Stockton, California is a city in crisis. Crime, foreclosures, economic hardship that is notable even in an era marked by national and international economic hardship. Everyone knows it and the sense of hopelessness is becoming pervasive. It comes from the top, from the city leaders whose only resource is an endless supply of excuses. But those leaders are elected, and even if most of the candidates are pretty awful, too, we’re only one election cycle away from competent and compassionate leadership…if the people of Stockton demand it and invest the energy and brainpower in making it happen.
Is it possible to turn Stockton around? Of course it is. If you’re old enough to remember New York City in the 1970s, you know that journalist Allen Tannenbaum’s description, “dirty, dangerous, and destitute” was disgustingly true, and yet NYC turned around. While it still has its poverty, the “dirty, dangerous, and destitute” description no longer fits. So, too, Stockton’s crisis is circumstantial, not a permanent feature of its identity. But we need hope, creativity, a plan, and the energy to put it in motion. One of Stockton’s most pressing problems is the high unemployment rate, and I think it feeds right into the crime rate and the sense of hopelessness. I know most people don’t count the appalling conditions, callous disregard for law and animal welfare, and shockingly high kill rate at Stockton Animal Services among the city’s most pressing problems, but I do, and solving that problem goes hand-in-hand with job training.
Stockton has a 22% unemployment rate and a real dearth of industry. That means that while there is a lot of hardship and many people have a hard time caring for their pets, there is also a huge pool of people who need job training. Since the pet services industry is growing even as the rest of the economy is stalled, there’s a need and there are jobs for people with all levels of training. They could get that training through volunteering, service learning and internships in all areas of shelter operations from the business side to animal care. There is also a huge and growing need throughout the country for working dogs and therapy dogs, as well as trained people to work with them. This is a niche that Stockton could fill.
How could we do it? First we need to make the decision to save instead of killing. Then we need an entrepreneurial, enthusiastic leader to spearhead the effort and marshal the resources available in the city and the region. Pat Claerbout, the current director of Animal Services, has proven that she is not the one to make the change from killing to saving; she won’t even follow the law. So we need a leader to marshal the resources. There are plenty of resources to marshal. In Stockton, there is a community college, a number of private junior colleges, and the University of the Pacific (where I work). Within about a 60 mile radius of Stockton, there’s also the No Kill Advocacy Center, Maddie’s Fund headquarters, and the UC Davis Veterinary School, with its Companion Animal Behavior Program, Companion Animal Health Program, and Koret Shelter Medicine Program. And just a couple of hours away, there’s the Nevada Humane Society and its wealth of expertise in how to market and place shelter animals. Between the expertise available in all these organizations, and the time, energy, and need for job and career training among the population, we could not only be effectively evaluating and marketing dogs and cats to create great matches between pet lovers and animals, but we could also be socializing puppies for potential service and other work, training them as mold-sniffing, drug-sniffing, explosive-sniffing and every other kind of substance you could possibly ever need to find-sniffing dogs, as well as identifying and training therapy and service dogs for all kinds of needs, and matching cats as well, not only with homes but with shops and nursing homes and dorms and barns.
There are communities all over the United States that first made the commitment to stop killing and then found all sorts of ways to meet that commitment, to stop murdering Fluffy and Fido. Not only can Stockton do it, too, but it can train people for jobs of the present and future at the same time. We just need the gumption to DO IT!