VC animal shelter's uphill battle

VC animal shelter's uphill battle

No-kill ambitions remain strong but stunted by increasing intake numbers

By Justin Formanek 03/14/2013

Photos by Jim L. Bass
“We had one week in January where we would actually be considered no-kill,” said Donna Gillesby, deputy director for Ventura County Animal Services (VCAS). “I’m very proud of that week.”

The agency has been under pressure to drastically lower euthanasia rates since the Ventura County Board of Supervisors announced a commitment to a “no-kill” philosophy as part of merging Animal Services into the county’s Public Health Department last June.

“We touched it,” said Gillesby. “Now we just need to hold it.”

In order to do so, VCAS had to come up with some creative solutions, such as instituting a new foster parenting program. Until earlier this year, underweight or underage kittens and puppies could only be fostered by VCAS staff and county employees.

“This program is a wonderful way for volunteers to help newborn animals gain the strength and size they need to become eligible for permanent adoption,” said Gillesby. “We want to see if we can get the public to help save these little lives.”

To become eligible for the program, foster parents receive mandatory training from VCAS’s veterinarian, Dr. Heather Skogerson. Once trained, they provide care and feeding until the animals are of an adoptable age and weight. This is typically for three to five weeks, or until they’re 2.5-3 pounds and 2 months old. Foster families need only cover the cost of food, while VCAS provides medical care and offers a 50 percent discount on adoption fees.

Opening the program to the public is just one step toward VCAS’s ultimate goal of becoming “no-kill.” Changes in the culture of the agency, as well as attempts to increase public awareness, are also being implemented.

“Things that we can change that don’t cost money, that’s basically what we’re after right now,” said Gillesby.

One of those things has been an increase in marketing through social media. Despite having a nonexistent marketing budget, VCAS has been aggressively seeking community support through its website, a Facebook page and a Twitter account.

The agency has also begun a shift in the mindset of its staff, transitioning from what Gillesby calls an “enforcement-based attitude” to an “adoption-centered” one. For guidance, VCAS has enlisted the aid of Robert Cabral’s Bound Angels, a Malibu-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that teaches behavioral assessment programs to shelters, humane societies and rescue operations, free of charge. With these tools, staff and volunteers are able to make their own determination of whether an animal is a candidate for euthanasia, as opposed to relying on the word of the owner who relinquished it.

Additionally, one of the buildings at the Camarillo shelter has been converted into a “sick area” for dogs that have kennel cough. In the past, the respiratory infection was a death sentence; those that had contracted kennel cough were often euthanized to prevent its spreading further. By quarantining infected dogs, VCAS has been able to opt for treatment instead.

These changes have produced significant improvement. In January of 2012, a total of 160 dogs were euthanized. This year, the number fell to 70, a decrease of more than 56 percent. Opening the Simi Valley Holding Facility for adoptions, for the first time in nearly 20 years of operation, has also contributed to the decline.

Without public support or additional funding, however, there is only so much that can be done.

The reality is that, as quickly as animals are adopted out, more and more are coming in. In January, VCAS took in a total of 463 dogs, 141 cats, 36 bunnies and 48 other assorted birds, reptiles and livestock. Of those 688, only 275 were adopted and 104 were transferred to other rescue groups. That still leaves more than 300 animals in need of food and care. Additionally, the intake numbers for dogs continue to rise. Since 2004, the annual total for incoming dogs has risen from 5,321 to 7,524 in 2010.
Currently, Ventura County does not have a mandatory spay and neuter ordinance. Though VCAS offers free services for pitbulls and discount vouchers for other breeds, owners can reclaim animals without taking advantage of them. Unless there is a countywide commitment to responsible pet ownership, the intake numbers will continue to climb.

 “It’s going to take the whole community to have this shelter become no-kill,” said Gillesby. “We’ll continue working towards it, doing what we can. If we can engage the community, and engage our stakeholders, then we can be successful.”

For more information about adoption, to volunteer, or to participate in a foster program, call Ventura County Animal Services at 388-4341, or toll-free at (888) 223-PETS. Additionally, you can visit its website, at, or find it on Facebook.



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The 11-Point Road to No-Kill Ventura County:
1.Trap-Neuter-Release of feral/free-roaming community cats. 2. High volume low-cost spay and neuter programs. 3. Developing a close relationship with rescue groups to increase adoptions. 4. Foster care, to extend shelter capacity. 5. Comprehensive adoption programs, including weekly off-site adoptions. 6. Pet retention efforts, to keep animals in their existing homes. 7. Medical & behavior prevention & rehabilitation, to ensure that animals receive the help they need. 8. Public relations and community involvement. 9. An army of volunteers to reduce costs by providing a supplement to the paid workforce. 10. Proactive actions to reunite stray animals with their owners rather than impounding them. 11. A compassionate hard working director, who is not content to hide behind the myth of “too many animals, not enough homes”, or just blaming the community.

posted by maxie on 3/14/13 @ 05:27 p.m.

Before you jump on the no kill wagon...

Look at the facts and do the math. Here's how it works...any "rescue" or animal shelter has a limit to the amount of space and resources available. Once a shelter or a rescue is full they have two options. One option is to euthanize animals that haven't been adopted and have spent an unacceptable length of time in cage confinement. These animals become psychologically affected once they have been confined for too long. The second option is to stop accepting animals. Now ask yourself these questions. Where do the animals go once the "no kill" shelter is full? Is it okay to keep an animal in a cage with no family for the remainder of its life? What becomes of the animals that have to be turned away?

While the no kill shelters and rescues are patting themselves on the back guess who does their dirty work for them. Guess who is left with the overwhelming overpopulation of animals. That's right, it's the rest of the shelters.

It is the height of ignorance to protest or bash any shelter that does the humane thing, does not turn animals away and makes room for animals that can be adopted. Before you consider criticizing someone's job you may want to learn a bit about it. You may want to go to a city shelter and spend a week with the hundreds of animals warehoused and slowly going insane. These people are stretched beyond their limit just to clean, feed, water and treat these animals several times a day. Love, companionship and any kind of behavioral enrichment is a luxury they can't afford. These people run ragged all day long cleaning and feeding hundreds of animals and return to their cars exhausted at the end of the day to find "puppy killer" written across their windshield.

You want to get mad? Allow me to point you in the direction of those who think it's "cute" when their pet gets pregnant. Those who create pets and give them a prestigious title so that they can sell them for as much as possible. Those who want to brag to their friends how much they paid for their "purebred" that's just like the one the Jones’s have or the one in that movie they saw. Those who think a bunny is a "must have" for Easter. Really? Why wasn't giving a pet a home a good idea any other day of the year?

Look at the facts. Do the math. DON'T YOU DARE place your unfounded and misplaced anger on those who are left to clean up the mess.


~Wendy Hand, BA RVT LVT

posted by mw2186 on 3/15/13 @ 04:52 a.m.

If 90 shelters throughout the USA have become No Kill Shelters using the Nathan Winograd No Kill Equation w/in depth programs behind each of the 11 parts of the No Kill Equation those that are continuing to kill so many homeless animals cannot be practicing the No Kill Equation. Why are they afraid to make positive changes in the way they do business.

posted by maxie on 3/15/13 @ 09:23 a.m.

EDITOR'S NOTE: For clarification, Daniel Guss, animal advocate based in LA, did not write this comment.

"Despite having a nonexistent marketing budget"

How about start cutting back on the wages or even on the actual positions of those in higher tiers in the agency ?

"merging Animal Services into the county's Public Health Department last June"

A quick glance of the Animal Services website shows the "ADMINISTRATION" as having both a position for a director as well as a deputy director and expanding our search to the VENTURA COUNTY HEALTH CARE AGENCY PUBLIC HEALTH ORGANIZATIONAL CHART and we find another director. Maybe just maybe if all those hefty salaries didn't have to be paid then they could have some extra funds to spend. Now which one should they consider ? Do you really need three director types now ? Will it all fall apart if you lose one or maybe two ? How about some fresh new blood at the helm huh ?

posted by GUSSD on 3/15/13 @ 04:06 p.m.

Maxie, saving lives is not about fantasy, gimmicks or trickery. The shelters that use Winograd's ideas use devices like limiting admissions through appointments to bring in an animal (thereby reducing impounds and ensuring fewer animals to save, while being able to pick and choose which animals to accept, i.e., the animals who are easier to adopt). Other so-called no-kill shelters take their animals who are not getting adopted to the kill shelter down the street, so the "no-kill" shelter that failed the animal can say it did not do the killing. Some count their kill numbers wrong, things like using "behavior assessments" to label animals as "unadoptable" or otherwise undeserving of being saved, and then the shelter claims it is no-kill because it does not kill "adoptable" animals (not mentioning that it labeled the others "unadoptable" and killed them). A newer gimmick is shipping animals to faraway shelters but not following up to find out if the new shelter got the animals a home vs the animals got killed, yet claiming them all as "saved."

Maxie, it is not that the shelters are afraid to work for no-kill. The problem is that they do not know how, and Winograd's "no-kill equation" is not nearly enough especially in today's economy. As a result, the so-called no-kill directors make limited progress, and learn to cover up the rest. Look at the big city shelter to your South. Look at shelters in Illinois. Palm Springs got sued for fraud for claiming no-kill; now they fall back on the behavior assessment labeling gimmick

We would all like to believe in fantasy and trust the snake-oil salesmen, but decisions and plans need to be based on reality. A very tiny number of shelters are blessed with demographics full of wealth, education, and animal-loving philanthropists. Otherwise, current shelter managers are not getting no-kill without smoke and mirrors.

Ventura County is trying very hard to save lives but has a long way to go in terms of educating and motivating the public, spay-neuter, reducing impounds and increasing adoptions. Nathan Winograd's no-kill writings have some good ideas, but he is wrong about some things too, his negativity is all wrong for any shelter, and he does not address shelter operations issues that stymie progress, or positive outreach across all populations. Accomplishing those things will take new people with new and better ideas.

VCAS is hirig a new director, but seems to be seeking its new director from another shelter. This is sad and makes no-kill impossible. Getting the same tired ideas that are inadequate elsewhere without trickery will never produce better results when transferred to Ventura County.

GUSSD is absolutely right about needing a person with fresh ideas. It is time to move beyond old small ideas and trickery. If Ventura County wants to save lives with honesty, it is time to think outside the shelter box.

posted by Sandra Casselberg on 3/16/13 @ 12:11 p.m.

Our Animal Shelter is simply run as a second rate agency of the county government with what many don't know is thrown over $5M in tax money annually. It is the lazy way to run an operation that has at its core a businesslike killing of innocent animals in its care because following a proven strategy of eleven points to achieve no-kill is just too "intense" for simple civil servants. And besides the citizens of the county don't care how they run it anyway. Right? My answer is, "how could the dozens of newly changed no-kill "open" shelters across this country to it and we can't? If Austin, Texas can do it are we just too concreted in to our "system" to change? I guess so!!

posted by karenhelen on 3/17/13 @ 08:47 a.m.

What does it take to see the records of how much money is in the animal shelter's budget each year ? And how is each penny spent ? Who gets paid the most and do they deserve it ? Who the least and do they deserve it ? Who makes the final determination of what animals are to be euthanized and why that was the choice ? How easy is it to manipulate the statistics ? When all is said and done where does the buck stop ?

And why don't you have to license cats ? There is some money to help right there ? And why are you the bad guy if you trap a cat in your yard ? Are you not a bad guy for letting your animal run loose chancing it to be killed or injured to die a slow death in the bushes ? License cats and end this letting them run free ?

posted by sammyfly on 3/17/13 @ 11:57 a.m.

In response to sammyfly, whose only punctuation key still working is apparently "?":
If you require licensing of cats, you will increase the number of cats abandoned, and ultimately killed, at shelters. And yes, you are a "bad guy" for trapping cats that pass through your yard for no other reason than you think all cats should be housebound. There is always a balance between regulating everything and respecting people's right to be left alone. The Camarillo Animal Shelter, as anyone knows who volunteers there, is well run by people who appear to care for animals that have been neglected, abandoned and worse by our fellow citizens. I'm tired of people complaining about how they are sure that government agencies are wasting tax dollars. If you have so many questions, why don't you spend time educating yourself?

posted by 30Again on 4/07/13 @ 07:21 p.m.
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