Is Fresno County still killing dogs, cats at highest rate in state? Data show change

Six years ago, at the peak of a raging debate in Fresno over operations at the Central California Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals shelter, Fresno County’s euthanasia rate was the highest among California’s 58 counties. Seven out of every 10 dogs that went into the shelter in 2012, and eight out of every 10 cats, didn’t make it out alive.

That’s changed, but it’s taken time, and there are still thousands of animals being euthanized here.

More than 26,400 dogs and cats were put down in 2012 in Fresno County, according to data from the veterinary health section of the California Department of Public Health. That followed two straight years in which the number of animals killed exceeded 33,000 in the county.

The intervening years have seen a marked reduction in the percentage of animals euthanized countywide. Fresno County still has the fourth-highest rate in the state, behind Yuba, Butte and Tuolumne counties. But now it’s less than 50 percent. Fewer than 7,000 dogs and about 7,500 cats were put down by shelters in the county in 2016, the most recent full year for which the state has available data.

The soaring death numbers earlier in this decade fueled criticism of the CCSPCA on two fronts: first by local animal organizations over imposing barriers to allowing the groups to “rescue” animals for adoption, and second by local elected officials for closing its meetings to the public despite receiving more than $3 million in public funds from the city of Fresno and Fresno County for animal control services.

The rift ultimately became political, and finally led to Fresno County parting ways and establishing its own shelter operations, while the city of Fresno reconciled with the CCSPCA and renewed its contract for animal control services in the city limits.

Partnering with rescue groups

A significant part of the lower death rates in recent years appears to be related to increased collaboration with animal rescue groups. The state has only included figures on dogs transferred to rescue groups in its annual report since 2015.

Representatives of the CCSPCA did not return a phone message seeking comment. But in a report last fall to the Fresno City Council, the agency reported that out of 14,000 dogs and 12,000 cats taken in during the previous 12 months, it achieved a “live release rate” – the percentage of animals leaving the shelter alive, whether through adoption, being reclaimed by owners or transfers to rescue organizations – of 52 percent for dogs and 33 percent for cats. That includes a combined 4,400 adoptions and almost 3,000 transfers to a network of more than 80 animal rescues.

A timid dog stares warily from its cage at the Fresno Humane Animal Services shelter in this file photo. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

Brenda Mitchell, a longtime animal-rescue activist who now helps operate the Fresno County Humane Services shelter, said that rescue groups – both in the Valley and in the western U.S. – are a key part of her organization’s strategy to keep dogs alive.

“We’re looking for any other alternative for friendly, healthy animals other than euthanasia,” Mitchell said. “We took over (the county’s) shelter in 2015, when it had a 75 percent euthanasia rate, and within two years we got it down below 12 percent. … We’re dealing with the same population of animals; we’re just doing it a little different.”

From October 2016 through September 2017, Fresno Humane took in almost 5,900 dogs and cats from throughout Fresno County. Of that number, more than 5,000 were released alive, including 1,045 adoptions and 3,556 transfers to other rescues.

“Our biggest (rescue) partner is the Oregon Humane Society in Portland,” Mitchell said. “They have a far greater need for adoptable animals than they have animals, so they’re sending transport vehicles weekly to California to pick up between 50 and 70 animals a week.” Other pets that go unclaimed by their Fresno County owners are transferred to other areas of California including Santa Barbara, San Francisco and Silicon Valley, Mitchell said.

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A pair of puppies peer through the bars of a kennel at the Fresno County Humane Services shelter in this October 2015 file photo. Craig Kohlruss ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Spay-neuter programs help

Improved efforts to get owners to spay and neuter their pets is also credited with reducing the population of unwanted animals, including more low-cost spay-neuter options.

“A lot of communities don’t have low-cost spay and neuter options,” Mitchell said. “A lot of families are struggling with what’s in front of them financially and their dog’s reproductive system just is not a priority.”

Mitchell credited the HOPE Animal Foundation for its work. Since it opened in 2006, the low-cost clinic has performed about 200,000 spays and neuters, she said.

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While the city of Fresno continues to contract with CCSPCA for animal control services, the relationship still has its bumps. Euthanasia was one of the key issues in 2012, when the city was weighing possible alternatives for animal control. More recently, concerns have centered on the shelter’s responsiveness to residents’ calls for services including dog bites and loose dogs.

Since 2012, when the city renewed its contract with CCSPCA, the number of dog bites reported by Fresno residents has doubled, from 480 in 2013 to more than 950 in 2017.

Councilman Clint Olivier, whose criticisms of CCSPCA helped fuel the debate in 2012, suggested last month to his council colleagues that for the nearly $4 million a year that the city pays on its animal-control contract, Fresno should have a greater hand in the oversight of the organization.

Tim Sheehan: 559-441-6319; Twitter: @TimSheehanNews.