New adoption center gives embattled Fresno humane community a point of pride

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  March 2013:

New adoption center gives embattled Fresno humane community a point of pride

FRESNO,  Calif.––Celebrating a rare “good news for animals” event in a city which has had little to celebrate,  the Cat House on the Kings and the Petco Foundation on February 15,  2013 together opened a new 1,500-square-foot adoption center inside the Fresno Petco store.

Founded in 1990 by Lynea Lattanzio of Parlier,  in rural Fresno County alongside the Kings River,  the Cat House on the Kings is the oldest and most successful of many local “no-kill” organizations trying to knock down a rate of animal control dog and cat killing which––though less than half of what it was 10 years ago––remains among the highest in the U.S.,  more than three times the current national average.

Profiled as “The Lady With 700 Cats” by National Geographic television in 2011,   Lattanzio operates arguably the largest no-kill cat refuge in the world.  Lattanzio tells media that her 12-acre facility has served more than 20,000 cats. But she hastens to mention that The Cat House on the Kings has sterilized more than twice as many cats as have lived there.  Most of the resident cats are in transit,  receiving veterinary care and socialization on their way to being adopted outside the Fresno area.

“We also rescue a few dogs,  about 100 per year,  and have a family of rescued goats and about 30 peacocks on the grounds,”  Cat House on the Kings board member Tammy Barker told ANIMAL PEOPLE. Barker said that volunteers and the 25-member staff have tried for years to increase adoptions in Fresno,  an inland California city about the size of San Francisco,  but 188 miles to the east,  in the middle of the heavily agrarian Central Valley.

“Prior to the facility being built,  we did adoptions every Saturday and Sunday by setting up a table with cages,” Barker recounted.  “We would normally have five to seven kittens and one or two adults.  We have been doing adoption at the Fresno Petco for almost 10 years this way.   We did 315 adoptions at Petco in 2012.”

Now,  Barker said,  with “two huge viewing rooms that can display about 15 kittens comfortably and five or six adults,   we have committed to doubling our adoptions the first year and tripling the second year.  That would mean 600 adoptions in year one and 900 in year two.”

Most Cat House on the Kings cats come from the 14 animal control agencies in Fresno County that do not contract for animal control sheltering with the Central California SPCA in Fresno,  Barker said.  In addition,  Cat House on the Kings formerly “pulled approximately 1,000 cats and kittens” per year from the Central California SPCA in Fresno,  Barker told ANIMAL PEOPLE,  but that relationship ended,  she said,  after Cat House on the Kings took about 125 cats from the CC/SPCA in early 2012.

The CC/SPCA until mid-2012 handled animal control sheltering for both the city of Fresno and Fresno County. Formed in 1946,  the CC/SPCA hired executive director Gib Rambo in 1961.  Rambo headed the CC/SPCA for 40 years, succeeded by Norm Minson,  a CC/SPCA employee from 1967 until his retirement in May 2011.  Under Rambo,  who died at 98 in August 2010,   Fresno and Fresno County killed upward of 80 homeless dogs and cats per 1,000 human residents as recently as 2001.  By Minson’s last year,  the rate of shelter killing per 1,000 humans was down to 33––but that was still the highest rate for any jurisdiction of comparable size in a west coast state.

“To be a no-kill community,  we have to first become a no-kill community,”  Minson said.

Quits animal control

Yet visible friction between the CC/SPCA and the local rescue community escalated after the appointment of current executive director Linda Van Kirk.  Van Kirk within a year of her arrival re-oriented the CC/SPCA toward following the prescription for moving toward no-kill animal control pioneered by the San Francisco SPCA nearly 30 years ago, advocated by the no-kill grantmaker Maddie’s Fund since 1998 under former SF/SPCA president Richard Avanzino,  and by the No Kill Advocacy Center,  founded by former SF/SPCA operations director Nathan Winograd.

The first step was giving up the Fresno city and county animal control contracts,  to refocus the CC/SPCA on doing sterilization,  adoptions,  cruelty investigations,  and humane education.  The CC/SPCA relinquished the $1 million per year Fresno County animal control sheltering contract in October 2012.  Originally hoping to give up both contracts at once,  the CC/SPCA continues to shelter animals for the city of Fresno under a temporary extension of the former $2.3 million contract,  meant to give the city time to find or create an alternative  service provider.

“Animal control is a government service,” Van Kirk told Marc Benjamin of the Fresno Bee.  “We have not been sufficiently funded.  We subsidize animal control services with our donor funds.”  CC/SPCA board president Vivian Vidoli told Benajmin that the subsidy of animal control services amounted to about $1.3 million per year.

Rescuers dissent 

Negotiations over the future of the animal control contracts were conducted in the aftermath of a March 2012 implosion of relations between the CC/SPCA and 21 no-kill rescue organizations,  including Cat House on the Kings,  that formerly rehomed CC/SPCA animals.  The triggering event came when Van Kirk introduced a new contract with rescues.

“Key features of the CCSPCA agreement,”  reported Craig Kohlruss of the Fresno Bee,  “include rescue representatives providing personal information to the shelter,  such as a copy of a driver’s license,  telephone number and e-mail address;  allowing shelter officials to inspect rescue or foster facilities;  forbidding photography or video recording in the shelter’s stray-animal building or off-limits areas;  and prohibiting rescue groups from interfering in shelter representatives’ dealings with the public.”

Of these four requirements,  the first two and part of the third are standard for shelters working with shelterless rescues.  Non-shelter personnel are usually not allowed into off-limits areas,  including holding areas for dogs who have bitten people or been impounded for dangerous behavior,  and quarantine areas for cats who may have upper respiratory infections or other contagious diseases.  But photography and video recording are usually allowed in any area open to the public.  Usually this amounts to no more than acquiring visual images used to advertise specific animals for adoption.

The meaning of “prohibiting rescue groups from interfering in shelter representatives’ dealings with the public” was disputed.

“We’re not going to give them [the CC/SPCA]our adopters’ information or other personal information,”  Animal Rescue of Fresno director Linda Guthrie told Fresno Bee reporter Tim Sheehan.

Wrote Sheehan,  “The CC/SPCA said the contracts were necessary because some [rescues] lacked the nonprofit status required by state law.  But a Bee search of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service’s database of tax-exempt nonprofits reveals that all but three of the groups have the proper tax-exempt credentials.  Shelter spokeswoman Beth Caffrey defended the shelter’s position and then cut off further comment, saying in an email that it was necessary to protect shelter staff because of ‘death threats.’”

The conflict brought forward several seldom discussed aspects of transitioning to no-kill.  For starters,  when a major humane society such as the CC/SPCA gives up animal control sheltering to put more emphasis on adoption,  it goes from being a source of adoptable animals for rescues to being competition––both for obtaining adoptable animals from a municipal animal control agency and in finding homes for the animals.  Greater visibility of the humane society and the cachet of going no-kill give the humane society a big advantage in both fundraising and rehoming animals.  Shelterless rescues may lose their economic base,  and indeed their reason for existing.

Rescuers who are actually focused on getting a community to no-kill tend to be less troubled by this than those who have developed lucrative tax-exempt businesses in brokering shelter animals––a subset of shelterless rescuers including many former backyard breeders.

Eventually,  wrote Fresno Bee reporter Benjamin,   “The city hired the University of California at Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program to improve the relationship between the SPCA,  local rescues and government agencies,  and design a shelter that would be used after the contract with the SPCA ends.”

New contractor

The sole bidder for the Fresno County animal control sheltering contract was Liberty Animal Control Services, formed by Clovis veterinarian Charles Wilkins and his wife Karen,  and former Tulare County animal control officer Daniel Bailey.

“The company has a one-year deal to provide animal control services for the county,  at a cost of $750,000––$250,000 less than what the county paid the CC/SPCA,”  reported Kurtis Alexander of the Fresno Bee.  “The county,  though,  is underwriting a number of the contractor’s expenses,  such as vehicles.  The company is providing mostly the minimum services that the county is required to provide under state law,  which could become an issue with a public accustomed to getting more.  For example,  stray animals don’t have to be collected,  just injured and dangerous ones.  The CC/SPCA typically welcomed all.  The company’s shelter, on the grounds of the old county morgue, also could become problematic.  Space is limited.  Employees are using portable cages.”

Liberty Animal Control Services debuted on October 1,  2012 with 90 cages and a 180-dog capacity.  Only about 40 dogs and 10 cats could be housed indoors,  causing the new agency to appeal for donations of blankets during a mid-November cold snap.  The sheltering capacity was briefly exceeded in the first week of January 2013 when 30 dogs arrived as result of a raid on an alleged puppy mill in the Fresno County town of Sanger.  But Liberty Animal Control Services had yet to kill any animals.

“I’m concerned that if we end up with another puppy mill or more vicious dogs, then we will have to make some decisions,”  Bailey told Alexander.

Fresno County Board of Supervisors member Henry R. Perea has for more than a year tried to rally support for building a state-of-the-art animal control shelter,  to be shared by the county and city agencies,  but a vote on the necessary bond issue is not expected before 2014––meaning that a new shelter probably could not be completed before 2016.

Dog attacks

The wisdom of not picking up dogs seen running at large until and unless they exhibit dangerous behavior was meanwhile called into question by the December 11,  2012 fatal mauling of field hand Esteban Alavez,  34,  of Selma.   Apparently accosted by four free-roaming pit bulls,  Alavez  was the first known dog attack fatality in Fresno County since 2005,  when Tyler Babcock,  6,  of Clovis,  was killed by two pit bulls and possibly a German shepherd in a field beside his grandparents’ home.  But Fresno city police only 11 days before Alavez’ death had rescued a 70-year-old man from a mauling by two pit bulls.  In August 2012 a Fresno County sheriff’s detective shot a pit bull to halt an attack on a teenaged boy.

Free-roaming pit bulls were a frequent issue in Fresno County,  however,  even when animal control policy was officially to pick up all free-roaming dogs.  At least three different local governmental agencies settled lawsuits out of court resulting from the Father’s Day 2008 mauling of Krystal Cooney,  16,  by five pit bull and Rottweiler mixes who had for several years run loose near the Parlier High School football field––and were allowed to remain there even after allegedly killing sheep and goats kept for a class project in 2006.

Fresno police chief Jerry Dyer in August 2007 announced that his department had broken up a dogfighting ring that called itself the Dogpound Gang.  The existence of the ring came to police attention through two murder investigations. Videos recovered during the first of the murder investigations reportedly showed six organized dogfights.

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