San Jose animal shelter deaths hit five-year high
A kitten that was brought to the San Jose Animal Care Center is seen in an enclosure on Aug. 26, 2022. File photo.

Advocates and San Jose officials can agree on one thing: the conditions in the city’s animal shelter are harrowing.

That’s how the situation for San Jose Animal Care and Services is described in an annual report for fiscal year 2022-23, which found that while the city is taking in less animals, more animals died this year than the last five years.

City officials say it’s because they’ve prioritized taking in sick animals over healthy ones, making death more likely in the last year. Advocates argue the city is neglecting the animals and intentionally ignoring concerns of volunteers and veterinarians. Officials discussed the report’s findings at the city’s Dec. 14 Neighborhood Services and Education committee meeting.

In the past year, 426 animals died and 1,072 animals were euthanized, according to the report. At its peak, the San Jose Animal Care Center had more than 900 animals—more than double its capacity. That’s compounded by animals staying longer in the shelter, in part because it’s harder to get residents to adopt sick pets.

Elizabeth Kather, division manager of the shelter, said the overpopulation of animals has made it difficult to constantly watch all of them. She said the team has been vigilant in flagging and caring for the most vulnerable dogs and cats, and there is always a treatment or pain management plan. Euthanized animals are dealing with severe chronic illnesses or are in an extraordinary amount of pain.

“We don’t take those decisions lightly,” Kather said at the meeting. “The ones that died in the kennel doesn’t mean they were ignored or neglected or treatment wasn’t instituted. It just means that they succumb to their illness or their injury, which is across the board in human medicine and animal medicine. It doesn’t mean that they were suffering.”

But more than a dozen volunteers and animal advocates criticized the city’s handling of the shelter. Monica Rudiger, a retired veterinarian and shelter volunteer, said she’s seen cats that still needed leg amputations, feeding tubes for starvation, blood transfusion for anemia and wounds that needed cleaning because they had maggots in them. She also said it was disingenuous for the city to say animals coming into the shelter are more unhealthy and untreatable than years prior, and rather it’s the conditions that are making them worse.

“Unhealthy, defenseless sick and injured animals are not receiving adequate medical care, and spend many weeks and often months without resolution of their issues,” Rudiger said at the meeting. “The animals deserved better, and sadly, it’s (been) the volunteers who recognized their state of poor health, not the medical staff.”

Former volunteer Kathy Burden shared pictures with San José Spotlight that showed animal feces left in kennels with little to no cleaning supplies to take care of the filthy conditions.

“It was just a horrendous situation. It was horribly stressful. It was actually a danger to the public (because the dogs are so stressed),” Burden said. “And the smell, I wish I could record the smell (to show that) it was really bad.”

A dog kennel in the San Jose Animal Care Center with feces on the floor. Photo courtesy of Kathy Burden.

Switching models

Volunteers said the crux of the problem is the city switched from a rescue model that takes in animals and disperses them to different shelters, to an adoption model that holds animals for a longer time.

The shelter had various vacant positions over the last year that have since been filled to help with the overcrowded shelter. But several former volunteers told San José Spotlight staffing still isn’t enough to manage the animals without getting outside help.

Former volunteer Rebekah Davis Mathews said partnerships with outside rescue groups have fallen significantly, and that has caused more animals to be euthanized. San Jose’s shelter is considered a “no kill” facility, but the city is at risk of losing that title because the rate at which animals are released needs to be 90% or higher. The city’s shelter release rate is at 85%—the lowest it has been in five years, according to the report.

Jay Terrado, deputy director of public works, said the city chose to prioritize sick, injured and aggressive animals as recommended by Maddie’s Fund, an independent animal welfare organization. The city applied for a consultation audit and a team visited the shelter in July 2022. Maddie’s Fund also said San Jose relied too heavily on rescue partners to take animals, and that the adoption numbers from the shelter were low for such a big city.

In response, Terrado said the city “over pivoted” and created a new foster program in January. Terrado conceded that while building out the foster program, the city should have balanced operations to ensure that animals also went to rescue partners. Because more of the animals adopted were sicker and required more resources,  healthy animals—more likely to get adopted—were turned away.

“It’s unfortunately brutal to hear what’s happening in our shelter,” Councilmember Omar Torres said at the meeting. “I know that there’s external forces on why we’re having these concerns, (but) we’re all one team. I am definitely committed to making sure that we address the concerns of our activists to make sure that our furry friends are healthy and safe, and find a home when they go through our shelter.”

Contact Jana at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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