but BHS is willing to walk. It considered doing so during the last negotiating impasse, in July 2004, when it gave the city formal notice that it would vacate the shelter if a contract were not in place by a set date.

BHS has vocal supporters. A standing-room-only crowd of volunteers and concerned citizens packed City Council chambers last month for a public meeting called by BHS. Councilman Larry Wahl drew cheers when he said, “The city has not determined that we will take over operations"—the council hadn’t voted on such a move, and still hasn’t.

Indeed, Assistant City Manager David Burkland says, input from councilmembers along with “public discourse” and discussions with the BHS board led administrators to step back from the takeover announcement.

If the partnership splits, however, Animal Control is prepared to move into the facility. In fact, the officers say they are ready and willing. They have some serious complaints about shelter operations that surely add to the passions and tensions at Fair Street.

When you walk into the Butte Humane Society office on an average afternoon, you can expect to see cats in cages on either side of the door, dogs on leashes behind the lobby counter, some people looking for lost pets and others trying to adopt new ones.

The sound of meows and barks is somewhat muted in the lobby, though that changes as soon as you open the far door and turn right into the adoptable-dogs wing. And the smell—well, it too gets stronger the farther in you go.

A recent walk-through revealed a cat running loose in the sick-cat room and a dirty litter box in the laundry room. There were kittens—so many in a cage that some had to lie in the litter box—with gunk stuck in the corners of their eyes and food caked on their little noses.

Space is at such a premium at the Fair Street shelter that a number of dogs stay in metal-roofed pens on the property.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

The Fair Street shelter, which was built in the ‘80s, is not large enough to accommodate the 200-some animals that call it home each day.

That is one of the biggest challenges Augros and her staff must work around—and one of the biggest reasons BHS is concerned about the prospect of sharing the space with a second agency. That is what will happen if Animal Control assumes the city’s sheltering obligation and BHS remains in charge of adoptions.

“There is only so much room here,” Augros said, noting that “we do a lot of juggling” to find space for new arrivals while sticking to the BHS commitment to keep any healthy, nonaggressive animal until it gets adopted.

She fears losing that flexibility if Animal Control comes in and divides the space along a hard and fast line.

That’s something Chico Police Capt. John Rucker, who oversees Animal Control, said would not necessarily happen. “Our whole intent is to work cooperatively with them for what’s best for the animals,” Rucker said.

As things stand now, Animal Control is responsible for bringing in animals and monitoring the quarantine area; BHS discharges the rest of the city’s legal obligation for sheltering strays.

Burkland acknowledged the city has received complaints about the shelter, though he did not relay hard numbers or fine details, just overarching concerns. Wahl, after the public meeting, mentioned “some discussion points” on which he did not care to elaborate. Augros said the city had not provided BHS with specific complaints—"There have been a number of vague allegations, but nothing we can work on. It’s pretty tough to fix what you don’t know.”

Animal Control has concrete concerns, however, shared with CN&R by Rucker, Wintroath and Animal Control Officer Charlene Durkin.

Highest on the list was organization and record-keeping. They told stories about cats not being vaccinated, microchipped animals not being found in BHS records and failure to administer medication to sick animals.

“Their record-keeping is horrible,” Durkin said. “I’ve never seen any kind of organized business run this way.”

In April, Durkin said, she brought in a dog that had a severe leg injury that required both antibiotics and pain medication. She explained the situation to BHS staff. Five days later, she said, “I counted the pills. I was concerned because the shelter has a history of not giving dogs their medication.”

By her count, no pills had been administered. She talked to a staff member who gave the dog its pills. A few days later, Durkin checked in and found that once again the dog was not getting its medicine. She talked to another staff member about it, explaining that the dog really needed its medication.

Twelve days after the dog had been brought in, Durkin and Wintroath picked it up to bring it back to the vet.

“You could smell the infection,” Durkin said. It had gangrene. “This was worse than a deer carcass I had picked up a few days before.”

Animal Control Officer Charlene Durkin says her division of the Chico Police Department is responsible for bringing in about half of all the animals taken in by the Butte Humane Society. Private citizens bring in the other half.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Wintroath later checked the dog’s record on the BHS computer, which said it had been adopted out a few days earlier. Obviously that was not the case. Wintroath’s guess is that it had been confused with a similar-looking dog.

After receiving further treatment, the injured dog was adopted out through a rescue group. Durkin said she had been afraid to bring it back to the shelter.

Augros said the only explanation for this is that Animal Control does not leave instructions when it drops off sick animals. “They just put the medicine on the counter and leave,” she said.

That’s not how Animal Control described it—and these differing accounts speak to a communication gap between BHS and city employees.

Tracy Mohr, a previous executive director of BHS and also a former Animal Control officer, said she never had a problem with Animal Control alerting humane society staff about an animal with special needs.

“The humane society and Animal Control are both here for the animals,” Mohr said. “Unfortunately, it’s become an us-against-them situation.”

Augros also said that tensions are high between the two groups.

“We’ve had very serious problems with the Animal Control officers,” Augros said without elaborating. “For them to be making complaints against us would be comical if it weren’t so serious.”

City administrators, for their part, are seeking to get a better handle on the situation. That was the impetus for the July 26 press release in which City Manager Greg Jones announced the city “will assume overall operation” and “will attempt to continue the outstanding work of the humane society in attempting to place all stray and abandoned animals in homes, and hopes the long-term relationship with Butte Humane Society continues.”

A less conciliatory Aug. 8 memo from Jones to the City Council states, in part, that city staff “has lost all confidence in shelter management over the past several years for several reasons, including poor financial accounting, customer complaints, poor facility maintenance and overall distrust of the executive director.”

Now, the city is taking the softer stance—willing to work with BHS but insistent on greater oversight.

“What we want to do is move forward and find ways to improve performance,” Burkland said. “I think both sides agree we can communicate a lot better…. This whole thing has allowed us [the city] to focus on some of the issues we’re concerned with and for both agencies to put something together to better serve the public and animals.”

The city’s first concern is accountability. Burkland said the city—"to help us understand the overall cost … and where mandatory holding fits in"—asked for certain records that BHS could not provide. Without them, the city was unable to complete a conclusive audit.

Augros and BHS Treasurer Donna Heller take exception to the criticism of the organization’s accounting. “The city never requested our records,” Augros said, and for the city to say that its audit was inconclusive “has a negative connotation.”

Butte Humane Society employees Michelle Joyce and Jared Starbard administer a vaccine to a kitten before it’s taken to its new adopted home.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Heller has protested to the City Council, saying in a letter that BHS complied with a request last October for a financial statement. In addition, she wrote, specific animal statistics the city requested “would have required many staff hours to be presented in the format they wanted” and were part of the database submitted monthly to Animal Control.

The second concern is management practices—"both ways,” Burkland said, “their management of the shelter and our management of the contract for the city’s obligation.”

Third is record-keeping, which both Burkland and Augros say would improve with the city-funded purchase of a shelter-management software program called Chameleon. The shelter currently uses a program that has crashed several times, once so seriously that Rucker came in during his off hours to work on the database.

Fourth is cost—i.e. what the city gets for its money. The Butte County Grand Jury focused on shelter expenses in its 2005-06 report. Over the summer, the city studied other shelters in Northern California and found BHS’s fee to be in the ballpark. Actually, Augros said, “we’re on the low end, and the other shelters surveyed have a lot more employees.” BHS has 12 full-timers; many shelters in communities of Chico’s size have 18 to 20.

“It’s a space thing,” Augros said.

Space—so many issues at the Chico shelter seem to boil down to having so many animals and people packed into a 4,500-square-foot structure on a 1.8-acre lot.

The Fair Street facility has about 40 kennels, including some free-standing exterior pens. The Grand Jury observed that “the ventilation system, as well as the drainage system for cleaning the kennels, is in need of updating or replacement. The interior was dark, damp and cramped, which creates an environment that can harbor disease.”

Animals are supposed to be vaccinated upon arrival at the shelter. Unless it comes in with a vaccine record (typical when a person surrenders a pet) or is sick, every animal does get vaccinated, Augros said. Animal Control officers expressed some doubts.

“Our perception is that a lot of animals aren’t getting vaccinated,” Wintroath said, because “sometimes animals come down with illnesses that, had they been vaccinated, they wouldn’t have come down with.”

One of those illnesses is parvovirus, which is serious and sometimes fatal in dogs. Wintroath said Animal Control had no count on the number of dogs adopted out with parvo, but that she had been in the shelter when dogs had been returned because they were sick or BHS staff received a call from an adopter saying a dog had gotten parvo.

“It’s terrible to bring an animal over there and worry that it’s going to get sick,” Durkin said. “You think, ‘I hope you don’t get parvo, little guy.’ “

Augros said that, because there’s an incubation period for parvo, it’s likely that those dogs already had the illness before they were admitted to the shelter.

“If an animal is in its incubation period, then we have no way of knowing that,” she said. “If an animal is exhibiting symptoms of parvo, then we test it for parvo.”

With respect to cats, Durkin and Wintroath expressed concern about upper-respiratory illnesses. They said the proximity of the cages to one another, the lack of cleanliness and the unwillingness to euthanize infected animals before they get sick are factors.

The Paradise Animal Shelter got praised in the Butte County Grand Jury report for its cleanliness.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

“Upper respiratory is always a problem in shelters, but it’s much more prevalent here than in other places because the cats are left free to breathe the same air,” Wintroath said.

The wire cages are difficult to keep clean because every little cross-hatch is another place for bacteria to linger, Durkin said. She explained that often kennel staff will drape a blanket over a cage containing a sick animal, to minimize exposing its germs to healthy animals. But those blankets aren’t cleaned from one animal to the next, she said.

Kennel staff oversee the cleaning of the facility, Augros said. Court and Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program workers also come in daily to help out, under the kennel staff’s supervision.

What will happen, Durkin said—usually during “cat season,” when lots of cats give birth—is one kitten in a litter will get sick and die. A day or two later another from the litter will die. And a week later another will die. At that point, the BHS will decide to euthanize the rest of the litter.

“But by that time, they’ve infected all the other cats,” she said. Good policy would be to euthanize them all after the first kitten’s death for the greater good of the rest of the shelter’s cat population.

“We love animals. We don’t want to put animals to sleep,” Durkin explained. “We would never put an adoptable animal to sleep. But if the city were to run the shelter it would be much more organized.”

Elsewhere in Butte County, shelter environments are brighter. Oroville has a new facility that began operating last week, with a grand opening set for Friday (Sept. 15). And the Paradise Animal Shelter, run by the Police Department with the assistance of volunteers, drew praise from the Grand Jury. The front office is tidy—no animals in here—and the area with cages has only a mild odor.

“We scrub it inside and out every single day,” Animal Control Supervisor Bev Gebbia said during a recent visit. “If people come in and don’t smell a dirty shelter, it makes it seem like a better place to adopt an animal.”

BHS is eyeing improvements, too. The organization has bought 20 acres off Highway 99 north of Chico and plans to build its own shelter. At that point, Chico could have a two-pronged approach to animal control that works well in many other communities: The city runs its own shelter, and the Humane Society runs its adoption program out of its own facility.

That is not an imminent option in Chico. Approval from the county (the site is outside city limits) will take about nine months. BHS will need about two years for fundraising. Factor in construction, and we’re talking at least three years.

That is why, at least for now, Augros hopes to work with the city. “It’s easier for both parties to continue until there is a better place for animals,” she said.

And, despite the tensions and turmoil, she is willing to do so. “I can’t say I’m OK with it,” she noted, referring to the criticism directed toward her, “but it’s not going to keep me from working with them.”

The lack of a long-term contract will, though. The months of negotiations with the city—sporadic as they may be—have taken a large chunk of her time and affected her ability to work on strategic planning, such as the capital campaign for the new facility.

Thus comes the Nov. 1 deadline. If a contract is not in place by then, BHS plans to leave Dec. 31, meaning the city would indeed take over Jan. 1. Augros said her organization is in the process of locating a temporary relocation place.

Both Jones and Burkland remain optimistic the city and BHS will come to terms. This raises a logical question: If the city has so many issues with shelter management, why are administrators willing to continue the relationship?

“It’s a matter of being clear about expectations and taking our responsibility seriously,” Jones said. “Anybody who manages a facility has things happen. We just need to be notified immediately and be part of the solution.”

The sides are scheduled to meet again Wednesday (Sept. 20), when the city plans to clarify those expectations. As of now, the City Council does not have a shelter proposal on the agenda, so resolution is not imminent.

So the tug-of-war continues. Whether the sides drop the line or dig in deeper remains to be seen. One thing is certain: Both have gotten their share of rope burn.