Traci Jennings refused to wait for Stanislaus County to right itself at the animal shelter.
With a litany of problems dating back a decade, the county facility on Finch Road needs to be replaced entirely or at least get one heck of a makeover. Two civil grand jury complaints in the past three years have led to the resignation of two Animal Services directors and a county veterinarian. Jennings, a former shelter volunteer, filed the most recent complaint in September.
Animal Services is struggling to find a new director despite offering an annual salary of as much as $124,842, and that future hire -- assuming he or she outlasts the previous director's 14-month stint -- someday will oversee a new and, hopefully, improved shelter at a cost of roughly $10 million.
But the issues involving animals need addressing now, Jennings maintains, and mindsets need to change.
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"We needed a Humane Society that actually gets out and does something," she said. "We got tired of waiting. I don't have the right to complain about something unless I'm willing to do something about it."
So she has, forming the Humane Society of Stanislaus County in September. In a little more than three months, the organization has grown to include about 100 members, numerous donors and some local veterinarians who will provide services.
In December, the group began providing packages of donated pet food that are included with the Howard Training Center's meals on wheels program, assuring that seniors' pets are fed, too.
Sunday, the society will hold its first spay and neuter clinic for cats in Modesto, handling 50 felines whose owners signed them up on a first-come, first-served basis. The list filled up quickly.
"That's a lot of cats," Jennings said. "We worked with a vet on our board and asked, 'Here, here's what money we have. How many can we do?' "
They'll ask owners for a $10 donation per cat, but won't reject an owner who can't afford to pay. It will be the first of what she expects to become monthly clinics.
"I'm using a model where by working with local veterinarians and their techs, we could continue to do as many cats as possible," Jennings said. "We have enough vets in this county that, if every single vet donated just one day a year, we could get it done."
By that, she means putting a huge dent in the proliferation of kitties, many of which will run wild and breed like, well, rabbits.
"Cats just breed anywhere and everywhere they can," Jennings said.
Very cold weather helps minimize the breeding, and last year wasn't cold enough.
"Instead of one or two litters a year, we're seeing cats come in with three or four," she said. "And colonies of feral cats are exploding because people aren't trapping, spaying or neutering them and then returning them. It's one of the best ways to prevent colonies. They die off by attrition. Some (colonies) number 100 cats or more."
Ultimately, some will be trapped and sent to the animal shelter, with extermination being the end result for many.
The shelter took in 18,281 animals in fiscal 2006-07, and killed 12,238 of them. Anything and everything the Humane Society does will take some of the pressure off the county shelter.
Spaying and neutering, Jennings claims, is a much better way to control the population.
"The county spends $275,000 on outside veterinarian costs. If they took that money and instead of spending it on feeding and killing, put it into an aggressive spaying and neutering program, it would pay for itself. (Bureaucrats) always seem to be worrying about the upfront costs, but what about the long-term costs?"
Her group isn't affiliated with the national Humane Society, and pays no dues or assessments to higher-ups, she said. Consequently, all the money it raises here will be spent here.
Ultimately, Jennings wants to build a shelter independent of the county facility. But before embarking on a major fund-raising drive, she wants the public to know her group means business.
"That we're here and we're the real deal," Jennings said. "People are wary of any new group saying, 'Give us your money,' which is why we're asking people to become members first. It gives them the right to vote at our annual meetings. We are transparent and open. We'll get you our treasurer's reports."
Humane Society volunteers are available to educate children about the care and responsibilities involved in having pets.
Being dumped shouldn't amount to a death sentence for a dog or cat, Jennings said. Affordable spaying and neutering is the answer, she believes, and she's backing her words with her actions.
On the Net: www.humanestanislaus.org.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2383.