Is Oakland Animal Services Killing Too Many Dogs? 

The shelter euthanizes 40 percent of the dogs it receives, and critics say it should be doing more to save them. But the facility is inundated with unwanted canines.

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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."

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