Animal advocates debate a No Kill policy for Oakland Animal Services

A rescued pit bull is fed by a guest at the BAD RAP Rescue Barn in Oakland. Photo by Romin Lee Johnson.

A rescued pit bull is fed by a guest at the BAD RAP Rescue Barn in Oakland. Photo by Romin Lee Johnson.

Josephine Blake cleared her throat. “I rescued a dog recently,” she said in a quiet voice. “He got scared and ran away, and I found him at Oakland Animal Services.”

Blake left the dog at the shelter, fearing he would run away again, she continued, but over time he became ill. “I got a call that he was going to be euthanized,” she said. Blake paused and looked down at her notes. She told Animal Services that she would come get him, she said, picking up her story again, but shelter representatives said that the dog was going to be rescued by an organization that would put him up for adoption, so Blake didn’t return. Later, she learned that the dog had been euthanized.

“He had a place to go,” she said, her voice faltering, “and nobody called me.”

Blake told this story at an Oakland Public Safety Committee meeting on October 28, where city officials were presenting changes to the way Oakland Animal Services (OAS) operates. Now, an organization called No Kill Oakland is urging OAS to adopt a policy that would restrict euthanasia to only a handful of cases. “No Kill” is the principle that no healthy or treatable dog or cat should be put down by a shelter—“healthy” means animals that show no signs of diseases or injuries that would affect their well-being, or make them unsafe as pets; and “treatable” means animals that will become healthy, or will still have a satisfactory quality of life and pose no risk to others, if given reasonable care. While No Kill Oakland doesn’t advocate a complete ban on euthanasia, said the independent organization’s director Maria Steelman, “We want to see euthanasia reserved for those for whom it was intended.”

There are many organizations that advocate for No Kill shelters, from small groups such as No Kill Oakland to larger organizations like the No Kill Advocacy Center (NKAC). Funded by Nathan Winograd in 2004, NKAC developed an 11-part equation to eliminate the euthanasia of shelter cats and dogs. No Kill supporters believe this equation can be applied to any shelter and result in a live release rate—animals that are adopted, transferred to rescue partners, or reclaimed by owners—in the 90 percent range. “It’s probably the most powerful model” for running shelters,  Steelman said. “If you look at the shelters that are most successful,” she said, “they are using the No Kill equation, or some version of that.”

If a shelter adopts No Kill, the commitments it makes include providing a low-cost spay/neuter program; working with rescue groups; running comprehensive adoption programs; advising people who want to surrender their pets on how to keep them instead; treating animals’ medical and behavioral issues with the help of experts; bringing in volunteers to staff the shelter; and hiring a compassionate, hard-working director.

Other components, Steelman said, are a trap-neuter-return program for cats:“That means you’re not taking in feral cats and clogging up your shelter, but you control the colonies by fixing them.” Another, she said, is a serious effort to “connect owners with their animals, and don’t put barriers in the way, like large fees, which keep people from keeping animals.”

Fostering, which lets volunteers temporarily care for an animal before it is adopted, is also key to No Kill. “Not all animals can be in a shelter and become a good pet for somebody else,” Steelman said. “A break from a shelter means more animals will be adoptable, and can be placed in a wider variety of homes. The community loves to foster.”

Fostering can help overcrowded shelters handle more animals, Steelman adds, especially when it comes to preparing them for adoption. “You can’t do it all in a prison,” she said. “People go crazy in prison, and dogs go crazy, too.”

 

According to the No Kill Advocacy Center, shelters that follow their policy save up to 99 percent of all animals; in the city of Alameda, which adopted No Kill three years ago, the save rate is 94 percent, and in Petaluma, it’s 97.43 percent. The Oakland shelter is what animal activists call a “high kill” shelter. By September 30 of this year, 1,136 animals of all species had been euthanized by OAS, according to the report presented to the Public Safety Committee by city officials. In 2013, the OAS live release rate for all animals was 65.41 percent, and for cats and dogs it was 66.63 percent, according to shelter officials.

But Oakland Animal Services, under the leadership of newly-appointed director Rebecca Katz, who stepped into the role just before Thanksgiving, is unlikely to adopt the No Kill policy for a number of reasons, she said: because it only applies to cats and dogs, because it doesn’t account for the particular challenges of Oakland’s animal intake, and because using live release rate percentages can be misleading. Instead, Katz said, OAS will introduce a major spay-neuter program and focus on educating the public about adopting rescue animals.

That said, Katz agrees with many of the No Kill principles. “I 100 percent believe that if an animal has no major medical or behavioral defect, and we can get it into a home, we shouldn’t put [that animal down] for time or space,” she said. This is a policy she said she supports for all shelter animals, not just cats and dogs. But, she said, she’s not “a proponent” of the term “No Kill” itself. “I think if you ask the average person on the street, ‘What does No Kill mean?’ they think it means no animal is ever put down. I think it’s a feel-good terminology,” she said.

Katz said she is reluctant to commit to a target number for a live release rate. In fact, Katz said that aiming for a certain rate, such as 90 percent or more, can be a misleading way of understanding a shelter’s euthanasia policy, because some shelters handle much larger—or different—animal populations than others. “When you start talking about percentages, it kind of messes everything up,” she said. “I know of an agency that a lot of people talk about as a model of No Kill that brings in 40,000 animals a year, so if they have a 90 percent live release rate, that means they’re euthanizing 4,000 animals. If we’re here currently euthanizing 30 percent of 6,000 or 7,000, that means we’re euthanizing half as many [as the bigger shelter]—which is still far too many.”

And, she adds, “certain ills in certain communities,” such as people not spaying or neutering their pets, or leaving them tied up outside the home, “result in getting much more challenging animals in, which makes it harder to hit a number or a percentage.” Rather than just focus on getting animals adopted from shelters, as the No Kill policy advocates, Katz believes that “What we need to focus on more than anything is to stop [animals] from coming into shelters” in the first place.

And finally, she said, the No Kill policy isn’t always a merciful approach. The equation glosses over the fact that animals may be suffering in shelters, she said. “I also do believe that there’s a fate worse than death,” Katz said. “I don’t believe animals should be warehoused, I don’t believe animals should sit in a kennel for long periods as they deteriorate. … I don’t believe in life at any cost.”

Katz previously spent six years as the director of San Francisco Animal Care and Control, which never formally adopted a No Kill policy, she said, but became “leaders in the country on municipal open door sheltering that was humane and directed towards saving every single life that we could save.” But, she reiterates, her approach isn’t “about meeting some percentage [or] taking on any label.”

Katz’ arrival is key to the broader transition at OAS. The shelter has been without a permanent director since April this year, when previous director Gary Hendel was placed on administrative leave after just two months in the job. The shelter is currently transitioning from the police department’s jurisdiction into status as a standalone service. Legally, this transition will be effective January 2, 2015, but “there are many more infrastructure details that need to be worked out,” said Oakland’s Commmunications Director Karen Boyd, who has overseen much of the transition.

Katz is now advising the city on many of the details of the transition—for example, the city had previously decided that the police department would maintain responsibility for animal control and enforcement, which includes responding to reports of animal distress, mistreatment, and dangerous behavior. Meanwhile, animal care and sheltering would be transferred to the standalone shelter. But, Katz said, “I happen to think that the animal control functions should stay with this agency,” and Boyd said she thinks the city administration will support Katz’ recommendation.

Katz said that if OAS were still under the control of the police department, she would not have wanted to take the job. “I have been a little bit surprised by where the agency is, and I feel for staff who’ve been largely criticized and haven’t had enough support, advocacy and training,” she said. But, even though she said she sees “significant challenges” to come, Katz is also excited by the possibilities. “People here in the community care about this agency,” she said. “I’m inspired.”

 

An hour’s drive north of Oakland, the Petaluma Animal Shelter recently faced some of the same transitions confronting the Oakland shelter: Becoming an independent agency, and deciding whether or not to adopt No Kill. The Petaluma shelter has been No Kill since August 2012; before then, it was struggling, said director of services Valerie Fausone. “In those days, the animal shelter was under the supervision of the police department,” Fausone said. This strained the budget, she said, because “the animals are competing with real police.”

Fausone and a group of like-minded citizens proposed to the city that they could run the animal shelter as a non-profit, and took over in 2012. The open admission shelter functions as a pound—carrying out animal control functions—and a rescue center. “Open admission means that we have to take whatever comes through the door regardless of age, condition, breed, anything like that,” said Fausone. “We take care of chickens and goats and dogs and cats.”

Petaluma’s save rate for August to October this year was 100 percent. Fausone and her colleagues at the shelter do still use euthanasia, but very rarely—the annual rate of animals euthanized is under 3 percent. Yet sometimes, she said, it really is the humane choice. “If we have a dog who is violent and can’t stop biting people or mauling other dogs, we send that dog to Heaven,” Fausone said. “Here we have certified dog trainers and veterinarians to make that call.”

Although the Petaluma Shelter uses the No Kill equation to guide the way it operates, Fausone is reluctant to identify with the political aspects of No Kill. “No Kill on its own is a political movement,” Fausone said. She mentioned the controversy around Austin Animal Shelter, now the largest No Kill shelter in the US, which Austin Pets Alive director Dr Ellen Jefferson has written was euthanizing 85 percent of animals before local groups lobbied the city council for increased funding. Fausone calls Petaluma’s approach “No Kill 2.0,” saying the shelter uses No Kill principles based on empirical evidence, not any particular politics.

“If we could get a great outcome for an animal using any idea from anywhere, we were willing to do it,” she said. “For us it was just natural, because the No Kill equation works.” And, she said, the principles work wherever you are: Since taking over the Petaluma shelter, Fausone’s group has taken on the running—or collaborative running—of shelters in Hillsbury, Calistoga, and Cloverdale, all run on No Kill principles.

No Kill has also worked for Oakland’s neighbor, Alameda, said Tom Cushing, who chaired the coalition of welfare groups that took over the Alameda city shelter in January 2012. One of the arguments used by No Kill supporters is that euthanasia costs a lot of money. Cushing, who’s been active in animal rights in California and Nevada for the past 15 years, said it’s between $100 and $150 per animal euthanized. The cost covers “the care of the animal up until the kill, the drugs [to euthanize the animal], and the disposal of the carcass, which is not cheap,” he said. The carcasses are typically sent to a rendering plant or incinerated, but must be stored in freezers at the shelter until the disposal trucks arrive, which can be just twice a month. “If you multiply the number of animals killed by $150, you get a pretty high current cost,” Cushing said.

Using Cushing’s numbers, if Oakland spends $100 to euthanize each animal, the 1,136 animals the shelter put down in the first nine months of this year would have cost the city a minimum of $113,600. Katz was unable to confirm exactly how much money OAS spends on euthanasia, but said “I just think any cost is generally too high, if we have alternatives” to euthanizing an animal.

In addition to reducing overall costs by euthanizing fewer animals, Cushing said, “There’s a number of other trade-offs” that can help shelters spend less. Foster programs cost money to manage, but save shelters the day-to-day costs of housing animals. And a shelter brings in revenue from adoptions: in Petaluma, it costs $90 to adopt a dog, and $70 to adopt a cat. Fausone said that thanks to the No Kill equation, her group can run shelters for cities at “20 to 30 percent less than they’re paying now.”

But even if you slash euthanasia rates, it still costs a lot of money to run a shelter. In Alameda, the sheltering cost fell 30 percent when it became a No Kill facility, but still cost the agency $600,000 for the year 2012, according to Cushing. Petaluma’s operating costs are not public, but Fausone said the shelter’s government contract covers payroll, insurance, and some veterinary bills—the rest of its budget comes from public donations. In Oakland, the animal shelter’s budget for the financial year 2014 to 2015 was $3,495,191, of which almost $3 million is allocated to salaries for 33 full-time employees.

OAS has faced budget problems in recent years, along with public services across Oakland. Four years ago, the city had a $58 million deficit, Boyd said, and cuts were passed down to the police department, which managed OAS. The financial constraints meant  staff positions were left unfilled for long periods of time, which affected operations, Boyd said, and Katz pointed out that three Animal Control Officer trucks were retired but not replaced, meaning the OAS fleet was not at full strength.

Boyd said the budget constraints faced at OAS are a “microcosm” of problems across Oakland. The city was hit hard by the foreclosure crisis, and has lost a quarter of its municipal staff over the last ten years, she said. “When you have a community where the crime rate is as high as Oakland’s has been, and you have public safety being the number one priority, and a police department that has lost significant numbers of police officers, and is under a federal order… in that context, animal services” is not something that was on the top of the list, she said. But now, advocacy from volunteers and activists within Oakland has raised awareness of the challenges faced by the shelter.

 

Animal welfare advocates debate over whether No Kill can work as well for every city as it has for Petaluma and Alameda. Cushing said No Kill critics often call the cities that have successfully implemented it aberrations. “San Francisco was too gay, Charlottesville was too collegiate, Reno was too otherwise bizarre,” he said, citing three cities in which No Kill was adopted by animal services. But the people who believe No Kill works think it will work anywhere. “We’re no different than Oakland, we’re no different than San Jose,” Fausone said. “The only difference is that our save rate for the last three months is 100 percent.”

That said, the Oakland and Petaluma shelters are dealing with very different numbers of animals. The Petaluma intake is about 1,600 animals a year, said Fausone, on an open admission basis—any animal that comes to the shelter has to be taken in. At OAS, which is also open admission, Katz said the shelter takes in “a little over 6,000 cats and dogs annually. But we also bring in other animals: rabbits, and what we call ‘pocket pets’—hamsters, guinea pigs, birds, illegal animals, and wildlife.”

The number of animals that OAS takes in is high in comparison to the city’s human population. According to data gathered by the Asilomar Accords, which standardizes data collection for shelters across the US, in 2011 OAS took in 5,712 animals, a rate of 1,406 animals per 100,000 citizens. In contrast, San Francisco Animal Care and Control took in 8,005 animals, at the much lower rate of 996 animals per 100,000 citizens. This year, between January 1 and September 30, a Public Safety Committee report showed that OAS took in 3,816 animals of all species. The shelter is currently at 175 percent capacity for dogs, meaning  the facilities are overcrowded and presenting an urgent problem for Katz to solve.

Moreover, Katz said, many shelters that have reached a 90 percent or higher live-release rate are not open admission. “That can be private non-profits that just take cats and dogs, and maybe only take them if they pass certain medical and behavioral tests,” she said. Public shelters are also not obliged to be open admission, Katz points out, so some choose not to accept owner-surrenders, or cats, both of which OAS accepts. “There may not be a legal responsibility to do that,” said Katz, but “I think there’s an ethical responsibility.”

Katz also points out that some shelters deal with more difficult animals. Like many cities in the US, Oakland deals with a high number of pit bulls; and, like many in California, with a high number of Chihuahuas. These dogs can be hard to match with adopters, especially pit bulls, a breed some people fear. Katz mentioned a pit bull named Liberty who has been in a kennel at OAS since early July. Liberty, she said, is an “amazing” dog. “Will she stay amazing in a kennel? No. No dog stays amazing in that space,” Katz said. “But she gets passed over again and again and again because she’s a large pit bull, and people have an idea of what those dogs are that isn’t necessarily right.”

Not only can the number and type of animals up for adoption make sheltering very different in different cities, Katz said, but so can the willingness of residents to adopt certain species. “The community in Petaluma is very different than the community in Oakland. The challenges of who’s able and willing to take animals, and which animals, and what animals are coming in, and the number of pit bulls,” make running the two shelters very different, she said.

Katz has a firm policy that cities should actively try to reduce the number of animals that need help for any reason. As a deputy city attorney in San Francisco in 2005, Katz helped draft legislation that made it mandatory to spay or neuter pit bulls. The legislation led to fewer pit bulls coming into shelters, fewer being euthanized, and fewer injuries caused to people, according to Katz. The legislation was breed-specific because that was where the problem was, she said: “We don’t really have a problem with too many Shih Tzus, or poodles, or, you know, Golden Retrievers.” Today, Katz hopes to work with organizations such as Bad Rap, a pit bull advocacy group that aims to end the poor treatment and unnecessary deaths of pit bulls.

But Steelman of No Kill Oakland said that having a large population of pit bulls and Chihuahuas shouldn’t be an impediment to adopting No Kill. “That might be true if you have no trainers and you can’t evaluate dogs properly—if [it’s based on whether] they look kind of scary and bark in a kennel,” she said. The Petaluma services have two trainers, she said, and can accurately evaluate an animal’s aggression and temperament. At OAS, said Steelman, “They don’t know how to separate the truly dangerous from dogs that just look scary.”

 

Before Katz joined OAS, Steelman and No Kill Oakland had already launched a campaign against the euthanasia decisions made by the shelter, calling them unlawful. At the beginning of October, No Kill Oakland issued a public letter to the city and police department, in which Steelman wrote that the euthanasia of several dogs, in spite of commitments from rescue organizations to take them in, violated Hayden’s Law.

Hayden’s Law is state legislation introduced in 1998 by then-California State Senator Tom Hayden: it shifted the purpose of animal shelters to focus on saving animal lives, including extending the period of time an animal had to be held at a shelter before being euthanized from 72 hours to four to five business days. Part of the legislation states that a shelter must release “a companion animal scheduled for death to a nonprofit animal rescue/adoption group, if requested by that group.” Steelman said she believes at least 10 animals with willing rescuers were improperly euthanized at the shelter, including the dog Josephine Blake had hoped to adopt.

Katz said she doesn’t know enough about individual euthanizations to refute these claims, but she believes  the shelter hasn’t violated the law. “There were rescues that said we’d like to take this animal,” she said, “but hadn’t committed to taking it, which is very different.” However, she does say that communication both inside the shelter and with rescue organizations and adopters needs improvement.

In fact, Katz has many practical improvements that she wants to make at OAS. Although she is careful not to blame the police department or say that the shelter has been mismanaged, what she calls her “laundry list of basics” is quite long: It includes hiring a behavior expert to evaluate and train animals, bringing the number of vets on staff up to the level that is budgeted, getting volunteers into the field to educate the community about what the shelter does and about caring for their pets, and improving the HVAC system at the shelter in order to keep the air circulating around the kennels healthy.

The lack of behavioral experts on staff over the past few months is a problem that’s been pointed out by No Kill campaigners. Steelman said that it’s prevented shelter staff from evaluating animals properly and thus making an adoption guarantee. Katz said she is committed to changing this by getting the right resources for OAS. In fact, she said, the demands on Oakland’s city budget were a source of concern when she was offered the job, because she knows the city has many other claims on its finances. “When I know kids are dying and killing each other on the streets, it’s kind of hard to say we need these services,” Katz said. But caring for animals, she said, can show people how to care for one another. Animal welfare organizations can provide benefits “like valuing life, like caring for something,” she said. “Yes, the streets need fixing, yes, there’s a lot of infrastructure that needs help. But there’s a lot [Animal Services] can do that crosses over with that.”

Although Oakland Animal Services won’t be adopting the No Kill philosophy wholesale, Katz and Steelman have met since Katz started at the shelter.  Steelman has posted to the No Kill Oakland Facebook page that Katz’ attitude is “a dream come true and a breath of fresh air.” Steelman has now formed a new non-profit—PALS East Bay: People, Animals, Love and Support—to help support the shelter, and said it is an evolution of No Kill Oakland. On December 20, both groups will support a holiday party at the shelter, which Steelman hopes will be a time for No Kill supporters to meet Katz.

Despite the fact that Katz is unwilling to use the words “No Kill,” Steelman is encouraged by her support for its principles and her emphasis on caring for every animal, and believes it’s more urgent to embrace No Kill’s ideas than its exact phrasing. “The words may not be important,” she said, “if we get to the goal.”

Update: The caption on the photo at the top of this story was updated. The photo was taken at the Rescue Barn of BAD RAP, a pit bull advocacy group. 

One Comment

  1. dogfather

    Nicely done! I have high hopes for Ms. Katz’ tenure — I hope her several equivocations in the article are in the nature of managing expectations, not a portent of business-as-usual. OAS needs a major overhaul — if she builds it, adopters and volunteers will come, semantics be damned!

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