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.