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Costa Mesa is on the right track with new approach to animal services

Costa Mesa Mayor Sandy Genis called Friday night to make sure I'd seen the city's press release regarding a temporary solution for the city's stray animals now that the contract with the controversial OC Humane Society in Huntington Beach has ended.

I had.

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And I was pleased the city signed an initial contract with the Newport Center Animal Hospital and Pet Hotel Suites, 1333 Avocado Ave., and its owner, Dr. Antony Rizk.

Genis agreed this was a good first step in the process and possibly in finding a permanent solution to the city's shelter issue.

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Located in Fashion Island, the hospital has impressive customer reviews on Yelp, unlike the OC Humane Society.

And the location is closer than OCHS, and will open more opportunities for Newport and Costa Mesa residents to adopt animals.

I called Rizk Monday and asked about his background and plans for Costa Mesa.

Rizk has worked with golden retriever and Labrador rescue and done pro bono work for the Orange County Animal Shelter.

But it was his time at OCHS in which I was mostly interested.

Rizk explained right out of veterinary school he worked for OCHS.

"I was basically an employee," he told me.

Citing "professional courtesy," he wouldn't say anything negative.

"The big thing I want to give everyone is confidence we are a different facility," he said. "We are all inside and climate-controlled."

He's open to the public taking tours, asking questions because he's all about "transparency."

Rizk understands the negativity surrounding OCHS and said it's time to put that in the past.

"This is a new beginning," he said. "I'm really excited and glad to be back in shelter medicine. We got our first three strays in today."

As part of the city's temporary solution, Rizk's practice will receive $20,833 per month for veterinary services.

Rizk said the city is still trying to figure out how adoptions will be handled, due to insurance and liability issues.

He'd prefer to take care of the animals on Day One, using the adoption process at his facility.

"I'm all about the animals. I don't want to see animals suffer because people can't make up their minds," he said.

After strays are medically checked out by Rizk, the city has a non-exclusive agreement with Priceless Pets Rescue, a no-kill shelter with locations in Chino Hills and Claremont.

Admittedly, locations aren't convenient to Costa Mesa, but the city is also contacting "almost every rescue organization in O.C. "to work on adoptions temporarily," Councilman John Stephens explained.

Rizk is excited about working with the city and is already developing a plan to become its permanent animal-care solution.

He said by remodeling his facility's second floor, providing a separate entrance, an isolation space for new arrivals and a "comfort room" where families can bring their own pets to meet potential adoptees, this would be a state of the art shelter/adoption facility.

And he's willing to spend "what it takes" of his own money — an estimated $100,000, plus — to make the changes it if the city sees his office as a long-term solution.

In the interim, he's eager to start a foster care program for cats and dogs and a volunteer training program. Those can't get underway until the city sorts out volunteer procedures, insurance, etc.

Stephens said volunteers can get on a waiting list by calling the city at (714) 754-5000.

It's commendable that city leaders have moved quickly here, but more, obviously, needs to be hashed out.

Stephens said he's pleased the transition coincides with the launch of the city's new Animal Services Committee.

"It gives them laser focus right out of the gate," he said.

Committee member Christie McDaniel met with Rizk this week and toured the facility.

McDaniel told me she's convinced Rizk will "do whatever he can to accommodate the concerns and questions that residents may have," adding that he's "kind and gracious."

"No one loves animals more than me," Rizk said, adding he plans on offering a free office visit to any animal adopted there, as well as discounts for future visits.

He doesn't want the Fashion Island address to scare off folks concerned about pricing.

When he took over the practice in 2016, office visits cost upward of $70. Rizk reduced that to $48.

"I want this to be the shelter on Avocado that every knows and get rid of the stigma of doggie jail," he quipped.

I like Rizk's enthusiasm, sense of humor and genuine love for what he does.

Costa Mesa is on the right track here, and might be on the verge of becoming the gold standard in animal services.

BARBARA VENEZIA lives in Newport Beach. She can be reached at bvontv1@gmail.com.

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