Improvements vs. Reforms: Why Stockton Animal Services needs systemic reform

It looks like things are getting better at Stockton Animal Services. There’s a new coat of paint in a little yard that was empty for years. It’s used by a few approved volunteers to take attractive photographs of adoptable dogs, and that’s new, too. There’s a Facebook page for the City of Stockton Animal Shelter; a post on that page boasts of 60 adoptions for March 2014. Stockton’s Interim Shelter Manager, Tammie Murrell, claims a live release rate of 69% for January and February 2014. Stockton Animal Services even held its first ever orientation for people interested in fostering unweaned kittens. With all these improvements, how could anyone possibly complain?

As an advocate for shelter reform, and for saving every healthy and treatable animal, I am happy about every improvement that saves lives. But I’m not joining the fan club. These are improvements, but I don’t think they are reforms, and Stockton needs real reform–improvements based on systemic change and a commitment to saving lives by comprehensively implementing programs that work. I will post the history lesson another day, but the people in charge are the same ones who have been in charge for years and years of unlawful, high-kill operation. Their fundamental values and approach to animal control haven’t changed.

The sign has been removed, but the people haven't changed.

The sign has been removed, but the people haven’t changed.

There are now attractive photographs of adoptable dogs, and that’s great. However, many, if not most, of the adoptable dogs are still behind the locked door and not accessible to the public. Interim Shelter Manager Tammie Murrell said in a recent Stockton Record interview that many volunteers are directed to Animal Protection League and potential adopters can only see dogs with an escort because of the “limitations of the shelter”*—in other words, no public access, and the door will stay locked. That is a huge problem, and the people in charge either don’t know it or don’t care.

The locked door has been hiding a horror show.

The locked door has been hiding a horror show.

The statistics are held behind “locked doors,” too, with no published reports of shelter intake and outcomes. In order to figure out what’s going on, you have to put in a public records request, wait at least 10 days but usually several weeks to several months, and then figure out the statistics yourself from the hundreds of pages of individual animal records provided in PDF format. We have gone to the trouble of doing all that, but most people don’t have the time or know-how, so Stockton’s policy thwarts transparency and accountability. By contrast, the City of Sacramento posts animal shelter stats every month, with comparisons to the same data for previous years. I’m not thrilled with how slowly they are improving, but I can see ample evidence in the statistics and other public information that the improvements are real, that they reflect improvements in capacity and practices, and that they will last.

In Stockton, the 60 adoptions for March are out of about 700 animals impounded (an estimate based on records for Feb. 2014 and for March of 2012 and 2013 obtained through the California Public Records Act), so the adoption rate is less than 10%. Presenting this number as something positive is misleading.

Stockton has done little to improve local capacity for lifesaving, relying heavily on transferring the most adoptable animals to its partner shelters and rescues in San Francisco, the Bay Area, and Seattle. Little is done to meet the needs of animals that most need the care of a lifesaving shelter: cats, and dogs labeled pit bulls/mixes.

From February records obtained through a public records request, we see that of approximately 180 cats impounded, 125 were sterilized and put on the streets, even if they had been pets before being impounded. Only 6 cats were adopted from Stockton Animal Services in February, despite the existence of a taxpayer subsidized cat adoption center run by Animal Protection League since 2002 (with subsidies now approaching a quarter million dollars).

The number of dogs going to rescue groups continues to grow, but it’s probably reaching the limit. Stockton has done little to encourage or incentivize rescue of pit bulls/mixes or to build local adoption programs. The de facto breed discriminatory killing continues.

The people making decisions for Stockton Animal Services haven’t changed. They have a long history of bad management and unlawful practice, a history of short-term improvements that evaporate as soon as the pressure lets up, and a history of claiming “we’ve fixed all that” when they really haven’t.

Any improvement that saves lives today is good, but what Stockton Animal Services really needs is deep and systemic reform. Until Stockton has new leadership committed to implementing the No Kill Equation, I will keep advocating for real reform.

I rescued Henry as a stray in Stockton in February 2014. He would have had a less than 1 in 5 chance of survival in the Stockton pound. He's still getting treatment for demodex, but he's been adopted and is happy and loved.

I rescued Henry as a stray in Stockton in February 2014. He would have had a less than 1 in 5 chance of survival in the Stockton pound. He’s still getting treatment for demodex, but he’s been adopted and is happy and loved.

*Roger Phillips (2014, April 4). “Work in Progress: Interim Manager of Stockton’s Animal Shelter Responds to Stinging Criticism” Stockton Record.

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The preference for killing shows through in every little choice

Who would choose to kill a treatable dog when there was someone who wanted to save him? Pat Claerbout and the high-kill Stockton pound, that’s who.

On April 22, 2013, five months into the Memorandum of Understanding between Stockton and the San Francisco SPCA, a concerned member of the public brought a German shepherd with mange to Stockton Animal Services. The note does not report the conversation between the person who found the dog (the R/P) and the Animal Services staffer (ZB), but it’s likely the staff member told the R/P that the dog would be killed, because the R/P left with the dog, taking him to the vet and paying for it himself. When the veterinarian said he couldn’t board the dog for the duration of treatment for mange, the R/P brought the dog back to the pound.

He asked Stockton Animal Services to work with him to help the dog. He offered to pay. He also said he would like to possibly keep and treat the dog but he was  concerned about his own dogs catching it and about his pregnant wife. No one bothered to tell him demodectic mange is not contagious. No one did anything to save this treatable dog. At every decision point, everyone at Stockton Animal Services took the path that leads to death.

A196802 was unlawfully killed on his second day in the Stockton pound, even though a citizen wanted to save him and other dogs with severe demodex had been saved by Pups Rescue.

A196802 was unlawfully killed on his second day in the Stockton pound, even though a citizen wanted to save him and other dogs with severe demodex had been saved by Pups Rescue.

From the notes on this dog’s record, it appears that no one at Stockton Animal Services took any of the following actions to save the dog:

1. No one told the owner that mange is not contagious. It would not have cost Animal Services anything to give a concerned member of the public the one piece of information that might have allayed his fears and helped him save a life.

2. No one called a rescue and told them that someone was offering to pay the cost of treatment if they would save the dog.

3. No one asked the San Francisco SPCA for its expert advice about how to save this dog, even though the purpose of the MOU is to improve outcomes for animals, the SF SPCA has a well-funded veterinary hospital, and the leader of the partnership from the SF SPCA end is their Director of Shelter Medicine, Dr. Kate Kuzminski. Then again, Kuzminski has a record of recommending killing with rescue available.

kill the puppies

Stockton Animal Services probably could have saved that dog at no cost to the taxpayers. NONE of the actions above would have cost Stockton anything, and all could have been done even in Stockton’s current state of mismanagement, with barely any fosters or volunteers. Mange—even severe mange with secondary infections—is treatable, as shown by Speranza, Xena, Siousxie, Fiona, Angel, Luna, Wilbur, Charlie, Jack, Janet, Cindy and Sadie (all rescued by me or Pups Rescue with varying degrees of opposition by Stockton Animal Services). But you have to choose lifesaving over killing.

Wilbur, who had severe mange, was rescued by Pups Rescue of Stockton and now has a loving home.

Wilbur, who had severe mange, was rescued by Pups Rescue of Stockton and now has a loving home.

Furthermore, the note that an unnamed vet gave approval for killing a treatable dog before the end of his hold period tells me everything I need to know about the callousness and complete disregard for law and life of everyone in charge of that abysmal hellhole.

I personally have rescued dogs with severe demodex and secondary infections (one of them snoozes on the bed as I write this), and so has Pups Rescue. Generous people in and well beyond Stockton have fostered and/or adopted them, and we know that these dogs can be saved, deserve to be saved, and bring great joy and satisfaction to the people who save them.

When we first tried to rescue Fiona, Animal Services staff refused to release her without special permission from Supervisor Claerbout. They didn't need special permission to kill the dog in the next kennel while we were there, though. We fought to rescue Fiona, she was treated for demodex and is now a well-loved family pet.

When we first tried to rescue Fiona, Animal Services staff refused to release her without special permission from Supervisor Claerbout. They didn’t need special permission to kill the dog in the next kennel while we were there, though. We fought to rescue Fiona, she was treated for demodex and is now a well-loved family pet.

But even with evidence of dogs with severe demodex rescued, treated, and adopted, and even with someone who wanted to save A196802, Stockton just chose killing.

Even if you don’t believe it is possible to save every healthy and treatable animal, it is inexcusable to choose to kill when there are such easy lifesaving alternatives available. Pat Claerbout, Animal Protection League, and the San Francisco SPCA need to go. Stockton needs a Compassionate Director and the No Kill Equation now.

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Stockton and SF SPCA Partnership Part 2: The Results

In mid-November the City of Stockton entered into an agreement with the San Francisco SPCA, the stated purpose of which was to improve humane outcomes for animals impounded in Stockton and to promote effectiveness and efficiency at the Stockton shelter. In Part 2 of this post we will examine the results of this partnership after five months of implementation.


Our analysis is based on records provided by the City of Stockton covering a ten-month period – five months before the partnership with the SF SPCA and five months after –  accounting for approximately 9,500 dogs and cats that were impounded alive.


Outcome rates before and after the SF SPCA partnership. Live-release rate is calculated using the Asilomar Accords formula, which counts adoptions, rescues, transfers, and owner redemptions as live releases, and does not count animals that were lost or died in custody. The rescue/adoption rate includes transfers to other shelters. The live-release rate and the kill rate sum to 100%.

When comparing performance during the five months before the SF SPCA partnership with performance during the five months after, we see that the overall live-release rate improved by 12 points.

To better understand this change, we next look at the live release of dogs and and cats separately, instead of aggregated together.

For dogs, we see that the live-release rate was essentially unchanged, with a 1% difference in the return-to-owner rate and no change at all in the rescue-adoption-transfer rate.


Outcomes for dogs. Dogs that arrived at the shelter dead, or that were lost or died in custody are not counted.

Because the live-release rate for dogs was unaffected by the SF SPCA partnership, the overall improvement must be attributable only to cats. For cats, we see that the live-release rate went up by 24 points. Since virtually no cats are returned to their owners, all of this change is in the number of cats rescued, transferred, or adopted.


Outcomes for cats. Cats that arrived at the shelter dead, or that were lost or died in custody are not counted. Likewise, TNR cats that were brought to the shelter solely for the purpose of a spay/neuter operation are not counted.

We want to understand what caused the improvement in the cat live-release rate. There are two ways in which the live-release rate might have improved: (1) by increasing the number of animals released alive (growing the pie slice) or (2) by decreasing the total number of animals impounded (shrinking the pie itself). To find out which it might be, we look at the absolute numbers of cats impounded and their outcomes (dogs are included too, for completeness).


Intake and outcome numbers for dogs and cats. Since so few cats were released alive in the five months before the partnership, a modest increase in the actual number of cats saved creates a large percent change.

In the period following the partnership 119 more cats were released alive (average 24 cats per month) and 959 fewer cats were killed (average 192 cats per month). Of the additional cats released alive, most were clustered in the tail of the time period, which is the beginning of the kitten season. At the same time, 1032 fewer cats were impounded (average 206 cats per month). While additional cats per month were released alive, given the magnitude of the other numbers it is clear that the dominant cause of the live-release rate improvement was a policy change that resulted in dramatically fewer cats being impounded in the first place (the contribution of the additional cats rescued/adopted per month is on the order of seven percentage points).

CatsIntakeTypeNumbersTo understand this a little better, we look at the kinds of cats that were impounded and see that the drop off was mainly in stray cats and not in cats surrendered by  owners.

Impounding fewer stray cats is a good practice that has been a component of high-save animal sheltering for a long time. Taking in cats only to kill them by the hundreds per month does not resolve citizen complaints, does not reflect the community’s values, and is not a wise outlay of taxpayer dollars. We are glad to see this change in the Stockton shelter’s operation, but we note that this change could have been made two years ago and would have had exactly the same effect. Also we note that this change provides a one-time boost in the performance numbers, and continued improvement will depend on the implementation of real life-saving initiatives, like a high-volume local adoption program and a strong system of local rescue organizations.

The reduction in stray cat impounds began around the time of the end of the Stockton Police Department investigation into illegal practices at the shelter, which was one or two months before the partnership with the SF SPCA. Thus, the before-partnership cat live-release rate of 8% noted earlier benefited some from this policy change. Historically, the shelter had a live-release rate of 5% for cats and was a veritable slaughterhouse for stray and surrendered cats, routinely killing them illegally within minutes of intake.

To sum up, the partnership between the Stockton shelter and the SF SPCA has yet to yield important and badly needed advances in saving more lives. At CCPA, we know that you cannot get anywhere close to a 90% live-release rate by transferring animals out of town. The results of this partnership substantiate that belief. While a transfer program can be a good supplement to a robust local adoption program, it is no substitute. Furthermore, when not managed properly, there is the danger of skimming off the most desirable and valuable animals and shipping them away, thus depleting the pool of animals available to local rescue organizations and weakening the local rescue system.

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Stockton and SF SPCA Partnership Part 1: The Agreement

In mid-November the City of Stockton entered into an agreement with the San Francisco SPCA, the stated purpose of which was to improve humane outcomes for animals impounded in Stockton and to promote effectiveness and efficiency at the Stockton shelter. Part 1 of this post will look at the terms of that agreement and Part 2 will examine the results after five months of implementation.

The entire text of the agreement is available for anyone to read on the Stockton government website. Here we will excerpt parts of it.

We’ll start by looking at duties that Stockton and the SF SPCA share under the agreement.

Mutual Responsibilities

Stockton and SF SPCA Mutual Duties

Among the prospective collaborative efforts are the implementation of protocols for disease control and cleanliness and the use of electronic records. There are no proposed efforts specifically and unambiguously targeted at life-saving or at improving the live-release rate of the shelter or at improving the overall capacity and success of rescue groups local to Stockton and San Joaquin County.

Next we’ll look at the duties of the SF SPCA under the agreement.

Mou SF SPCA Responsibilities

SF SPCA Duties

The SF SPCA is obligated to provide some consultation and support. However, they do not agree to any specific consultation or support, and they retain the absolute right to provide support as they see fit and not necessarily in response to problems the Stockton shelter is experiencing.

Before looking at the listed duties of the Stockton Shelter under the agreement, we’ll touch on the shelter’s obligations that might arise out of publicity.


Stockton Duties Regarding Publicity

When it comes to talking about the partnership, the Stockton shelter and the City of Stockton are apparently on a very short leash. In our view, the obligation for Stockton to keep quiet is rather extreme, going so far as to prohibit even casual Facebook and Twitter comments and to forbid answering questions from members of the public, including residents of Stockton, who we think are entitled to a lot more transparency than this since they are the taxpayers footing the bill for Animal Services.

Finally we’ll look at the duties of the Stockton Shelter under the agreement.

Stockton shelter responsibilities...

Stockton Duties

Some of the shelter’s duties call for an effort and not an outcome, and are qualified with “as time permits,” or “as other business activities permit.” One unqualified duty, though, and one that ties in with Stockton’s other obligations around publicity, is to notify the SF SPCA promptly of any consumer complaints or media attention.

Another unqualified duty, and though it appears last in the list we think it is by far the most significant one, is the duty to transfer animals to the SF SPCA and to follow specific animal handling procedures established solely by the SF SPCA. This duty is mandatory and is not at the discretion of the Stockton shelter.

While Stockton has the duty to transfer animals, there is no corresponding duty for the SF SPCA to pay an adoption fee for any animal it takes. In fact, there is no mention of possible remuneration at all. Furthermore, the SF SPCA has sole authority over transfers. The Stockton shelter and its supervisor have no designated power under the agreement to refuse a transfer. Despite the stated goal to “maximize opportunities for pet adoption,” apparently the SF SPCA has first claim even when a local rescue group could take and adopt out an animal.

We encourage you to read all the lists of responsibilities from the agreement and weigh them for yourself. In our estimation, the commitment to transfer animals to SF SPCA on demand constitutes the heart of the agreement, and other aspects of the agreement, like the duty to follow specific protocols and the encouragement to maintain electronic records, are in support of this core commitment.

The SF SPCA operates a large and modern adoption center in San Francisco. The adoption fees charged by the center are advertised on their website and are currently $100 for dogs, $250 for puppies, $50 for cats, and $100 for kittens.

According to a San Francisco watchdog group that has compiled publicly available data, the SF SPCA adoption center acquires 61% of its dogs and cats from places outside San Francisco, while treatable and adoptable animals languish and are killed in the custody of San Francisco Animal Control.

Chart courtesy of

Chart courtesy of

If the SF SPCA is taking desirable animals out of Stockton, not paying transfer fees, and then collecting $100 or $250 for each, is that fair and reasonable? Consider that some of the animals impounded in Stockton belong to owners who want them back but cannot afford the numerous and excessive fees levied by Animal Services, which commonly add up to $300 or more. Is it right for a person in Stockton to lose their pet because they don’t have $300, and then for that same animal to be adopted out in San Francisco for $100?

At CCPA, we are concerned that this agreement is short-sighted and does not cultivate programs that will actually help the shelter in the long run to save more animals from pointless and unnecessary death. Regrettably, for the Stockton shelter, this agreement is a lot like being given fish in lieu of being taught how to fish. Transferring animals to a far-flung adoption center on the instruction of a remote master is no substitute for learning how to implement your own local high-volume adoption program.


SF SPCA Mission Statement

Written in the preamble of the agreement is the mission statement of the SF SPCA: “to save and protect animals.” With that noble mission, and with an obvious opportunity to pursue it in earnest, we expect a lot more from the SF SPCA than this agreement delivers. With their great resources they could really make a difference in Stockton.

The agreement between Stockton and the SF SPCA will expire on June 30th, unless it is renewed. We think the City should not renew the agreement as is. We would like to see changes that would give local rescue groups preferred access to adoptable animals, ask the SF SPCA to help animals that require rehabilitation or that are hard to place with local rescue groups, and call on the SF SPCA to use their donor-supported animal-welfare resources to help implement local programs – like high-volume adoption, fundraising, and a foster-home network – that will actually and sustainably save and protect animals in Stockton.

We hope the City of Stockton will renegotiate a better agreement before June 30th, in the interest of the animals and the people of Stockton, and that the SF SPCA will respond positively, in accord with its mission statement.

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Killing is bad for everyone

When you have a 60-70% kill rate, as Stockton does, then killing is your preferred method of animal control. There is simply nothing good about killing as a preferred method of animal control. It is bad all around.

First, it is expensive, in terms of disposal of the bodies, and in terms of the unrecovered cost of housing, vaccinating, and treating animals, only to kill them later.

death is cheap

A page from the Stockton “Euthanasia Log” with photos of some of the animals killed, and what happens to them after death.

Even though dead body disposal via a rendering company is pretty darn cheap, it’s more expensive than recovering some costs through adoption fees and making up for others through fundraising and the grants and donations available to real shelters that inspire the trust, loyalty, and admiration of their communities.

Second, it is bad for the employees involved in the killing. Employees involved in “euthanasia” at animal shelters are subject to high levels of guilt, job stress, work-family conflict, and somatic complaints. Furthermore, and understandably, these employees adopt blame-displacement strategies to protect themselves psychologically. At this point, those employees don’t concern me overmuch, but high kill is bad for everyone, employees included.

A192264 poster

The hand holding this puppy belongs to a Stockton Animal Services staff member. Often, the hand in the intake photo is the same one holding a needle full of Fatal Plus a few days later.

Third, it is bad for taxpaying citizens, because in the end they are left with no answer to the simple question: “Where can I take this stray dog or cat and not have it put down?”

stray dog

Buddy is living in a field in the jurisdiction of a high-kill pound (I won’t say which one). If you are moved to foster, rescue, or adopt him, contact

Fourth, it is bad for the community, because it is an activity firmly rooted in hopelessness. To believe that killing is the only solution is to give up hope for a better way. Circus trainers know that you can keep a baby elephant from wandering off by tying it to a stake in the ground. The baby is too weak to dislodge the stake. Over time, the baby elephant learns to be helpless, and stops trying to pull up the stake, even as it grows into a powerful adult. This is what happens in animal shelters that take in so many animals day after day, and don’t develop the tools to save those animals. The place becomes one of lost hope and helplessness.


A191787 is described in a note as “friendly with small dogs and people. Super affectionate.” He was given no chance at all to be adopted.

Fifth, it is bad for the animals. Yet, these animals are domesticated over thousands of years. They are our friends and companions, and, more often than not, they lay down peacefully and trusting in the shelter euthanasia room, to give up their lives to the shelter staff, which is a cruel business indeed.


A190941, who appears trusting and friendly, is likely to have been one of those who walked to his death expecting only good.

A193926, killed on the 6th day after impound for reasons logged as "time/space, aged," may have expected to go home after five bewildering days in a kennel. Instead, she went to her death with no attempt to find her rescue or an adopter.

A193926, killed on the 6th day after impound for reasons logged as “time/space, aged,” may have expected to go home after five bewildering days in a kennel. Instead, she went to her death with no attempt to find her rescue or an adopter.

Killing is bad for everyone, and as shelters demonstrate when they transform themselves through new leadership and lifesaving programs, saving lives is good for everyone. There are now about 100 communities with open-admission no-kill shelters, meaning that only hopelessly suffering animals and vicious dogs with a poor prognosis are put down. The No Kill Equation is a set of programs that, comprehensively implemented, leads to save rates over 90%, and even if you don’t believe it’s possible to save every healthy and treatable animal, if private fundraising and volunteers make up the new resources, isn’t it worth trying? Sacramento’s Front Street Shelter improves its save rate every month, and while it is not yet saving every healthy and treatable animal, its mission and motto, “We save lives,” has made it a source of pride for the city and a hub of community partnerships. Stockton residents, tell your City Council member you want a real shelter in Stockton, one that saves lives.

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Why pay attention to Animal Services when the city is bankrupt?

Why, when Stockton is bankrupt, should anyone care about just one of its failed city agencies? Because that one agency is part of, and emblematic of, the whole. Anyone can begin to understand the systemic problems that led to bankruptcy by taking a look at one agency: Animal Services.

Bankruptcy is not something that happened to Stockton. It’s not something beyond Stockton’s control. It’s not a self-contained problem that needs to be solved apart from everything else in Stockton. Bankruptcy is not a problem that gives city leaders an excuse to ignore other problems. Bankruptcy is the result of long-term poor leadership and poor decision making. Animal Services is an example. Perhaps most importantly, the example of Animal Services shows us that Stockton is not developing the ability to make better decisions, so bankruptcy is unlikely to be the solution to its fiscal and civic problems.

Let’s take a look at Stockton Animal Services, a division of the Stockton Police Department.

While Stockton’s neighbors in Sacramento city and county animal services have focused on programs that work, with the result that they have made huge improvements in lifesaving, Stockton flounders, doing just about everything wrong. Stockton’s Animal Services director Pat Claerbout was the director in Sacramento County for six years—six years of citizen, employee, and volunteer complaints, six years of a kill rate that hovered around 50% (the adoption rate remained less than 20% from 2006-2009). Since Claerbout left Sacramento County’s animal services, that agency has improved its save rate from about 50% to almost 80%. The opening of a new Sacramento County shelter can’t explain the difference, since the dramatic improvements started not with the opening of the new shelter but with the departure of Claerbout, and lifesaving took a nosedive during the brief period that Claerbout’s crony, Tara Diller, was in charge, and came back up when she was replaced.

Meanwhile, in Stockton, Claerbout is repeating her failed leadership experience, with the difference that she has the backing of the wealthy San Francisco SPCA and the lazy, trusting Stockton City Council. Sacramento agencies have improved lifesaving by 60-100%, while Stockton has remained flat, barely fluctuating around its 70% kill rate. And yet, despite the proof of unlawful practices, despite the dismal performance, despite elected officials’ statements that the killing at the Stockton pound makes them sick to their poor little tummies, Stockton sticks with its incompetent employees and contractors (cronies, all), and refuses to actually solve a problem that has a known solution! What kind of government is that?


There are programs that, as a set, have been shown to increase lifesaving dramatically when implemented comprehensively, intensively, and with integrity. Together, they’re called the No Kill Equation, and they act to decrease intakes in the short- and long-term, improve shelter care, and increase placements. Of those programs, Stockton has nearly moribund adoption, rescue, and foster activities, and its Trap-Neuter-Return program barely scrapes the surface of the need. There are no pet retention, volunteer, community outreach, or medical/behavioral programs, and “proactive redemptions”—efforts to return owned animals to their homes—are a sick joke in Stockton, where the de facto policy is to inform owners of astronomical fees, fees that mount every day, give them a literal deadline, and then kill the pet when the owner cannot afford to pay.

Stockton’s failure cannot be explained by a lack of resources. Stockton wastes $2000 a month on a taxpayer subsidized cat adoption center that adopts out, on average, fewer than one cat per day. The organization that runs that adoption center, Animal Protection League (formerly and more accurately Stockton Animal Shelter Friends) is a staunch supporter of current shelter operations and of Claerbout.

Stockton also spent the time of its animal services director and staff, as well as an assistant city attorney, negotiating an agreement with the San Francisco SPCA that requires the city to make its database and records available and turn over any animal the SF SPCA requests, does not require the SF SPCA to do anything, and has not changed the live release rate for most dogs and cats. The agreement has actually contributed to unlawful breed-specific killing by cutting every pit bull type dog’s chances of survival in half, from about 20% to 10% if you include owner-redemptions, and from a 13% chance of survival to about a 6% chance if you exclude owner redemptions from the mix.

Whether from an animal welfare perspective, concerned citizen perspective, or a fiscal perspective, this is not good government—and this kind of decision making, extended across all city divisions and agencies as it must be, gives a pretty dismal prognosis for Stockton’s future fiscal and civic health.

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The high-kill state of mind

“Mental models are deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behavior.” –Peter Senge, in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Science of the Learning Organization  (1990)

Mental models exist at the individual, organizational or group, and even community or societal levels. There was once a prevalent mental model in the United States that justified slavery. There are competing mental models about the role of government in society and whether government should help poor people or get out of the way of entrepreneurs. Those different organizing ideas–mental models–drive very different plans of action. Animal sheltering and rescue practices reflect underlying mental models, too. And the mental models driving shelter and rescue practices are a matter of life or death for the animals under their control.

The high-kill mental model is based on the underlying beliefs that there are too many animals and not enough homes, that people are irresponsible and it’s their fault that shelters “have to” kill so many animals, and that since shelters have to kill, the best they can do is to kill “unadoptable” animals quickly so they don’t languish hopelessly in shelters. You can see that mental model at work in Stockton, where no resources are “wasted” taking photos of the cats or trying to get pit bulls or cats adopted, where they are simply processed through the system, without much care, since they are destined to be killed anyway. I’ve posted this before, but this collection of quotes from Stockton’s director, Pat Claerbout, is a crystal clear illustration of the high-kill mental model.

Called to account for the high kill rate at Stockton Animal Services, Claerbout always has a ready excuse.

Called to account for the high kill rate at Stockton Animal Services, Claerbout always has a ready excuse.

The “no kill” mental model, by contrast, is based on the beliefs that there are enough homes for all the animals coming into shelters and that the shelters’ job is to gain “market share” among people who will get a new pet in any given time period. The programs of the No Kill Equation do deal with decreasing intake in the short and long term, through pet retention and spay/neuter, but they also address care while in the shelter, marketing and community relations to promote foster and successful adoption. The biggest difference between the high-kill mentality and the no-kill mentality is what social scientists call “locus of control.”

The high-kill mental model is based on an external locus of control–the idea that the problem is out there, out of the control of shelters, and all shelters can do in response is control the stray population through killing. The no-kill mental model is based on internal locus of control–the idea that shelters can do a lot to save animals, and that they should! Even if you think there are too many animals and not enough homes, though, if you care about those animals, don’t you have an obligation to at least make a real, sincere attempt to do what has worked to transform other communities from high-kill to no-kill. Isn’t every healthy and treatable animal worth at least trying to save?


This blog is based on findings from my own research as well as the research of others. My own mental model is being challenged lately. Until last week, I had three rescued dogs in boarding (by the way, all three really need good homes)!

S.O.S. Sadie, Ozzie, and Sebastian still need homes!

S.O.S. Sadie, Ozzie, and Sebastian still need homes!

Now I have two in boarding and one in foster at my house, which is making life really, really stressful for us. Sadie’s stress level and behavior in boarding made us have to take her home to foster, where we have to keep her apart from our dogs because two of ours are not guest-friendly. I thought we were going to have to kill her (it wouldn’t be euthanasia, as she is not hopelessly suffering). While no one could say we haven’t tried to find her a good home, a bunch of people did say we have to keep trying to find her the right home. And they’re right. I had to recover from my intial panic-driven thought that we were out of options, and I’m glad people intervened to make me take a deep breath and reconsider, though I am very low on creativity right now and ideas for finding homes are much needed!

Sadie is much happier in foster than in boarding, even though it's hard on us.

Sadie is much happier in foster than in boarding, even though it’s hard on us.

I appreciate that some people challenged my thinking, just as I challenge the high-kill mentality. What I hate though, is being almost alone in the effort. We really need a shelter, an agency and community where the leadership believes in saving lives and is dedicated to creating a community that does save lives.

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