Fresno County officials couldn't be happier as the first year of their partnership with Liberty Animal Control Services draws near.
But some in the animal-rescue world are upset with Liberty, saying company officials take shortcuts that harm abandoned creatures and leave taxpayers footing the bill.
It should be no surprise if this story line — government with its responsibilities vs. animal lovers with their outrage — sounds familiar. It's a nearly perfect reprise of an earlier fight in which strong emotions colliding with harsh reality almost led to a countywide public health fiasco.
The newest battle could last for years.
Fresno County supervisors are soon expected to take two actions that would solidify their ties to the company providing animal-control services in unincorporated areas.
The county last year signed a three-year deal with Liberty at $750,000 for the first year. Supervisors almost certainly will be asked to give Liberty a raise for year two that begins Tuesday, though how big is unclear.
The supervisors also will decide whether to spend an estimated $2 million from a reserve account to build a more substantial animal shelter at the site of the old county morgue in southwest Fresno.
Dates for both items are still up in the air. But the supervisor most responsible for Liberty's presence on the animal-control scene said the company deserves a vote of confidence.
"Liberty has done an excellent job," Board of Supervisors Chairman Henry R. Perea says.
Perea admits there is room for improvement in Liberty's performance.
"Has it been perfect?" Perea says. "No."
But, he adds, things will improve with time and more money. He said he will push for a substantial bump in Liberty's funding.
Liberty co-owner/president Daniel Bailey says the company had only a few days last fall to get a full-blown animal shelter operation up and running.
"We're learning as we go along," Bailey says. "But it's working."
Critics disagree, saying Liberty's top executives are in way over their heads.
Becky Holly, an official with Fresno Bully Rescue, says she and others in the local animal-rescue world are asking the supervisors for change.
"Not necessarily a change from Liberty but a change at Liberty," Holly says.
Another critic, who visited the shelter more than 20 times as a volunteer animal advocate, agrees.
Denise Sbath, a dog trainer who moved to Fresno last November, says she found the shelter to be a demoralizing and disorganized place where outside offers of help were rejected.
She says dogs broil in the summer sun and unvaccinated dogs have gone to rescue groups, among other things.
The problem lies not with finances but with management, Sbath says.
"The entire operation needs to be overhauled."
Overhaul not easy
Local government officials and animal lovers have pursued animal-control reform for nearly two years. In some respects, though, they find themselves pretty much where they started.
Animal control began to unravel in September 2011 when the Fresno City Council approved a one-year, $2.2 million contract with the Central California Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
The SPCA had been delivering legally mandated animal control services within the city limits for more than 50 years. It was doing much the same thing in the county's rural areas for a bit under $1 million annually.
Animal control often is a grim business in Fresno and the county. The spaying and neutering of dogs and cats never have kept pace with reproductive instincts. The result is a perpetual surplus of animals whose suffering from neglect or human malice seldom fails to move the public's heart.
The ink was barely dry on the city/SPCA deal when long-simmering frustrations exploded. Animal advocates were unhappy with the nonprofit's high euthanasia rates. SPCA officials were unhappy with the incessant criticism.
The advocates focused their ire on the SPCA's closed board meetings. The advocates wanted in, saying the SPCA with its public funding had a moral (if not legal) duty to let the people see how decisions are made. SPCA officials said their private organization is not subject to the state open-meeting law.
By December 2011, City Council Member Clint Olivier was the advocates' high-profile champion. Public pressure on the SPCA soared, fueled during council meetings by advocates' sometimes tearful testimony. SPCA officials, frustrated by what they saw as media-spurred demagoguery, quit talking publicly.
That's when the SPCA made a decision that led to the current furor.
SPCA officials, citing the contracts, gave their six-month notice in March 2012. They said they'd had enough of all the complaining.
City Hall and the county had until Oct. 1 to find an animal-control replacement.
Olivier and animal advocates at first viewed the SPCA's retreat as a golden opportunity. A city-county task force was born. Outside animal-control experts were enlisted. Advocates from the small army of local animal-rescue groups saw their chance at power. Plans were made for a sales-tax initiative to generate millions for operations and a state-of-the-art animal shelter.
Momentum faded fast. Task-force meetings lost their energy. Alliances proved elusive. The politics of a sales-tax hike became daunting. Six months turned out to be a mere blink of the eye.
By late summer 2012, City Hall and the county were done with the dithering. They fulfilled their duty by going their own way, leaving animal advocates on the sidelines.
City Hall quietly went hat-in-hand to the SPCA. The SPCA agreed to stay on the job — but only for awhile and for more money. City officials agreed.
The county, with Perea in command, sent the word throughout the animal-control industry: Our business is up for grabs — send us your best offer. The county desperately hoped a full-scale animal-control service, ready to deploy at a moment's notice, was a commodity easily plucked off a retailer's shelf.
No such luck.
Only Liberty Animal Control Services, a new for-profit company with roots in Tulare County, took the gamble. The clock kept ticking. County officials, making a virtue of necessity, had no choice but to embrace Liberty.
Workers wielding hammers, brooms and hoses labored at the abandoned county morgue up to the last minute, and the Oct. 1 deadline was met. Liberty hung its "open" sign. Lost dogs on country roads had a new friend.
And local animal advocates, so recently in the driver's seat, found themselves replaced by Daniel Bailey and his crew.
Critics loathe new normal at Liberty
A long-time animal advocate working in Clovis and Sanger sums up the situation at the old morgue.
"Things aren't as they should be," says Virginia Daily, who has cared for animals in a variety of settings for nearly 50 years.
Sbath and Daily have listed their concerns in separate reports. Both say they speak with the voice of authority.
Sbath says she has some 30 years of animal-care experience, including stints with a humane society in Florida and a shelter in San Clemente. Sbath says she often visited Liberty's kennels as a representative of local animal rescue groups. She inspected dogs being considered for transfer to the rescues. The task at times took as long as two hours of research among the kennels, she says.
Sbath says she has sent her report to Perea, who acknowledges receiving it.
In the report, Sbath writes she was shocked by her first visit to the center.
"The kennel size is extremely small," Sbath writes. "Some of the kennels had two to three large dogs crammed in. Not much room to even turn and move.
"Secondly, I noticed that many of the kennels faced directly into the sun. The dogs looked very hot and rather lethargic."
The shelter must do more to control disease, Sbath writes. For example, she writes that about 18 dogs, sent to rescue groups without vaccinations, are now showing signs of illness.
Life in the shelter's large outdoor kennel area can be bleak, Sbath writes.
"On my more recent visits," Sbath writes, "I witnessed a mother dog with week-old puppies lying in one of those kennels with a dead animal that was dripping bodily fluids into the run (where) the mother and babies were laying. Their little heads were stuck in the cage bars, and they were lying in 100-degree-plus sunshine."
Small- and medium-sized dogs are kept in kennels in a building called "The Barn." Sbath says she saw a small Yorkie mix in a cage with bigger dogs.
"She was not sick and did not look sick," Sbath writes. "She was just terrified. Shaking like a leaf. I wanted to take her out of there and take her home, but I couldn't. I think her kennel mates might have been attacking her."
Daily says she worked in Liberty's front office from January until this month. She says her dealings with the public required her to often visit the kennels next to the trailer that houses Liberty headquarters.
Daily says she's not the proverbial "disgruntled" former employee. She says she and Liberty parted company by mutual decision, though the circumstances were strained.
Daily lists 27 concerns in her report, which she has mailed to county officials. She alleges that Liberty officials skimped on dog food and vaccinations. She alleges the shelter has no firm policy on euthanasia — some injured dogs are left to die while other dogs are put down with too much haste. She says protesting employees were intimidated into silence and public offers of volunteer labor rejected without exception.
Fresno County's animals, Daily writes, need "a caring voice to speak up for them."
Liberty, county pleased
Top county officials and Liberty's Bailey say they are that voice.
All things considered, Perea says, Liberty "has done a pretty darn good job."
David Pomaville, interim head of the county's public health department, says his shop keeps close tabs on Liberty. The shelter's spending habits are in order. Operational reports arrive with regularity. Monthly inspections have found no problems of appalling nature.
"We're satisfied with their performance," Pomaville says.
According to county records, Liberty in its first nine months (October through June) handled more than 3,000 calls for service during regular hours and 326 after-hours calls. The shelter cared for 2,843 animals, more than 1,600 picked up in the field.
More than 150 animals (mostly dogs) were returned to their owners, 456 animals (including one mule) were adopted and 435 animals were released to rescue groups.
The shelter handles on average 200 animals a day.
The hot-button number was 1,502 — the number of sick, dangerous or unadoptable animals that were euthanized. Sbath and Daily say that's too many. Bailey says Liberty does its best to preserve animals and find them homes.
Liberty deals almost exclusively with dogs. A county staff report from earlier this year gives a sense of the shelter's challenges.
"Unfortunately, nearly all of the dogs picked up or brought into the shelter have no license, microchip, or collar to identify who owns the animal," the report said.
Bailey says he has 24 years' experience in animal care, much of it in Sanger and Tulare County. He says the operation has about 15 full-time employees and a nonprofit arm that oversees donations.
Liberty is a for-profit company, but "all the profits go back to the animals," Bailey says.
The new $2 million facility will be a big improvement, he adds, and more money would be be put to good use. For example, Bailey wants a faster, safer system for cleaning kennels and better shelter for the animals.
Two themes run through Bailey's comments. The first is the mad-dash nature of the shelter's opening.
"We had only days to put this together," Bailey says.
Second, he has no patience with his critics.
Bailey says small dogs sometimes are put in kennels with big dogs, but only if it's clear they know each other (had the same home or ran together on the streets). He says the strong aren't permitted to prey on the weak.
As to the body fluids of a dead dog dripping into the areas of other dogs, Bailey says, "Didn't happen."
Cleanliness and disease control are priorities for Liberty, Bailey says. There was a brief period when vaccinations ran low, he says, but it was temporary.
Perea says Liberty did run out of vaccinations for a few days. He says the cause was human error, but gives no other details.
Perea adds that vaccinations aren't required by the contract. County documents, however, tout the routine vaccination of dogs for canine parvovirus and distemper as proof of Liberty's diligence.
Bailey says Liberty isn't ready to accept volunteers. Part of the reason is liability. He says the grounds, still in transition from morgue to animal shelter, are too risky for outsiders.
And part of the reason is chain of command. Many animal advocates have a sense of righteousness to match their big hearts, Bailey says.
"There has to be one boss."
Future is far from clear
Animal advocates Daily and Sbath have answers for the county.
Daily says the supervisors should appoint an expert — "a watchdog" — with the authority to tell Liberty officials what to do.
Sbath in her report to Perea lists eight recommendations, including better training and supervision for Liberty workers.
Bailey says Liberty executives have no desire to yield their authority to someone parachuting into a year-old operation now that the start-up pains are safely out of the way.
"This is working," Bailey says as he surveys Liberty's kennels. "Our only goal is to serve the animals and people of Fresno County."
But the local animal-control challenge is far bigger than the struggles of a year-old company with a relatively narrow mission. City and county officials continue to seek a well-funded long-term solution.
City Hall appears to have gained some breathing room, expensive though it be. The City Council in June approved Mayor Ashley Swearengin's 2013-2014 budget with an extra $1 million to keep the SPCA on board.
City Manager Bruce Rudd said the SPCA, still intent on shedding its animal-control chores, probably will work for City Hall for only another two or three years. The city will then find itself in the same fix as last year.
"We need to build something in the future," Rudd says. "How we'll do that is still to be determined."
City Hall gets points for creative thinking. Until the SPCA agreed to re-enlist last year, city officials were looking at an empty building near Fulton Mall for a dog pound and asking the shrinking police force to double as dog-catchers.
The county is in only slightly better shape.
A new facility would be a big improvement on what Liberty is working with, but no one expects it to be enough. The old morgue building (not used by Liberty) would be razed, but the site is too small and $2 million isn't enough for what county officials have in mind.
Supervisor Andreas Borgeas, a former Fresno City Council member, raises the standard expectation whenever something big bedevils local government.
"My preference has always been a comprehensive solution — one that includes Fresno County and the city of Fresno and our surrounding cities to the extent that's possible," he says.
Perea says he still is keen on a voter-approved sales-tax boost. It worked for Chaffee Zoo (Measure Z) and can work for animal control, he says.
But 2014 is a terrible time to bring such an initiative, he says. Measure Z, for example, will be up for renewal. And 2015 in politics is a lifetime away.
That's why county and city officials seem in no mood for round two of an animal-control revolt.
Perea was the advocates' best friend last year when the animal-control model imploded. But the times changed in a mere year.
Perea now has considerable political capital invested in Liberty's success. His strongest praise these days is reserved for a company helping the county shoulder its public-health burdens, not the company's critics.
Perea says animal advocates remain his allies, but warns: "If perfection is our standard, they may not be happy all the time."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or email@example.com. Read his City Beat blog at news.fresnobeehive.com/city-beat.