A New Age for Sheltering in Oakland 

Rebecca Katz, Oakland Animal Services' new director, hopes to overhaul the agency and curb unnecessary deaths — and she's partnering with vocal city critics to make it happen.

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When Maria Steelman first launched No Kill Oakland last year as an informal animal advocacy group, the goal was to pressure the city to reform its shelter policies. For years, animal rights advocates alleged that Oakland Animal Services (OAS), when it was under the control of the Oakland Police Department and was plagued by chronic understaffing, had been killing adoptable dogs and cats. For months, Steelman and other No Kill advocates crowded public meetings and argued that the shelter could save many of these animals if it had more resources and more progressive practices.

But because the group has a "No Kill" name — a controversial label that activists across the country have used when pushing shelters to stop killing animals — city officials often dismissed the advocates' perspective altogether, said Steelman, a Grand Lake district resident. "We were laughed at," she said. "When people hear 'no kill,' they think you are an unrealistic animal extremist. ... It shut down a lot of people."

In reality, she said, the message of the group was simple: The shelter should only euthanize animals when they are untreatably ill and suffering or truly too dangerous to be adopted. All other pets should find new homes. It's also a philosophy that aligns with the broad goals of Rebecca Katz, OAS' new director as of November. And in an effort to dramatically reform the scandal-scarred agency, Katz is now partnering with longtime critics of the shelter, including Steelman.

This month, Steelman and other No Kill Oakland advocates launched a nonprofit organization called People, Animals, Love and Support (PALS) East Bay that is collaborating with Katz to mobilize volunteers and save animals from unnecessary death sentences. "We're all working together now," said Steelman, who recently fostered four dogs from OAS. "Rebecca welcomes anybody who's got a good idea ... and people who advocate for 'no kill' shelters are not excluded."

With Katz in charge of OAS and the No Kill Oakland members expanding the scope of their work, animal activists in the East Bay say that, for the first time in years, they are cautiously optimistic about the shelter's future. The city also recently completed the process of moving OAS out of the police department and establishing it as a standalone agency — a restructuring that advocates hope will enable Katz to implement critical reforms.

Katz previously served as the director of San Francisco's Department of Animal Care and Control, but left last summer after she clashed with her supervisors about the resources the city was devoting to her department. Before Katz's arrival, OAS had been without a director since its longtime leader Megan Webb departed in early 2013, forcing the city to rely on interim police lieutenants to oversee operations. The shelter has also had ongoing vacancies in a wide range of other critical positions — including animal control officers, veterinarians, and managers.

"I really want to get this agency to a place where people feel that we're a resource for the community — for the animals and for people who care about animals," Katz said during a recent interview at the East Oakland shelter. In the short term, she said she hopes to beef up staffing, increase adoptions, and complete basic facility upgrades (such as installing a new ventilation system). She plans to appoint a shelter manager, hire consultants to conduct dog behavior assessments and training services, expand veterinary hours, and turn some of the part-time animal control attendant positions into full-time roles. On my visit to the shelter, I saw Katz field an employee's seemingly minor question about a specific cat — a situation that she said illustrated OAS' need for management staffing.

Katz said she also wants to substantially increase OAS' hours; currently, it's only open to the public from 4–7 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, 2–4 p.m. on Fridays, and 12–5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Expanded shelter hours, new adoption campaigns, and a better system for spaying and neutering dogs and cats will all help OAS more efficiently find new homes for its animals, Katz said.

In order to enact these changes, OAS needs more funding, and Katz said she is prepared to urge city leaders to increase the shelter's budget. Though the shelter's current financial situation is fairly convoluted (because some of the funding still falls under OPD's budget), Katz estimated that OAS currently receives roughly $2 million annually — and that she could accomplish her short-term staffing and capital improvement goals if that allocation were to rise to roughly $3.5 or $4 million.

Increased funding and staffing — along with new partnerships with groups like PALS East Bay — could also go a long way in reducing euthanasia at OAS, advocates said. The open-door shelter doesn't turn away any animals, taking in roughly 6,000 total a year. From 2009 to 2013, OAS annually euthanized between 37 and 45 percent of the total dogs and cats it took in. Last year before Katz's arrival, OAS volunteers and No Kill Oakland advocates accused the shelter of aggressively and recklessly killing adoptable dogs, including pets that outside rescue groups had already agreed to foster (see "Oakland Is Killing Adoptable Dogs," 10/15/14).

Katz said she is working to establish an improved process for assessing the behavior of dogs — one that relies on expert opinions and evaluations. Last year, advocates argued that animal control officers were incorrectly labeling dogs as aggressive, based on inadequate reviews of potential behavior problems, and subsequently euthanizing them with little oversight.

"Before, you had shelter staff who maybe didn't have any formal training in understanding behavior," said Nicole Perelman, a PALS East Bay board member and OAS volunteer. Last year, Perelman filed a formal complaint related to the shelter's euthanasia practices. Now, she is working directly with Katz and has already helped her do outreach and public relations for two targeted adoption campaigns. "There's a new energy for a lot of the volunteers at the shelter."

Under Katz's direction, San Francisco had been a leader in the country for low-euthanasia rates. During her time running the agency from 2008 to 2014, the annual kill rate for dogs and cats fluctuated between 11 and 17 percent. In December, Katz's first full month on the job in Oakland, 13 percent of OAS dogs and cats were euthanized.

"That's almost nine out of every ten dogs and cats getting out alive — a vast improvement from how it used to be," said Nathan Winograd, executive director of the No Kill Advocacy Center, an Oakland-based group. While a single month's numbers are not statistically meaningful, Winograd said he hopes that Katz will lead OAS to exceed San Francisco in adoptions. Winograd, who coined the so-called "no kill equation" term, sometimes clashed with Katz in San Francisco and argued that her euthanasia rates should have been even lower than they were. "I truly hope that a year from now she is the head of an agency that is saving 95 percent of the animals or more."

The concept behind Winograd's "no kill equation" — which Steelman of No Kill Oakland also promotes — is that shelters can save a large majority of the animals they receive if they have in place comprehensive foster and adoption programs, strong partnerships with rescue groups, reliable medical and behavior programs, cheap or free spay-and-neuter services, and effective community outreach.

Many shelters and animal nonprofits, however, don't support the "no kill" message, in part because they say it's a confusing misnomer, given that all shelters ultimately must euthanize dangerous and sick pets.

Allison Lindquist, president and CEO of the East Bay Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), also cautioned against the "no kill" concept, because, she said, it can encourage shelters to avoid taking the toughest animals or result in facilities becoming overcrowded with very ill animals. "We want to make sure we are not euthanizing adoptable animals," she said, but noted that for some suffering pets, "there are fates that are worse than death."

Regardless, Lindquist said she is confident that Katz can reduce euthanasia rates at the shelter — so long as the city properly funds it.

Katz also said that "no kill" is not a label she would use, but added that she and Steelman share the same principles and that she hopes to eventually have 90 percent or more of the animals moving out of OAS alive. "To me, it's not about words or numbers. It's about saving every life we can save," said Katz.

PALS plans to help OAS in this mission by assisting with fosters, dog training, marketing, event planning, and education initiatives, said Steelman. The volunteer-run nonprofit also hopes to focus on owner retention, meaning helping families who may be considering abandoning their pets at OAS by connecting them to resources to address their problems and keep their animals.

"With the 'no kill equation,' the spirit is to do everything you would do with your own pet," Steelman said. "Do everything you can to help that animal feel well and find a good home."

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