Unhappy with a program that releases sheltered felines, animal activists send a cease and desist letter

Phil Lee, a veterinary assistant, greets a stray female boxer pit bull, at a shelter in Tustin.
Animal rights activists and rescue operators recently sent a cease and desist letter to Tustin-based OC Animal Care claiming that administrators are “abandoning” un-adopted kittens and cats by releasing them back into the streets.
(Los Angeles Times file photo)

Animal rights activists and rescue operators recently sent a cease and desist letter to the Orange County-run animal shelter in Tustin, asserting that administrators are “abandoning” un-adopted kittens and cats by releasing them back into the streets.

The letter takes issue with a program at OC Animal Care, where stray felines are returned to the community after shelter stays rather than being housed longer for adoption. The letter likens the practice to “animal abandonment.”

But OC Animal Care says the program, which is known as Return to Field, spares strays’ lives and reduces euthanasia rates. Many other shelters nationwide do the same thing.

“The purpose of this letter is to serve as a formal notice to cease and desist immediately from abandoning thousands of healthy adoptable cats and kittens onto the streets,” the activists wrote. “The action of bringing animals out of the shelter and directly onto the streets is not ‘progressive animal sheltering,’ but rather, is an illegal application of the Return to Field program.”

Animal rights attorney Christine Kelly penned the letter on behalf of an alliance of Orange County-based rescues — Paw Protectors Rescue in Seal Beach, Meowz Cat Rescue in Orange, Dream Animal Rescue in Mission Viejo and Ollie’s Pack Rescue and Transport in Fountain Valley — and animal advocates Sharon Logan, Carol Barnes, Cheri Anderson, Deborah Fowler, Dani Ryan, Jonni Ben and Kevin Patton.

OC Animal Care spokeswoman Jessica Novillo declined to comment on the letter, which was sent to the shelter on Oct. 4.

In an email, Novillo described Return to Field as a “long-standing program aimed at not only reducing the stray population of community cats over time, but also to help decrease the in-shelter euthanasia of these cats by giving them an additional potential live-outcome option.”

Novillo said Return to Field programs are standard in shelters nationwide, and OC Animal Care has had one in place since 2013.

The activists and rescue organizations assert that OC Animal Care is also releasing kittens and house cats.

“Program guidelines usually specify that only mature, healthy, unsocial cats be returned to field which is not being done at OC Animal Care,” the activists wrote. “OC Animal Care has put 100s of healthy adoptable non feral kittens which has been extensively documented by former and current shelter employees and shelter volunteers back into the streets so (OC Animal Care Director) Mike Kaviani can bolster his live release rates.”

From September 2018 to June 2019, 6,802 cats were impounded and 1,191 were released, according to OC Animal Care. From September 2017 to June 2018, 6,369 cats were impounded and 1,049 were released.

Logan said the activists will wait 30 to 60 days before filing their already-drafted lawsuit.

“We will give them that time to implement a better program,” Logan said. “If not, then we are going to file a lawsuit absolutely, 100%.”

Logan, who runs Paw Protectors Rescue, sued OC Animal Care in 2014, claiming that the shelter didn’t allow enough time for cats and dogs to be adopted before being euthanized and also failed to provide adequate shelter, water and medical care.

In 2015 OC Animal Care and Logan signed a settlement, which included more stringent rules for euthanizing aggressive animals and an agreement to provide Logan with a monthly account of what happened to the dogs under the shelter’s care for two years.

An Orange County grand jury issued a report later that year, calling the county’s then-74-year-old shelter grossly inadequate.

OC Animal Care responded by opening a $35-million facility in 2018 in Tustin. Later that year, Kaviani was hired as the new director, saying he hoped to make the county animal shelter into the country’s best.

Support our coverage by becoming a digital subscriber.