Critic lauds improvements at Sutter County Animal shelter
The worst aspects of animal care outlined in a grand jury report last year have been remediated at the Sutter County Animal Shelter, according to the veterinarian who made the report's assessments.
Among the most critical changes made at the troubled Second Street facility in Yuba City are the addition of an on-site trailer that adds space for house cats, and new, modern cages to house the most adoptable of the cats.
Also, according to Kate Hurley, director of the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program, animals are now vaccinated upon intake, and sanitation is significantly improved.
"They're not spraying the dogs with water and chemicals anymore when they clean," Hurley said, "and the rat infestation is under control."
Hurley, whose evaluations of problems at the shelter were included in a detailed and scathing account of the facility and its management filed in April 2011, now is charged with recommending formal procedures for long-term improvement.
During the next year, she said, she hopes to set policies that will keep animal deaths at the shelter to a minimum, increase the number of adoptions from the facility, and minimize suffering for dogs and cats while they are in the shelter.
She also plans to recommend ways to better educate and inform the community — which includes residents of Yuba City, Live Oak and unincorporated areas of Sutter County — about what they can do to help curb problems of overpopulation and disease among animals.
"We're making life and death decisions for these animals," she said of the area's human population. "We need to be more thoughtful and realistic."
Her first formal recommendation in her new role with the Sutter Animal Shelter Authority — a governing board created after publication of last year's grand jury report — has been to limit intake of cats at the shelter.
That change, set to go into effect in September, will eliminate the influx of healthy feral cats, most of which are euthanized at municipal shelters, including at the Sutter County shelter.
Within the state, Hurley said, only 25 percent of all cats "make it out of shelters alive."
In the year prior to the grand jury report, the live release-to-owner and adoption rate combined for the Sutter facility was below 15 percent.
Public response to Hurley's recommendation regarding feral cats has been mixed.
Ideally, Hurley said, feral cats would be spayed, neutered, vaccinated and re-released near the area in which they were found. But such programs cost far more than most taxpayers realize, she said.
The other option, which is the one that has been the norm at the shelter, is to take in all feral cats brought in by area residents.
At the shelter, which is very overcrowded, "they are terrified, stressed and prone to illness and, in the end, they're killed — and you guys are paying for that," Hurley said.
The feral cats, while awaiting their final fate in shelters, take up the majority of space that would otherwise be occupied by more adoptable animals, she said. And while there, they can infect more adoptable animals with disease.
Her new policy, adopted by SASA last month, is an unusual one, Hurley admits. It asks that people facing feral cat problems bring in only those that are diseased or injured, so that they might be humanely euthanized, or those that are tame and show signs of having been a pet in the past. Those animals may be adoptable, she said.
But to the extent that people can find resources and rescue groups beyond the Sutter County shelter, she said, they are asked to please do so.
Reducing costs and increasing adoption, ultimately, are the goals for changes made at the shelter.
Changes in policy and operations at the dilapidated facility in Yuba City are being made in anticipation of a new $5 million facility, which is expected to be built over the next year and a half to two years near the existing shelter.
In the meantime, limitations of that existing shelter include its location — away from the eyes of the public on a county-owned lot alongside the levee — and its appearance, Hurley has said.
"The facility is not appealing (to potential adopters) even when neat and clean," she said. "It's just not going to be a destination."
Nonprofit animal rescue groups in the area are currently local animals' best hope for adoption, Hurley said. Two serve Sutter County. ResQPaws has a network of foster homes for the SASA shelter's most adoptable animals and helps care for some of the shelter's adoptable cats at Petsmart. It is run by volunteers.
Sutter Buttes K9 Rescue in Butte County runs a shelter outside Gridley and a thrift store in Yuba City to help fund the facility. The rescue group serves three counties and regularly takes in dogs at risk of euthanasia at the Sutter County facility. But it does not accept pit bulls, which are particularly abundant at the shelter on Second Street and notably difficult to adopt out.
Hurley is crafting a plan to present to the SASA board next month that outlines the areas she believes she can help target for further improvements at the shelter during the year of her consultant's contract.
The most immediate changes involve cutting down the time it takes to evaluate animals after intake "to make sure the animals are not spending time lost in limbo," she said. A more formal set of variables to consider, she believes, will help the flow of animals, so that they spend the least amount of time stressed and depressed, and make more of them adoptable.
"Every day that you fall behind, it gets worse," she said. "Before you know it, you have 80 animals that haven't been looked at and they're just sitting there."
Thoughtful evaluations would prevent problems she has noted, such as "a crazy dog separated for fighting with other dogs and taking up a lot of space. That makes some nice little dogs get housed all together, where they're more likely to get sick," she said.
Regular calls to animal rescue groups also must be made on behalf of adoptable animals, Hurley said.
"Shaving a few days off an animal's stay at a shelter can mean thousands of kennel cleanings and thousands of bowls of food and substantial reduction of risk to other animals' health," she said.
In spite of ongoing problems, Hurley said, improvements already made by SASA in the past year have been impressive and commendable.
"Even if it (an animal) comes in sick, you want to catch that," she said. "Having cats die in their cages should be a rare event, and they've gotten to the point where it is."
"That's a huge achievement," she said.