New OC Animal Care director hopes to start new chapter for county shelter

Despite years of turmoil at Orange County Animal Care, the new director says he believes the county animal shelter can become the country’s best.

In mid-August, Mike Kaviani took over the department that runs a shelter in Tustin, licenses about 130,000 pets a year and patrols 13 contracted cities, as well as unincorporated areas. In his last job he improved the already high animal save rate at a city shelter in Austin, Texas, and says he wants to do the same here.

In recent years, OC Animal Care has been working toward improving its methods following a scathing 2015 grand jury report and criticism from animal activists.

To that end, the department opened a new, $35-million shelter in March at the former Marine Corps Air Station in Tustin, replacing an outdated facility built in 1941.

Kaviani, who has 14 years of experience in animal welfare, said his team will also start to implement programs outlined in a strategic plan the department created in partnership with consultant JVR Shelter Strategies.

“The plan is perfectly aligned with my priorities,” said Kaviani, 33, of Aliso Viejo. “Now it’s just a matter of making that plan a reality.”

Outlining of the strategic plan began in July 2017, but it is still considered a working document.

Increasing the kitten save rate is a focal point.

Kaviani said shelters nationwide struggle to save kittens because they require a great deal of resources and time. Due to their fragility and constant need for nourishment, kittens are more commonly euthanized than other shelter animals.

According to OC Animal Care statistics, 2,517 of 4,756 kittens born or brought into the shelter were euthanized last year.

Kaviani said the department will strengthen its kitten programs with help from a recent $100,000 grant from Best Friends Animal Society, a nonprofit.

“This will allow us to raise the bar on how many kittens we can save,” Kaviani said.

The commitment to improving the kitten programs is what attracted Kaviani to the job.

“This initiative started even before I came on,” he said. “It was apparent to me when I was making the decision to come out here that there was a commitment there.”

County officials are also optimistic.

“The county provides state-of-the-art animal care services, particularly now that the new OC Animal Care shelter has been up and running since March,” said Dylan Wright, director of OC Community Resources, which oversees OC Animal Care, in a news release. “It is fitting that we are now welcoming a new, highly experienced director to lead the organization during this exciting time for OC Animal Care.”

Kaviani began working in animal welfare at 18, though he didn’t expect to stay in the occupation this long.

Growing up in Irvine, he wanted to become a firefighter.

While attending the fire academy at Santa Ana College, he ruptured two discs in his lower back.

“It was definitely shell shock for me,” Kaviani said. “I had put all my eggs in that basket.”

Kaviani, who grew up with two shelter dogs, decided to work at the Irvine Animal Care Center and attend Irvine Valley College.

The work came naturally. Kaviani remembers gaining the trust of a particularly cantankerous mutt as a turning point.

“I feel very fortunate I got injured,” Kaviani said. “If I could go back in time, I would absolutely get injured all over again.”

His career path was set. Before coming back to O.C., Kaviani worked on Long Island, N.Y., and later at the nonprofit Austin Pets Alive! Starting in 2012, Kaviani was tasked with improving Austin’s already high save rate, 90%.

He formed a behavior department, which he ran for about four years before heading life-saving operations.

Kaviani said the save rate was at 99% when he left Austin.

He believes he can do the same in Orange County.

“I think we are really in this exciting new chapter for OC Animal Care,” Kaviani said. “I know this sounds corny, but I see no reason why we can’t be the best shelter in the country.”