The deadly feline distemper outbreak that continues to plague the Orange County animal shelter comes after years of accusations from animal advocates that agency mismanagement has led to callous, sometimes cruel, treatment of animals.
Now, local veterinarians and the shelter's own advisory board are joining the chorus of complaints, charging that the facility is outdated and its leadership isolated and resistant to change.
The outbreak of the feline disease--which forced the county to kill dozens of cats in recent weeks--has led to the resignation of the county's top veterinarian, the virtual takeover of the
shelter by its oversight agency and the vaccination of all healthy cats brought into the shelter, a reversal of a policy adopted a year ago.
The distemper outbreak could have been prevented, critics said, had county shelter officials agreed much earlier to separate and vaccinate the cats, which had been kept sometimes 20 to a cage. But the problems at the shelters, they say, go far beyond this recent incident, including:
* A revolving door in top jobs at the Orange County Health Care Agency, which oversees animal control and the shelter. The agency has had three directors and a string of interim bosses in less than two years, a rate of turnover that many believe has kept the agency from scrutinizing the shelter's problems.
* A reluctance by managers to upgrade an aging facility, such as providing adequate lighting at the shelter at night. Local animal advocates and veterinarians got so fed up with the county's failure to fix the problem that they paid for the lighting system themselves.
* The county's failure for years to adopt a program for spaying and neutering dogs, which occurred only after the state passed a law requiring that all shelter animals be sterilized starting the first of this year.
"This is not [a department] that values animals," said Maria Dales, former chairman of the Animal Control Advisory Board, the panel appointed by the county Board of Supervisors to oversee the shelter.
"Their attitude in the past is that animal control is a sanitation function, rather than a function of compassion and sheltering."
Neither the department's interim director, Mark McDorman, nor Dr. Richard Evans, who resigned Tuesday, could be reached for comment. Evans had been placed on administrative leave Monday while the Health Care Agency examined his role in the distemper outbreak.
Former shelter director Judy Maitlen, who retired in March after six years at the post, said both McDorman and Evans "did a fine job" while she was director and were deeply committed to improving the welfare of animals in the county.
The shelter's shortcomings have more to do with a financial squeeze, she said. The two main culprits: the county bankruptcy in 1994 that forced all departments to cut staff, and plans to build a new shelter in Tustin.
"How appropriate would it be to make capital improvements at a facility that's about to be torn down?" Maitlen said. "That's the question taxpayers would be asking."
However, officials at the Health Care Agency saw the recent distemper outbreak as a policy blunder, not a financial one.
And after it happened, the health agency officials overruled Evans and McDorman on how to contain the outbreak. The shelter was ordered to vaccinate and isolate all healthy cats and to kill all cats with symptoms of distemper. Cat adoptions were also halted for 30 days.
The process of keeping large number of cats in a cage, known as "gang caging" and which some believe helped spread the distemper, has also been eased. The county has just installed dozens of new single cages and hundreds more are on order.
Mike Spurgeon who, as head of regulatory services at the Health Care Agency, oversees the animal care department, refused to criticize the shelter's administrators.
"Our actions speak for themselves," he said, adding that he is more concerned about improving the shelter than addressing past criticisms.
"People can go back 20 years, but I don't have that luxury," Spurgeon said. "I am concentrating on what happens today and next week."
Critics, including some longtime animal advocates, have applauded the county's first steps to improve the shelter, but still remain wary, pointing to a litany of past problems.
For instance, the shelter dragged its feet in requiring sterilization for dogs and cats adopted from the facility, said Ava Park, president of Orange County People for Animals in Irvine.
While the shelter has spayed and neutered cats since 1998, the agency just recently enacted a dog sterilization policy. It came only after the state passed a law requiring all adopted shelter animals be sterilized starting Jan. 1.
"Orange County has been so backward. Every other progressive civilized community in the U.S. for years has spayed and neutered their animals before they leave the shelters," Park said.
Los Angeles, for instance, has been requiring that dogs and cats be neutered since at least 1995, said Dan Knapp, general manager for the city's Animal Services department.
The Orange County shelter's advisory board began suggesting a stricter sterilization policy as long as 10 years ago and they finally voted for it three years ago. However, Dales said the recommendation was ignored.
While complaints about the department's leadership are common, many say it is the county Health Care Agency--with its high turnover at the top--that should shoulder much of the blame.
Officials at the parent agency have let the shelter go without a permanent director since Maitlen retired in March, and the search has been derailed by politics and indecision.
A five-member panel was picked last year to recommend a new director from 38 applicants, but never met. The panel disbanded after animal rights advocates forced the Health Care Agency to identify the panelists. Some were accused of having a conflict of interest, and others stepped down because of fears they would be targeted by activists.
"I was supposed to be on the advisory panel to look at all the candidates, but there was never one meeting," Park said. "I don't know what happened. It's just more bureaucratic nonsense."
McDorman, the interim director, has been an easy target. He was second-in-command of the shelter when he was handed the top job in March and is just not up to the demands of running the department, several board members said.
"It is an overwhelming job for [McDorman]," said advisory board member Judi Matsen of Buena Park. "Mark loves animals and has been around the shelter for years. He has tried to do good."
Animal advocates said the new shelter administrators should adopt some of the progressive policies used at shelters in Mission Viejo and Irvine, including a dog-walking program for the kenneled canines, an off-site adoption program and counseling for shelter patrons to ensure a good match between pet and owner.
"You need to match the appropriate animal to the home they are going," said Robert Newman, a Santa Ana lawyer who serves on the shelter advisory panel.
"Right now, we do no inquiry into where this animal is going," he said. "They pay the fee and walk out."
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County's head veterinarian, Richard Evans, resigns amid probe of shelter policies. A1
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
The Orange County Animal Care Services received about 30,936 live dogs and cats at its outdoor shelter in Orange iin fiscal 1998-99. Along with running the shelter, the agency catches strays, polices animal licensing and controls animal disease outbreaks in 21 cities and all unincorporated areas of the county.
Here's what happens to the animals brought to the shelter last year:
DOGS CATS OTHER LIVE (Raccoons, skunks, birds, possums) Impounded..............18,898........12,038..............3,637 Claimed by Owners.......5,360...........254................122 Adopted.................4,865.........2,011................494 Destroyed...............7,704.........9,535............. 2,150
* The agency has 115 employees, including two full-time veterinarians. They collected 45,708 animals of all kinds, both dead and alive.
* While there are more than 100 separate cages for dogs, cats are either gang caged--sometimes 20 to a large cage--or kept in tiered, single cages. Until last week, there were single cages for just 58 cats. The county was hastily installing about 36 more, and have 200 more on order.
Source: Orange County Animal Shelter