Paws For Thought

12 years ago, I started a small newsletter in Berkeley called….Paws For Thought. I did it the old fashioned way, pasting photos and text directly onto the template and heading off to a copy shop to xerox a hundred of them and then delivering them to local pet stores. I wrote about the horrific conditions at our local animal shelter which was run by the Police Department, and had a shockingly high kill rate, I ranted about the lack of political will to change things, I followed the cat ladies of Fix Our Ferals around on a TNR (Trap-Neuter-Return) adventure and learned a thing or twenty. I wrote about the wild dog Willa at the Albany Bulb and documented my efforts to save her life and transport her to Best Friends Sanctuary in Utah, and about the homeless encampment at the Bulb which was about to be evicted leaving the people and hundreds of animals with nowhere to go. On the plus side, state laws were about to be enacted which we were convinced would turn the atrocious situation in our municipal shelters into a new world of co-operation and low kill….

Funny how the more things change, the more they stay the same …. after 10 years of falling intake rates, last year Berkeley Animal Care Services took in more dogs than they have in a decade …. consequently the euthanasia rate is on an upswing¬† …. the homeless encampment having dwindled to a few hardcore people is now swelling again and the seams of civility are straining as the garbage rises and conflicts erupt, and punitive dog laws are being proposed – again. Progressive state laws governing the conditions of domestic animals in shelters have been rolled back, leaving the Hayden Bill as a distant fond memory. California assembly members who promised they would ensure reform of the state’s worst shelters lost interest as the media packed up their cameras.

And as veterinarians feel the pinch of a worsening economy, many people are unable to afford even basic care for their pets. Vaccines costing $15 and $20 a piece, blood-tests at $40 – $50, diagnostic blood panels at $200, simple procedures costing more than the rent money, and an office visit, just to get your cat looked at, often costing $75. It just isn’t working too well for the low income and poor in our communities.

I have always taken a ‘holistic’ approach to this issue – an issue that is about how we deliver public services, paid for by the taxpayer, to those who need them most, an issue that is about delivering wellness care to pet animals, the same way we would like health care delivered to our children and our seniors, as preventive care and not triage in the emergency room. Think of the animal shelter as the equivalent as the emergency room – that’s where people inevitably end up when they cannot afford basic care for their pet. And many animals pay with their lives on arrival.

Publicly funded animal shelters should live up to that word – shelter. It means ‘a place of refuge’. And if you don’t think there’s the money in the budget, think again. But the way forward requires such a radical re-thinking and re-tooling of our system here in California that it’s unlikely to happen unless a progressive community demands change of monumental proportions. In much the same way as Judge Thelton Henderson led a Task Force into the disaster that is the California Prison Medical system, so the animal shelter system across California demands that kind of deconstruction and repair.

And the budget? Just think on this one aspect of our system. Most municipal animal shelters are run by law enforcement, police or sheriff’s departments (as was Berkeley’s until one fateful day in 1999 … more on that story later!). It costs more to run an enforcement department than it does to run a civilian run facility. No shit Sherlock! So, lets’ just take Oakland as an example. The police department budget includes the animal shelter budget. So when it comes to budget increase time, the increase is given based on the whole budget. The PD has worked out that if the animal shelter were run by a different department their overall budget would drop, and any budget increase would fall accordingly.

Funny the way it always comes down to the money honey. But what ‘price’ the plastic contractor sacks filled with bodies?

They are your animal shelters. Paid for with your tax dollars. Own them. Demand accountability. And change them.

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