Expert: New eyes needed on conditions at Sutter County Animal Shelter
Rat infestation can lead to serious human and health issues, according to the Sutter County Animal Shelter grand jury report.
• Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS): This is a deadly disease transmitted by infected rodents through urine, droppings, or saliva. Humans can contract the disease when they breathe in aerosolized (dispersed in air or gas) virus.
• Murine Typhus: This pathogen occurs worldwide and is transmitted to humans by rat fleas. Flea-infested rats can be found throughout the year in humid environments but are most common during the warm summer months.
• Rat-bite fever (RBF): This is a systemic bacterial illness caused by streptobacillus moniliformis which can be acquired through the bite or scratch of a rodent or the ingestion of food or water contaminated with rat feces.
For more information, see research from the Centers for Disease Control at www.cdc.gov/rodents/diseases.
He was used to patching up rat-damaged walls at the Sutter County Animal Shelter.
Ben Harper, a veteran maintenance worker for the county, had been telling his bosses about the severity of rodent infestations and other problems there for years.
But last fall, while following orders to patch and cover holes in a cat room, Harper found himself one day examining a suspicious bulge that sunk down from the ceiling.
One touch burst what Harper calls "the giant paint bubble" and released a shower of urine, feces and the carcass of a large rodent.
"It all came down directly on my head," Harper recalls.
Conditions in the building on Second Street were no secret. The state's Division of Occupational Safety and Health inspected the facility in September 2010 and fined the county $3,000 for the rodents and other sanitation-related problems.
Harper says he scooped up as much of the filth as he could — including the carcass — placed it in a five-gallon bucket and, after cleaning himself up, took it to the office of Marco Sandoval, head of risk management for the county.
"I went in his office, shut the door and said, 'Let's just sit here and enjoy this for a little while, because I don't think you understand what people are working with.'" Harper says.
He got a brief respite from rat-related work orders.
A slightly different version of Harper's "paint bubble" incident — including the part about the bucket — were included in a grand jury report released last month along with pages of other shudder-worthy details.
The document paints a gruesome picture of dogs and cats suffering and dying in dramatic numbers, and points to horrific overcrowding in a badly designed and deteriorating facility.
Sutter County's facility lacks appropriately trained staff, the report says, as well as standardized animal care procedures and management oversight.
But among the most prominent themes is what the report says is a dangerous lack of sanitation. The risks of spreading illness to otherwise healthy populations of animals and people, it says, abound at the facility.
The facility has no hot water. After rats chewed the inner workings of a water heater, Harper was called in a year ago to remove it.
And a University of California, Davis, team inspecting the facility found no bleach had been used in laundry at the facility, a fact that contributed to unsafe and unhealthy conditions, according to the report.
Of the 4,705 animals that came into the shelter in 2009-10, 2,271 were euthanized, many for illnesses they did not come in with.
The Yuba City City Council, Live Oak City Council and Sutter County Board of Supervisors are expected to consider tentative agreements in the coming weeks to establish a new animal shelter facility to accommodate the area's overpopulation of dogs and cats.
Details that had been sticking points through more than five years of negotiations finally appear to have been hashed out.
In the meantime, the jury is out on whether any significant changes are being made at the existing facility.
Sheriff Paul Parker, at the recommendation of the grand jury, says he will be conducting a thorough investigation to discover whether, or to what extent, the shelter has violated laws concerning worker health and safety, and humane treatment of animals.
The rat problem was preceded by a mouse infestation, according to Harper, who has worked for the county for 11 years. He believes rodents have chewed through significant portions of the shelter building's structure.
"I don't know how it still stands," he says.
But Randy Cagle, assistant director of community services for the county, says the shelter's rat problem, and other problems at the shelter, have been "exaggerated."
Measures taken between September and November, he says, have all but eradicated the rodents and whatever health threats they might pose.
Contrary to Cagle's assertions, the grand jury document, comprised largely of findings from a UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program investigation in March, reports observation of fresh rat feces "up to 1-2" deep" on rafters and in cat litter pans on the inside of cat cages.
"This indicates the rats have been inside feline cages with the cats," according to the document. The infestation "can lead to serious human and animal health issues."
Cagle says that much of the material in the report is outdated. Changes established in the fall, including the setting of rat traps, a change in feeding schedule that no longer leaves food in animal cages after shelter hours, the installation of metal rat-proof food storage containers, and cleanup of areas where the rodents nest, he said, have done the trick.
"We are proud to report the problem is under control," he says. "It isn't any where near where it used to be."
Harper scoffs at this assertion. He and other maintenance workers say they continue to be tasked with patching walls damaged by the rats.
"We patch 'em up and paint 'em over so they look pretty — like nothing happened," he says. "But they're chewin' through just as fast as we can patch."
"That rat problem is not under control," he says.
Challenging the report
Veterinarian Kate Hurley, who headed the UC Davis team cited in the grand jury report says problems at the shelter are systemic and that they indicate a failure to identify and acknowledge problems and to find meaningful solutions.
"This is a real failure to act. You've got to get past the politics when lives are at stake," she says. "And I'm not just talking about animals. They're putting people at risk too."
Cagle takes issue with much of the grand jury report, particularly the UC Davis team's assessments.
He admits the facility has no access to hot water for washing dishes, or bedding, cleaning rags and other laundry, but says the detergent used at the shelter "works in either hot or cold water."
Bleach, contrary to what the grand jury report says, was being used when the UC Davis team visited, he says.
"A lot of the standards they used (for the grand jury report) are like those for a medical facility — not for a public animal shelter," says Cagle.
But Hurley says viruses like canine parvo and feline distemper, which are common to Central Valley shelters, "are among the most difficult germs to kill."
"Detergents don't kill viruses. Ideally, you need both hot water and bleach," she says.
Hurley, recognized nationally as a pioneer in animal shelter medicine, says her inspection experience includes hundreds of animal shelters both private and municipal and in communities rich and poor.
In spite of Cagle's protestations, she says, the Sutter County shelter "is firmly in the bottom five percent of what we've seen."
"These conditions are poor, and have existed for years. It's tragic," she says. "When people come to a mental state where they just don't see these things, it's important to bring in some new eyes,"
Harper says that what he has seen of animal suffering in the Sutter County shelter because of overcrowding and understaffing has caused him to lose sleep. Over the years, he and his wife adopted four dogs from the facility in order to save them from euthanasia.
But they realized they couldn't save every death-row animal. He had to find a new approach to his job.
Animals are "freezing in the winter," and the dogs, he says, "are constantly wet and shivering."
"So now, I don't look down," he says. "I can't watch it."
CONTACT reporter Nancy Pasternack at 749-4781.