History Lesson

Stockton Animal Services before Pat Claerbout

With the public scrutiny and pressure of a pending lawsuit, Stockton has made some welcome changes in Animal Services operations. However, Stockton’s long history of poor management and unlawful practices demonstrates little or no understanding of the public good intended by animal protection laws. Pat Claerbout is gone, moving on to wreak havoc at the Baldwin Park, CA pound. The same people who were in charge before she was hired, and who worked with and defended her throughout her reign, are once again in charge of the Stockton pound.

Stockton Animal Services has a long and troubled history of poor performance and unlawful practices. That history includes killing animals during their mandatory hold periods, failing to provide veterinary care, and causing animals pain and suffering. These practices harm animals, their owners, and the people who spend a great deal of their own time and money trying to save animals in need. They also harm the public, as such practices constitute misuse, mismanagement, and waste of public funds.

We know about this history from City and State records, news stories, and animal records obtained through California Public Records Act requests. Staff comments in animal records show a long-term lack of compliance with mandatory stray hold periods; for example, this comment from 2007 on the record of a dog with the identification number A076990, “Advised [animal owner] of 72-hour hold.” At the time, state law required animals to be held four to six business days, and those holding periods had been in effect for almost 10 years. Stockton’s shelter performance has long been recognized as inadequate, and efforts at improvement have consistently been ill conceived and not evaluated.

As far back as 2007, when the Hayden holding periods of 4-6 business days were in full effect, Stockton clung to the 72-hour hold.

Over the years, efforts have been made to address the problem of the high kill rate at Stockton Animal Services; some have even been characterized as “no kill” initiatives. Current Stockton Animal Services and Animal Protection League head Tammie Murrell has led most of these efforts. In 2007, her “Pet Overpopulation Task Force” made recommendations that became local law. Those changes were introduced with the Gandhi quote, “The greatness of a nation, and its moral progress, can be judged by the way its animals are treated” but they weren’t really about better treatment for animals. They did increase hold times, bringing the city into alignment with the longer holding periods for animals that had been required since 1998 by California’s Hayden Act. But at the same time, they created much higher fees for licensing and redemption of unaltered animals. While the longer hold times were not respected, the new fees were enforced, and both the rate of licensing and the rate of owner redemption dropped.

Instead of the predicted increases in revenues, spay/neuter, and lifesaving, the opposite occurred. Most notably, in the absence of any low-cost spay/neuter assistance, owners had few resources to affordably alter and redeem their pets. Stockton’s ACT Spay/Neuter Clinic opened in 2009 and offered spay/neuter below the rates charged by private veterinarians, but those prices were still out of reach for many low-to-moderate income residents of the city and county. Within a year of implementation of the new fees, Stockton’s owner redemption rate for dogs went from 17% to 11% and continued to decrease to a low of 7% in 2011, but the city never evaluated the implementation or the impact of the changes. Highly adoptable animals began being transferred to distant rescues in 2009, but less adoptable animals were killed, even if their owners wanted them back.

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The next attempt to fix the Animal Services problem was also led by Murrell, this time as a paid consultant. Murrell retired in 2010 as Deputy Chief of the Stockton Police Department, as one of the city’s most highly paid employees, and since then has served as a paid consultant and then as Interim Manager of Stockton Animal Services. Her San Joaquin County Animal Services study, initially presented in July 2011, recommended yet more fee increases and a reliance for revenue on door-to-door canvassing to enforce payment of pet licensing fees. Based on anticipated adoption of the recommendations in that study, Stockton cut its Animal Services staff by 10 FTE and its budget by more than $1 million in 2011. Soon after, “lack of staff” and “lack of resources” became the constant excuse for the high kill rate.

Over the years, efforts to “fix” Stockton Animal Services have proven ineffectual and often unlawful, such as the adherence to the practice of a 72-hour hold regardless of the legal requirement. With funding from the City of Stockton, Animal Protection League has operated a cat adoption center since 2002, with the cost to taxpayers now approaching a quarter million dollars total, and yet until this year, they never adopted out more than 15-20 cats a month. In the 10th year of the partnership, the live release rate for Stockton Animal Services’ cats was about 10%. Only the imminent and then actual filing of a lawsuit seems to have created the motivation to improve that dismal performance, though it seems many if not most cats are altered and put on the streets, whether or not they were pets.

This pet cat was "returned" to the streets as part of Stockton's new "community cats" program.

This pet cat was “relocated” to the streets as part of Stockton’s new “community cats” program.

The State Controller audited Stockton Animal Services’ Adoption Program. His report covers most of the period from 1998-2007. The State Auditor found that Stockton Animal Services made almost $2.5 million in “unallowable” claims for reimbursement from the state; that less than $500,000 of Stockton’s claims were allowable, and that Stockton should reimburse the state over $1.5 million for payments the city should not have received. These claims were made under the mandates of the state’s Hayden Act provisions, provisions that–if followed–protect shelter animals. It seems very clear that Stockton has never understood or complied with the state’s Hayden Act, even as it adopted some provisions as its own Municipal Code.

The next post will focus on the more recent history: the Claerbout era and beyond.

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