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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."
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