San Diego County Mulls Outsourcing Animal Services Amidst 'Getting To Zero' Policy Criticism
Hundreds of animals are euthanized each year for health and behavioral reasons
San Diego County is considering outsourcing its Animal Services Department to a private organization amidst criticism that the department is not run effectively.
The department runs animal control and the animal shelter, and one big piece of criticism from shelter volunteers is that the shelter’s "Getting to Zero" policy is not really zero kill.
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County policy is that no animals labeled as adoptable will be put down, but animals that are sick or have behavioral problems—defined as demonstrating "aggression to people or animals"—can be euthanized.
San Diego County Animal Services has killed 75 dogs for behavioral reasons since Jan. 1, 2016, according to euthanization records obtained under a Public Records Act request.
A search through those records shows some of those dogs clearly were aggressive. But several others had nothing in their vet visit logs to indicate any behavioral problems.
For example, a Pit Bull named Macky was described this way: "Engages with handler, almost needy about attention." She was taken in as a stray and treated by a vet seven times before being euthanized.
An American Bulldog named Spartan was described as "very human friendly but dog reactive" when he was taken in as a stray. A vet wrote "dog was at front of kennel when I approached, waggy rear and tail, licked my hand thru kennel gate, then sat/layed down while I wrote notes" at his last exam before he was put down.
In notes that were not part of Spartan's county medical record, an animal services staff member wrote, "the dog attacked another dog while on an interact with no warning. The dog tried to attack another dog when staff was rekenneling the dog which resulted in redirection of aggression to the handler."
Shelter volunteer Ryan Clumpner disagrees with the way decisions are made about which dogs to euthanize.
"What you can call an adoptable dog is very much in the eye of the beholder," he said.
During his volunteer shifts he would take a two-year-old Pit Bull named Kona on regular walks but said she was not being adopted.
"People didn't like handling her because she was afraid of the doors in the shelter, the noise in the shelter, so she would jump around, she was hard to get a leash on," he said. "But we figured out pretty quickly that once you got a leash on her and took her out, she turned into a totally different dog."
Then he says he heard she was going to be euthanized for behavioral problems. He decided to foster her and helped find a family to adopt her. Now she is thriving in a Bay Park home.
The county's animal shelter was criticized by volunteers in a 2015 report for putting down animals despite promises that it would "hit zero" kills, and for other practices that make it harder to adopt animals. For example, until recently, the shelter was not open on Sundays when most people are off work.
County Supervisor Dianne Jacob said that criticism is one of the reasons the county is considering outsourcing animal services.
"It gave us an opportunity to take a look and see, is there a better way to provide services, not just for the animals, but for the owners, and for the taxpayers," she said.
But David Garcias, the president of SEIU Local 221, which represents all county animal services workers, said the people holding those jobs should be public servants, not private workers.
"They are highly trained and they're able to deal with any situation," he said. "Do I want someone who's not a public servant coming over and knocking on my mom's home and saying, 'hey I want to come over and see your pets or see a barking animal?' I know there are trained professionals that work for the cities or the counties."
He also said his union believes the county has a legal obligation to negotiate with its workers if they are changing how animal services is run. Jacob said there is no such obligation.
If the county moves forward with outsourcing, six cities—San Diego, Carlsbad, Del Mar, Encinitas, Santee and Solana Beach—each would have to find their own animal services providers, according to county spokesman Michael Workman. He said the county is currently reviewing proposals from the city of Chula Vista and the San Diego Humane Society and could make a decision in the coming months.
Gary Weitzman, the CEO of San Diego Humane Society, spoke at a Board of Supervisors meeting in March to say the nonprofit is ready to run the county shelter and take on animal control duties, but he declined an interview with KPBS to go into more details about the plan until he had submitted it to the county.
If the Humane Society does take on the outsourcing contract, it would not have to move its operations very far. Its shelter sits right next to the county shelter in Linda Vista, although the insides look very different—in the county building, multiple dogs are kept in the same chain-link pens, while at the humane society one or two dogs live in rooms meant to mimic the inside of a home.
Clumpner, the animal shelter volunteer, said he hopes to see changes that lead to more adoptions of dogs, including more posts on social media about dogs looking for a home. He also said the shelter's facilities do not give people seeking a pet the best view of how that animal will behave at home.
"It's hard to watch, because the problem is a dog will bark when you walk by," he said. "And people will assume the dog is like that all the time, when really it's barking because it wants to be taken on a walk and you put a leash on it and it immediately knows sit, stay, shake, roll over and is the sweetest dog ever."
Luckily, his fostered Pit Bull Kona got a chance to show what she is really like.