Director says Stanislaus animal shelter unsuited for the job

Dave Young is serving his second stint as interim director of Stanislaus County's Animal Services Department, which has drawn controversy in recent years because of an aging and inadequate shelter, rampant diseases and a high euthanasia rate.

Valley Voices sat down with Young to discuss those issues. Here are some excerpts from that interview. Listen to the entire interview on modbee.com.

Q. You get caught in the middle of the debate that rages about the shelter. What do you think is the solution to the overcrowding, disease and high euthanasia rates?

A. A number of factors are involved here. The shelter is so old there isn't any adequate way we can prevent disease within the shelter. The shelter was built back in the days before adoption and humane treatment of animals was the sentiment of the public. The shelter was built as a short-term holding facility, with euthanasia within two to three days. That was the purpose of the shelter.

That's changed. Now it has become a warehouse, so to speak, for long-term holding of animals to adopt them out. It was never designed to do that. It's overcrowded. Until we have a newer, larger shelter built out of the proper construction materials, we will never get a handle on the disease problem.

As far as pet overpopulation, that is a problem that isn't just unique to us, but it is exacerbated in the Central Valley area because of demographics. In the Central Valley, we are all aware, we have high unemployment, a high dropout rate, a high illiteracy rate and a high rate of immigrants, where English is not the primary language, whether it's Latin America or Pacific Rim countries.

A substantial part of our population doesn't have the economic wherewithal (to take animals to a veterinarian), and also the educational background and cultural background, that is not what you do with a pet. They don't know what a veterinarian does, they don't understand what spay and neuter means. So that is a problem that is, I think, somewhat unique to us because of our demographics. But to solve the pet overpopulation problem is going to have to have a massive campaign of spaying and neutering of the animals. And right now, we don't have a mechanism in place for that type of massive effort, nor do we have the finances for that.

Q: A lot of people talk about pet owner responsibility, but the problems persist. How can the county change people's behavior?

A: There are two trains of thought on that. One is what I call the warm and fuzzy approach, where they believe education, by running a lot of newspaper ads, by having interviews like this, that we can educate the public to spay and neuter their animals and provide proper health care and not let them roam off a leash and that sort of thing. That has been the county's approach for many, many years, and in my opinion, it has not been successful.

Since I am retired from law enforcement, I have a different outlook. I think you get compliance through strict enforcement. As an analogy: People complain about speeders on our roadways. ... If you have a lot of traffic officers out on the street and they issue a lot of citations, then the people in the area know there is strict enforcement, and they begin to obey the law. The accident rate goes down, fatalities go down.

I think the same thing would be true in the animal control laws if we were more effective in issuing citations every time we encountered a pet and pet owner who's in violation of the law. ... Through that process, the person has to decide: "Do I want to pay a $12 fee for a neutered animal, or do I want to pay a $150 fee for a license for an unneutered or unspayed animal?"

Certainly there is a financial incentive there to then get your animal spayed or neutered. But that whole process starts with an official issuing you a citation because you are in violation of the law.

Q: Some of the animal activists talk about a "no-kill" shelter. Is that a realistic goal?

A: No, that's not a realistic goal. Certainly that is a goal to strive for. The state law says that it should be our goal to have a no-kill shelter. But the word "should" is an acknowledgment by the state Legislature that it's a goal and it's not a reality.

The reason I say it's not a reality is that unlike SPCAs and humane societies, a public shelter must accept any animal that is brought to it. If I were to take a pet to the humane society or the SPCA, they have very, very small shelters with a very limited capacity.

And when you come to the front door, if your animal is ill or perhaps your animal is ugly and doesn't look like it is adoptable, they will turn you away. And so in my opinion, they cherry pick and take the best animals, the most healthy animals, and so they never have a reason to euthanize an animal, and then they can adopt all of their animals out. ...

And so we receive 21,000 animals a year, cats and dogs, horses, goats, pigs, sheep, emus, everything you can think of, but the majority are cats and dogs. They come to us with every imaginable injury, every imaginable disease or illness that there is. And since we must accept them, some of the animals need to be euthanized right away for humane reasons.

Then because the shelter is overcrowded already, and because we have disease control problems and because we have a limited budget -- this is taxpayers' money -- I don't have unlimited funds to treat animals.

There are some diseases that aren't necessarily a death sentence, like parvo with a dog. You can spend thousands and thousands of dollars and the animal can survive. But if I take in 21,000 animals a year and some have parvo, I don't think it's realistic to expect me to spend thousands and thousands of taxpayer dollars on an individual dog or several individual dogs in an effort to try and save them.

So it's just the very nature of our job and what we are supposed to do, that public shelters will never, ever become no-kill. It's a nice sentiment; it's something we can strive for, but it will never happen.

Bee staff writer Tim Moran can be reached at tmoran@modbee.com or 578-2349.