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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