The last time I was in an animal shelter, I adopted a furry 8-year-old puss named Gus. The shelter was clean but depressing: It was filled with whelping dogs (mostly pit-bull mixes) and terrified cats that, most likely, were not long for this world. It was one of the nicer shelters I've been to, but it had the charm of a county jail.
That shelter had a novel idea. On Fridays, it sold its elderly cats for five bucks. That's a great deal given the cats are spayed or neutered, have shots and come with coupons for a free veterinary visit. That's the first time I recall any shelter offering such a market-based approach. Most people want kittens, and the lovable old fellas go begging.
This jumped to mind after reading about the latest travails at the Orange County animal services department. According to news reports, animal activists and a city council member accused department officials of under-reporting their "kill rate"—the percentage of animals they put down. Official estimates previously put that number at 6 percent, but The Voice of OC reported "it's actually been a far higher rate of around 35 percent, according to data later provided by the county in response to a legal settlement" with an animal rescuer. (In fairness, either kill-rate is lower than what it had been a few years ago.)
County animal officials had no response to the allegations, according to that report. And—big surprise here—the union that represents the animal-care workers defended the agency and argued it provides a "valuable public safety function" because of the many times it refers animal-related criminal cases to the prosecutors. The Board of Supervisors meeting was filled with debate over possible reforms. Let's face it: Nothing will change. The animal shelter has been plagued by problems for many years.
I love commentator Paul Harvey's quotation from the beginning of the Orange County Grand Jury's 2014-2015 report on the state of the county animal shelter: "Ever occur to you why some of us can be this much concerned with animal suffering? Because government is not. Why not? Because animals do not vote."
Animals don't vote. Government agencies don't have customers. They operate for the good of those who work for them. They ultimately are funded through tax dollars. If this were a business, there would be all sorts of promotions to discount less-sought-after merchandise (e.g., old cats and hard-to-place bully dog breeds). They would be open the hours that shoppers prefer. The facilities would be comfortable and cheery.
"The Grand Jury has concluded that the county's lack of leadership, lack of commitment to animal care, and the prioritization of other Orange County Community Resources department functions ahead of Orange County Animal Care are the primary reasons for failure to address the need of new animal shelter facilities," according to the report. Ouch.
An ABC News investigation from May detailed allegations of problems at the agency. A Los Angeles Times article from 2004 is headlined, "Grand Jury Blasts Animal Shelter Again." Shelter officials disputed the report, as have officials during the most recent reports. But last year, the Orange County Register's Teri Sforza detailed the county's long-running animal-control problems. "Red rust eats at kennel frames. Partitions have frozen in place. Wet, black noses poke between what look like prison bars," she wrote, noting the county's "fusty facility" dates to 1941. She quotes a supervisor complaining about it in 1983.
In 2000, the OC Weekly criticized Santa Ana's shelter (e.g., "paperwork screw-ups lead to dead animals…"), which it used to show that private shelters are as bad as government ones. Sure, privatized agencies have many of the same flaws as government (they are funded by public contracts, not by luring customers in a competitive environment), but at least bad contractors can be fired.
Defenders of the current system say the problem lies in the nature of the situation. It's hard to have a true private business model dealing with unwanted animals. Or is it? The grand jury found that the agency "is virtually self-supporting through fees generated from the 18 contract cities." Those are fees from local governments, but it's hard for me to believe no one can come up with a way to buy and sell and treat unwanted animals for a profit.
In my view, we let the government handle such things because we're too lazy—or uncaring—to think more deeply about alternatives. Future boards and grand juries likely will be debating the same problems in the same agency. Those of us who think a cuddly old fellow like Gus should be purring on a loving family's sofa rather than awaiting euthanasia ought to put more effort into finding private ways to solve this endless public problem.