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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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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