When Nuno and Gretchen Ferreira visited Oakland Animal Services in mid-May to adopt a kid- and cat-friendly dog, they never expected to end up with a pit bull. But Rayna was almost as warm and friendly as any yellow Lab could have been, Nuno Ferreira said, and he and his wife adopted the dog, changed her name to Silver, and welcomed her into their Oakland home.
Though Silver was "super docile and very sweet" with the Ferreiras' two kids, she showed a strong "prey drive" toward the two family cats, Ferreira said. So after only a week, the family, reluctant to deliver the pit bull back to the very facility from which they had rescued her, posted a Craigslist ad, seeking a better home for the dog. But the shelter's animal care coordinator, Martha Cline, heard about the ad and sent the Ferreiras an e-mail, encouraging them to return Rayna to Oakland Animal Services. "We told her flatly that if there is any chance [Rayna] would be put down we would find someone to adopt her on our own," Ferreira said.
But Cline talked them into bringing the pit bull back, which they did on a Friday. By Monday, Rayna was dead, injected with a lethal dose of pentobarbital sodium. She had become just another statistic in the kill records of Oakland Animal Services.
Ferreira and his wife learned of Rayna's death several days after it happened. "We were floored," he said. "They didn't even try to adopt her again. They just killed her."
Rayna's death is hardly an exceptional case. Four out of every ten dogs that enter the premises of Oakland Animal Services leave again lifeless. The rate, among the highest of Bay Area shelters, amounts to several animals every day.
Former volunteer Ian Elwood recalls regularly seeing dead dogs laid out in rolling pushcarts outside the rear entryway as he entered and exited the shelter for his shifts in the rabbit ward. "It's like they had no space for all the bodies," said Elwood, an Oakland resident who quit volunteering in August 2009. "And it was happening with enough frequency that it began to freak me out."
Oakland Animal Services euthanized 1,023 animals between January 1 and May 28 of this year — 38 percent of the animals that passed through the premises, according to Elwood, who crunched the shelter's euthanasia records after obtaining them through a public records request. In 2009, 37 percent of animals that saw the inside of the shelter wound up in the euthanasia room. According to Megan Webb, the director of Oakland Animal Services, the shelter euthanizes about 25 percent of all cats that pass through the premises and approximately 40 percent of all dogs.
Such kill rates are lower than the 50-percent average among shelters statewide and are much lower than the worst of the nation's animal shelters. However, Oakland Animal Services' euthanasia rate is higher than those of many big-city shelters in California and is about four times higher than that of its neighbor public shelter in Berkeley.
Some animal rights activists say Oakland Animal Services, a division of the Oakland Police Department, could be doing a much better job. "Any shelter that does all it can to save its animals will save at least 90 percent of them," said Nathan Winograd, the director of the Oakland nonprofit No Kill Advocacy Center. "And if a shelter is saving only 60 percent of its dogs, then it is definitely killing animals that could be saved. There's no doubt about it."
However, social demographics and economics appear to play a role in why Oakland's kill rate is higher than other Bay Area shelters. Oakland backyards, for example, are populated by far more abused and unmanageable pit bulls than properties in Berkeley. And Webb, who became the Oakland shelter's director in April, 2009, insists that its unique challenges keep the shelter from having lower euthanasia rates.
Economic hardships have played a role in canine overpopulation in the East Bay, she said. Dog breeding — often of large breeds like pit bulls and German shepherds — is popular in Oakland and has increased with the decline of the economy, she said. "People are trying to breed dogs for money," she said. "They know they can get $300 for a puppy."
Such endeavors fail as often as not, however, leaving Oakland Animal Services to rescue the litters, often of abused, neglected, and behaviorally damaged dogs. "We are at 100 percent capacity all the time," Webb said. "There are days when we receive 35 or 40 animals, and I have to make sure that we're moving them through. I'd like to not euthanize any animals, but I won't have them suffer, and I won't put dangerous animals into the community."
Just a decade ago, Oakland Animal Services faced a vastly different situation than it does today. Webb said that all the small dogs and puppies, for example, were housed in a single room of twenty cages. But today, small dogs have nearly overrun the facility, filling up a warren of rooms throughout the shelter.
What happened? Webb suspects that it's a matter of bad timing. The economic crash arrived when owning a little brown dog had never been so trendy. And so an increasing number of people abandoned their animals when they realized they could no longer afford to care for them. The number of unwanted pit bulls and other big dogs is on the rise, too, she said.
Visitors to the shelter's front lobby find dozens of dogs and cats in small rooms behind glass. These animals have been temperament-tested and deemed suitable and safe for adoption. Of the adoptable dogs, the "fluffies" go the fastest. It's "the ubiquitous brown Chihuahuas" that have overwhelmed the place and may remain unclaimed for months, Webb said.
Sometimes, rescue groups take them in. Just last week the Solano County SPCA came and went from Oakland Animal Services with 36 unwanted little dogs. Pit bulls, too, are undeniably a problem. "Once we were known as 'Pit Bull Central' and so people thought that's all we had and didn't even bother coming here to adopt," Webb said.
Deeper within the walls of the shelter are the things most visitors don't see — rooms full of caged dogs deemed dangerous, dogs newly abandoned, dogs that have been caged for months, and abused dogs whose owners are embroiled in court cases to get their pets back. Some dogs whine eagerly for attention from staff. Others bare their teeth and lunge at their cage doors. These dogs may be accustomed to abuse and perhaps no strangers to the brutality of fighting rings.
The gravest fate of all awaits unlucky animals at the end of a long, cement-walled, light-blue hallway. The sound of dogs barking reverberates throughout the shelter, but in the euthanasia chamber all is quiet. The room is compact and bare — but for a mural of trees on the wall and a steel table where thousands of animals have closed their eyes for the last time.
The space accommodates just one person and one animal at a time — a relatively "intimate" scenario by design, Webb said, and a change from a previous arrangement that she has abandoned: a multi-chambered ward that once was stacked with occupied cages, containing dozens of frantic dogs, cats, and roosters doomed to die.
Euthanized animals are frozen, but not before staff allow the bodies to cool. Placing warm dogs and cats in the freezer, Webb said, feels too eerily much like shutting away living, breathing animals. Once it happened, she said, when a cat thought to be dead awoke and began shrieking in the cold. Today, the animals are placed temporarily outside the euthanasia chamber after their hearts stop — the corpses that Ian Elwood used to see as he arrived for his shifts in the rabbit ward.
Among the many rooms containing animals, the rabbit ward, otherwise known as the vegetarian animal department, is the most encouraging place in the shelter. The room smells of alfalfa, rather than urine and chemicals, and the animals are quiet and benign, hopping and wrinkling their noses in contemplation of the air around them. Only the fighting cocks, the odd goose, and the occasional goat raise any ruckus. There are no animals here capable of killing a human.
The nighttime drop boxes, by contrast, are usually full of unwanted pets, some of them dangerous, when the shelter opens each day. One dog that appeared overnight last week was an example of astonishing pet neglect. Its hair was matted, caked, and knotted almost as tightly as a cocoon. The filthy, shaggy, fifteen-pound poodle mix could barely walk, and could perhaps only see colors and shapes. It may have spent years alone in a dusty backyard.
Inside Webb's office was a blind American bulldog-pit bull mix, a warm and eager animal that bumped his head into walls and chairs as he hurried toward the sounds of people. His name is Kemo, and he's up for adoption. Chances that such a family-friendly animal will see the walls of the euthanasia room are very slight. Then again, the shelter is inundated with pit bulls, and Oakland residents are breeding more of them.
Some former volunteers of Oakland Animal Services question Webb's management of the facility and allege that too many dogs are being put to death needlessly. One Oakland resident, who formerly volunteered in the shelter's big dog ward, said that Rayna, the Ferreiras' pit bull that was euthanized after returning to the shelter, was just one example.
Another, a pit bull and a staff favorite named Marci, who had lived at the shelter for six months, was euthanized on May 14. "There was no reason," said the ex-volunteer, who agreed to talk on condition of anonymity. "She'd just been there too long. There was no effort to get this dog out of the shelter and give her the opportunity she was supposed to be given."
But Webb denies authorizing euthanasia without ample cause for any dogs. She said Rayna was a potentially dangerous animal, which she said she had not realized upon the dog's first entrance into the shelter's adoption program. Only after the Ferreiras mentioned via e-mail that the pit bull had growled at their six-year-old when approached while chewing on a toy did the shelter conduct behavioral tests on the dog. "We tested her and she showed 'people aggression,'" Webb said. "She was not a dog that I could put into the community."
Martha Cline, the animal care coordinator who talked the Ferreiras into returning Rayna, added: "Food-bowl aggression is one thing, but Rayna showed 'resource aggression,' which is dangerous because you never know what object the dog may guard next. It's an extremely difficult issue to work with in a big dog."
Cline is the shelter's rescue coordinator. She spends part of her day exercising and observing dogs for behavioral quirks in an outdoor dog run behind the shelter, just 100 yards west of the elevated BART tracks. This area is ringed by a chain-link fence and paved with cement except for one section covered with wood chips, walled with vines, and designated "Martha's Vineyard" in honor of Cline who works twenty hours a week but volunteers for sixty more, according to Webb.
Inside the building, Cline and Webb's cubicles are side by side. In Cline's dwells a small, friendly dog of the "ubiquitous brown" sort. Its chances of adoption are slight and made far worse by a nasty case of mange which has rendered it mostly bald and blistered.
Webb said that other dogs whose lives end in the euthanasia chamber have simply gone "cage crazy," a condition brought on by many months spent in the kennels, their tedium broken only by daily walks and scheduled interactions with volunteers, staff, and potential adopters. Numerous others are downright dangerous animals, too aggressive even to approach and with histories of abuse and years spent in backyard cages throughout Oakland. "These dogs don't have minor behavior problems," Webb said. "These are dogs that have literally gone insane. These are dogs so aggressive that they can't be handled, and no one else will take them."
Oakland Animal Services is an open-access shelter, meaning it does not pick and choose what animals it will take. The San Francisco SPCA, by contrast, is not open access and it has achieved a rock-bottom, lowest-of-the-low euthanasia rate of just 2 percent. As the manager of one East Bay open-access shelter put it: "Shelters like that cherry-pick the best dogs."
The San Francisco SPCA doesn't rescue dangerously aggressive pit bulls. Nor does it provide nighttime drop-boxes in which up to eight unwanted animals may appear every night, as often occurs at Oakland Animal Services. The shelter can receive dozens of animals every day, Webb said, and while the SPCA is "an important partner of ours," the acclaimed San Francisco nonprofit only takes the good and leaves the bad with Oakland Animal Services. "They come here and look through our dogs and rescue many of them" — but not any that appear to be manic or dangerous, Webb explained.
Webb also argues that "saving" an animal could simply mean incarcerating it in a cage for months or years. "I just don't think that's humane," she said. Marci, the long-term pit bull resident loved by staff and euthanized in May, was such a case, a dog that had spent six months living mostly behind bars. "No one would adopt her," Webb said. Nor would any privately funded groups rescue Marci — not the San Francisco SPCA or any other limited access shelters. "She was going cage crazy," Webb said of Marci. "She wasn't aggressive, but she'd been in the kennel for six months. The volunteers may fall in love with a dog, but I can't have dogs suffering in cages."
Unlike Oakland, the Berkeley Animal Services is a glowingly successful example of an open-access shelter with a low euthanasia rate. It kills no more than 10 percent of the 1,800 dogs and cats that pass through its care each year.
"But we're extremely lucky," said Kate O'Connor, manager of the facility. "It has a lot to do with demographics," she said, explaining that pit bulls ravaged by fighting rings are not a common occurrence in Berkeley. Only "occasionally," O'Connor said, does an abused pit bull or other dangerous dog appear on the premises.
Berkeley Animal Services also receives abundant funding for medical treatment of animals. Close relations with animal rescue organizations also play a positive role. Bad Rap, for example, an Oakland pit bull rescue center, has spent nine years in partnership with the Berkeley shelter, coaching volunteers and potential adopters in properly managing, handling, and rehabilitating pet pit bulls.
The Berkeley shelter also takes great strides to direct animals to fates other than euthanasia. O'Connor said that in ten years she has never put down a healthy, adoptable dog.
However, dogs in the Berkeley shelter also can spend long periods in cages, said O'Connor, who has kept pit bulls in kennels for as long as a year before finally adopting them out. Other breeds are less hardy, she said, and more susceptible to chronic barking habits, spinning in circles, and running up the walls — the symptoms of a cage-crazy dog. Other animals simply lie down, unresponsive, and dispirited. These mentally damaged dogs may wind up in the euthanasia chamber as a matter of mercy.
But O'Connor stresses that her facility's kenneled animals receive a high degree of daily attention from volunteers. By contrast, this wasn't always the case at Oakland Animal Services, according to a former volunteer who asked to remain nameless. During her two years of volunteer work with the shelter's dogs, the woman said she saw some dogs spend a month or more in their cages, "never seeing the light of day," and only leaving their kennels for brief moments while staff cleaned their pens.
Some critics also say that Oakland Animal Services has chronically poor relationships with rescue groups, thus hampering the system of rehabilitating animals and adopting them out. Bad Rap terminated an eighteen-month partnership with Oakland Animal Services this spring. "Our goal was to help Oakland Animal Services' staff and volunteers create new procedures that would improve the quality of life for pit bulls and pit bull mixes in their care since they're the most popular shelter dog," Donna Reynolds, Bad Rap's executive director, said diplomatically via e-mail. "After a year and a half, we realized that we'd accomplished all we could within the limitations of that setting and wrapped up our project."
Adam Parascandola, who resigned as the Oakland shelter's director in 2009 to take a job with the Humane Society of the United States, believes the so-called "no-kill" objective — the Holy Grail of success rates among shelters — is nearly impossible for a facility like Oakland Animal Services. "The fact that this is an open-access shelter makes a huge difference in the speed you can move toward achieving a no-kill effort," Parascandola said. "What you end up with when you push for these no-kill policies is often an island shelter that doesn't kill its animals while all the surrounding open-access shelters are left with the tough cases."
These "tough cases" end up in places like Oakland Animal Services and the East County Animal Shelter in Dublin. The latter open-access shelter euthanizes about 30 percent of its animals, according to Tony Owens, field supervisor with the Alameda County Sherriff's Office. To reach a 90-percent save rate, as some animal rescue activists insist is possible, is "totally unreasonable," Owens said. "We give 110 percent to get every animal here out of the shelter," he said. "We don't say, 'We don't feel like adopting animals today so we're just going to euthanize.' Our staff does its very best. We're not here because we like to euthanize. Euthanizing is not fun. We're here because we like animals."
On June 27, the Fairmont Animal Shelter in San Leandro closed because of county budget cuts, and the East County Animal Shelter, which already manages 4,000 animals per year, will be picking up the slack. It will take in the San Leandro shelter's current resident animals while also assuming responsibility for the closed shelter's geographical area of jurisdiction. Owens foresees increased pressures on his shelter's resources — and bad news for the shelter's animals. "This is probably going to increase our euthanasia rate," he said.
The Peninsula Humane Society and SPCA in San Mateo is another open-access shelter that in spite of its best efforts — director Ken White says he has not euthanized a healthy animal in seven years — still puts down 30 percent of its animals. And the Contra Costa County Animal Services Department euthanized nearly 40 percent of its animals in 2009, according to records on its web site.
But it gets much worse than that, though. Nathan Winograd of the No Kill Advocacy Center in Oakland consults and investigates animal shelters around the United States, and recently returned from a shelter in Houston that he called "a house of horrors." The facility, the Houston Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care, was fraught with evidence of abuse and torture, and records showed that the shelter had been killing 85 percent of its animals, Winograd said. Within California, Kern County in the southern San Joaquin Valley is another problematic region, according to Winograd. On average, he said, the shelters there kill eight out of every ten animals they receive.
At Oakland Animal Services, unwanted pit bulls and other breeds are continuing to pile into the shelter every day. They arrive with regretful pet owners, unable to afford the financial burdens of a dog, or they simply appear at dawn in the nighttime drop box to assume a life behind bars and face a high likelihood of death by needle.
Winograd, as optimistic as he is pessimistic, maintains that a 40-percent kill rate, no matter the demographics of the region, indicates that healthy animals are meeting premature deaths. For shelters "to say that they're killing so many animals because they're vicious or sick is a smokescreen to justify the killing of 40 percent of their dogs," Winograd said. He notes that less progressive regions of the country have found ways to save more dogs than shelters in the liberally progressive Bay Area.
"If Shelby County, Kentucky, can save 90 percent of their animals," he said, "then Oakland can, too."
But, if kept alive, where will all the animals go?
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Ian Elwood, the former Oakland Animal Services volunteer who found that the shelter euthanizes nearly 40 percent of the animals it receives.
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