In the dog pound

How well is the city running its share of the animal shelter?

photo by Tom Gascoyne

Slightly more than a year ago, in June 2011, the city of Chico announced it was taking back certain operations at the Butte Humane Society animal shelter after more than 25 years. Then-Police Chief Mike Maloney told the City Council the change was a mutual agreement that would have the city running the animal intake while the BHS would still be responsible for marketing, adoptions and the newly built spay-and-neuter clinic.

This would come with no increased costs to the city and an improvement in how the lost, stray and unwanted dogs and cats were treated and adopted out.

But since then the city’s plan and its implementation have been ridiculed for financial naïveté that has led to overspending, animal neglect, and even the brokering of a deal with the devil in which innocent animals are euthanized because there is more money to be gained selling their carcasses to a rendering plant than collecting adoption fees from excited new pet owners.

Is any of this true? We decided to take a look, beginning with the financial issues.

The city takeover of the animal shelter was scheduled to go into effect on Feb. 1 of this year. At a Nov. 15, 2011, meeting Maloney said his department could run the shelter without additional revenues for the first few months, but more might be needed after that.

This angered Councilmen Bob Evans and Mark Sorensen, who accused the chief of misleading them when the idea was first presented earlier in the year. The councilmen said they’d been told the takeover would not cost the city one extra dime, but now they were being told something quite different,

Maloney explained that after working with Human Relations to create job descriptions and set salaries, the projected costs changed.

The turnover called for seven full-time and four part-time city employees to join three people who already worked in Animal Control, which was operated by the Police Department. The contracts for the new positions were limited to two years to allow the city to let people go if it turned out they weren’t needed.

The plan created a new service branch under the supervision of Capt. Lori McPhail and headed by Animal Services Manager Tracy Mohr, who oversees a registered veterinary technician, an Animal Control supervisor, an animal care technician, two Animal Control officers and four animal-care attendants.

Savings would be realized through the use of volunteers, Maloney said. The plan moved forward, with Evans and Sorensen voting against it.

photo by tom gascoyne

It’s been more than five months since the city’s takeover. And, indeed, operating the shelter has cost the city more than was anticipated a year ago. The Police Department had estimated that through the first five months the city would save $127,490 by not funding BHS $102,490 for half a year combined with the projected revenue of $25,000 from impound fees (the cost for bailing out wayward pets), spay-and-neuter fees (if said pet is not fixed when apprehended) and the costs of feeding and caring for the furry inmate.

But in the end the city spent $165,342 to run the intake operations, $37,852 more than anticipated. At its most recent meeting, on July 3, the City Council adopted a budget for this year that includes $513,694 to cover the city’s shelter services. Taking away the $347,697 the city would have given BHS for the same services and the expected $70,000 in revenue, the additional cost to the city for the 2012-13 fiscal year will be $95,997.

In other words, the first year and a half of running the shelter intake has cost the city about $134,000 more than if the change in operations had not been made.

Not surprisingly, that has triggered criticism from fiscal conservatives like Sorensen and Evans in these tough budgetary times. They question the appropriateness of the city’s takeover, given the increased costs.

“It wasn’t a matter of saving money,” said McPhail, during a recent tour of the shelter. “It had come to a point where BHS felt they could focus on their mission of adopting animals and educating the public, and the city could focus on its mission and statutory [i.e., legal] obligation of taking in strays and surrenders and running an animal shelter. That’s why the change came about. It was never intended to save money.”

She said there was a misunderstanding on the part of some members of the council.

“It’s been more than 25 years since Animal Control ran the shelter, and at that time the city was small. So we needed to create positions and hire a manager because this is not the same place it was 25, 30 years ago. That’s why there was misunderstanding when Chief Maloney made that presentation. It had been months since [the council] had last heard about it, and it just wasn’t clear.”

Jennifer Hennessy, the city’s finance director, echoed McPhail’s take on what happened.

“One year ago they were hoping to keep it cost-neutral for the 2011-12 fiscal year,” she said. “But as they got into it more they realized that, with the needs that were there, it was just not feasible to be cost-neutral.”

The change has also led to condemnation from local animal lovers and former shelter supporters, who charge, among other things, that under the city’s direction more animals than ever are being euthanized because they are not receiving proper medical evaluations and care, including vaccinations when they are brought in.

Two months into the takeover, three active and concerned local animal advocates, who asked to remain anonymous, contacted the CN&R with a number of observations and questions. This is not surprising. Animal lovers tend to be passionate about such things.

photo by tom gascoyne

They noted the city had not yet established a Web page for lost pets, forcing owners with missing animals to come to the shelter to look for their wayward companions.

“Why is the city making it more difficult for owners and lost pets to reunite?” they asked. “Without a website owners must make numerous trips to the shelter to see whether their pet has been brought in on the most recent truck.”

In fact, Chico Animal Services (CAS), as the operation is now called, just began publishing such a site. It currently features the heart-wrenching photos of 50 in-shelter strays. To see it go to and click on the “Stray Animals” link.

Another accusation questions the health care, or lack of it, that the city is providing: “The CAS doesn’t do any testing or treatment of strays, so sickness is rampant, especially highly contagious upper-respiratory viruses. The allegation that CAS does not vaccinate is likely to be true but still unconfirmed. BHS chooses animals it wants transferred from CAS to its system for adoption. What becomes of the ‘not chosen’ is not known.”

Tracy Mohr, the animal services manager, said two types of medical treatment are offered to incoming animals.

“One would be first aid if it’s something we can handle in house because we do have a registered vet tech on staff,” she said. “And anything that is an emergency we can provide emergency treatment.”

More serious health problems, such as an animal hit by a car, are treated at local veterinary hospitals, she said.

“And then [the animal] would come here afterward, and after a stray period we would then offer the animal to the Humane Society. They can either accept or decline. If they accept they would be responsible for whatever additional care is needed.”

What if they don’t?

“It depends on the animal,” she said. “There are actually a couple of animals in this [intake] room that BHS has declined. So if we feel these animals do not need to be euthanized, we put them up for adoption.”

What about vaccinations? The animal advocates who’ve lodged complaints say: “The city won’t vaccinate, and BHS can’t take unclaimed, unvaccinated dogs into their area for adoption because they don’t have space to segregate them. What becomes of lost pets whose vaccination status is unknown?”

The new 38-kennel dog run facility should help ease over-crowding.

Photo by photo by tom gascoyne

Mohr, who has a long history of animal-shelter work beginning in New Jersey, said the charge is unfounded.

“We vaccinate upon entry. Generally we vaccinate every animal except those that have [rabies] tags. But otherwise, everyone that comes in gets vaccinated unless they are obviously ill.”

She said the animals are also treated for fleas and wormed.

“If they are puppies or kittens we weigh them, do a full health evaluation to see if there are any medical issues that we need to be aware of or keep an eye on that may need immediate attention. We check their overall appearance, their teeth, their skin, and try to estimate their age so we get a really good picture of the animals as they come in. That information goes into their permanent files that we keep here until they are either transferred over, adopted out by us or go home.”

The fact that the city, alongside the BHS, has animals up for adoption is not an indication that something is wrong, McPhail said.

“It is not an exclusive contract that says only the Humane Society adopts animals,” she explained. “The contract clearly says that because it takes so much time and energy and space and staff to care for these animals, sometimes it’s appropriate that the city does the direct adoptions.”

Mohr said the city’s role in direct adoptions is simply a reality of the situation.

“It is not our main focus,” she said. “We just don’t have the time and resources to concentrate on adoptions, but occasionally we will have some animals available.”

According to the statistics from February, the month when the city first took over, 114 dogs and 45 cats came into the shelter. Of those, 61 dogs were returned to their owners, 34 were turned over to BHS and nine were euthanized. For the cats, only five were returned to their owners, 19 were picked up by BHS and 21 were put down.

In May, 129 dogs came in, with 55 getting returned to their owners, 52 turned over to BHS and 14 euthanized. (One dog escaped the shelter.) For the felines, 200 came in—it’s cat season, Mohr said, when unsprayed mothers are having litters—and of those four were returned to their owners, 99 were accepted by BHS and 52 were euthanized.

BHS statistics show that overall it took in 178 animals in May, and of those 117 were adopted and only 2.26 percent of the total population was euthanized. June was similar with 200 intakes, 154 adoptions and 2.8 percent euthanized.

photo by tom gascoyne

In the 2009-10 fiscal year the shelter took in 4,791 animals, adopted 1,934 and euthanized 1,491. Based on the first four months since the city took over, the numbers for a whole year would show 3,129 animals taken in, 1,260 turned over to BHS for adoption, 36 adopted out by the city and 639 euthanized.

There is another concern voiced by the animal advocates, which if true, would make killing the animals more attractive. “The city sells the carcasses of euthanized pets to a rendering plant,” they claim. “Is it a case of the pets being worth more dead than alive?”

Mohr shuddered at that accusation.

“We contract with a Sacramento company called Koefran that specifically provides animal cremation,” she said. “We have to pay them to pick up the animals.”

The company website includes this introduction: “That special relationship between people and their pets defies explanation. When a pet dies a trusting companion is lost. It is during this time of grief that pet owners are called upon to make final arrangements for their beloved animal friend.”

Mohr said she was meeting with a Koefran representative to set a program for individual cremation so that owners can get their pets’ ashes returned.

For years the BHS tried to get the city to move the shelter to a new location, citing its low profile at 2579 Fair St., south of East Park Avenue and hidden in an industrial park. And the facility itself is nearly 60 years old, long has needed upgrading and was becoming very crowded. But the city owns the building and property and was reluctant to move the shelter elsewhere.

Illustration by Tina Flynn

In the last two years, the Humane Society has opened a low-cost spay-and-neuter clinic nearby, at 579 Country Drive, where the adoptable cats are now housed. The shelter itself has gone through some interior upgrades, and a new, 38-run dog kennel is currently under construction, replacing outdoor dog cages.

The kennel, a prefabricated metal building with heating and cooling, should ease some of the overcrowding.

A press release issued April 25 when ground was broken on the new facility said the runs “are designed so that dogs won’t face each other across the aisle. This will help reduce stress, disease transmission, and barking.”

McPhail said the improvements at the site were much needed.

“It was becoming very difficult for BHS to keep up the demands of the facility itself,” she said. “So our facility manager, Kim Parks, came in, and we did an assessment. He came in here with me to figure out, what do we have to do to get this thing shipshape?”

Those efforts, she said, included cleaning, a new floor and baseboards, a new roof and heating and air-conditioning system. There was also a purge of the rodent infestation that lived off the shelter scraps.

McPhail said she understands the public’s fears and concerns about the shelter. She said they received many calls earlier this year when the Hayden Bill was under threat of suspension by Gov. Jerry Brown as a cost-saving measure. The bill, authored by former state Sen. Tom Hayden, regulates the state’s animal shelters, including the number of days a stray must be held—five—before it’s euthanized.

“We got calls when that hit media earlier this year, about the time the city was taking over,” she said. “There really was this kind of fear out there. But anybody who’s come in here and taken the time to see what is happening or talk to staff, Tracy particularly, understands. She knows the history. She’s been in this business more than 30 years. She understands the shelter, working with rescues and the legalities of what government codes require.”