Ventura County runs only one public animal shelter, which faces the daily dilemma of overcrowding. Too many abandoned, lost, stray, sick or injured animals, too little space to care for them all, too little time to find the right home for each animal.

The really lucky ones are reunited with their owners or are adopted by a new family. Others wait for their happy ending in a foster home. Many are placed with private rescue groups that foster their animals indefinitely, until the right match is made.

But some animals that are poorly socialized, dangerous or too sick or injured to recover are eventually euthanized.

Also in this last group are the less attractive dogs or less desirable breeds, animals that would make wonderful pets but have been passed over by the public for too long. They are taking up valuable space and must go.

Last year, 2,060 dogs and 2,182 cats were destroyed for any of the above reasons. This is not what the rescue advocates want, and it is not what the director of Ventura County Department of Animal Regulation wants. Their dream of a no-kill shelter is almost within reach but has stubbornly remained an elusive goal to the frustration of all.

wThere has been improvement, but …
Those who spend much of their free time laboring for the good of homeless animals are generally agreed that no-kill shelters are the best solution. Diane Rowley, founder of the organization P.A.P.A. (Promote and Protect Animals) has recently transformed from being an advocate to an activist in the no-kill movement. The motivator of her newfound energy was an old beagle called Chief.

Rowley, an attorney in Ventura, already had two other beagles. She was told about Chief’s predicament. He had been successfully treated for an ear infection at the county shelter but, due to his advanced age, had not been adopted and his time was up.

“I don’t even know what one does about this,” Rowley told her family.

Her husband replied, “Well, one goes to the shelter and adopts the dog.”

Rowley said that began her quest for rapid change in the county and explained exactly what she wanted to see happen. “It is sometimes called the No-Kill movement; it is sometimes called an Adoption Guarantee,” she said. “It is a national and international movement to change the way shelters are managed so they don’t have to euthanize animals that are otherwise adoptable.”

The key to changing to a no-kill shelter, Rowley said, is a change in attitude. “There is a plethora of data on shelters just like ours across the country that have converted from a pound mentality,” she said, “where when you run out of room you kill it, to a more proactive, creative, life-affirming paradigm where they do not accept euthanasia as one of the management techniques. That if an animal is adoptable or treatable, that you keep it and you guarantee it life.”

Ventura County has made huge strides toward that goal. But Rowley wants more to happen. “The biggest frustration is that because our statistics are already on the edge, pushing us over to no-kill status should not be rocket science.

There is progress in that we’ve been shaking this tree, and I hope people are waking up.”

2Progress at the Camarillo shelter
The county Department of Animal Regulations has a webpage on shelter statistics. There it says, “We still have a long way to go if we are ever to achieve our goal of NO UNNECESSARY animal deaths.” There is a reminder that adoption takes a commitment “for the life of that animal and that living animals, unlike Chia Pets, are not disposable.”

Monica Nolan is the director of the county Department of Animal Regulations and said she has developed a long-term plan to reduce kennel overcrowding. “We want to be a no-kill shelter of adoptable animals.” Due to the high number of animals entering the shelter, however, they are not able to reach that goal.

Nolan has developed a three-point plan to reduce the overcrowding at the shelter. “First, prevent animals from coming into the shelter,” she said. “Next, once they are in, you move them out as quickly as you can. I call it moving them out the front door, not the back door. Finally, once they are out, you keep them from coming back.”

The first line of prevention is a spay/neuter program. Nolan said the shelter is working with a Simi Valley group called Valley Vet Non-Profit. She said this group is now incorporating areas of the West County into its plan, especially lower-income areas. Valley Vet will go to a qualified person’s house, pick up the pet, spay or neuter it for $10 and bring it back to the owner.

Another approach is providing help with the cost of feeding a pet. “We have a Pet Pantry at our Camarillo facility and the Simi Valley facility,” Nolan said. “We do that once a week on Sundays. Anybody can come. Just show up and we will give you food for a week for your pet.”

A future project will be adding a resource page to their website. It will provide information on all of the rescues and foundations in the county and list what resources are available.

Nolan said she understands that people are having trouble affording the proper care for their animals. “Between 2009 to 2010, I saw a 10 percent increase in the number of dogs coming into the shelter,” she said. “But I saw a 14 percent increase in the animals coming in that needed medical care. It says a lot.”

Next, the plan is to move the animals through the shelter more quickly. One thing that has been changed is the amount of time owners have to pick up their lost animals before they are put up for adoption. It used to be two weeks but Nolan said most lost animals were picked up by their owners within two days. Since the owners could be sick or on vacation, the time period was shortened but still allows owners 10 days to get their pet.

The long lines and the time it takes to be processed at the front desk has also been an issue. “We can’t add more staff but we tried to streamline the paperwork to speed the line through,” Nolan said.

You no longer are required to go to the Camarillo shelter to find an adoptable pet. “We started offsite adoptions now,” Nolan said. “We are adoption partners with Petco, and the local Petco near us is building cages so we will have the animals right in their store.”

Promotions with discounted adoptions have been a big success. On April 2 and 3, the shelter will be holding its spring promotion with adoption fees cut in half. “We’ve had close to 700 animals adopted through our promos,” Nolan said.

2The shelter is also reaching out to the county’s private rescue groups and foundations by making it much easier and less expensive for the groups to gather new animals that are appropriate for the group. For one thing, those groups can pay with a credit card by phone, and the adoption fees have been reduced from $75 down to $20 or, in some cases, zero. Plus, these groups are now permitted to pick up the animals during non-public hours to speed up the process.

Finally, the shelter needs more money. It has a limited budget that is determined by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors. Beyond that, the shelter relies on donations. It is working toward getting more corporate sponsors as well as concerned celebrities. Nolan said all of the donated money goes directly to the spay/neuter program.

The one thing that the shelter offers new owners to help them enjoy their new pet is free obedience lessons. But it is up to the owner to sign up for classes and to follow-through.

These numbers don’t lie
According to Ventura County Department of Animal Regulation statistics, there has been a sea-change in the perceived mission of an animal shelter. It has gone from a place to dispose of unwanted animals to a last chance for unfortunate animals who just need some help finding a home.

For example, in 1985-1986, only 14.4 percent of dogs in the shelter were adopted. In 2009-2010, that figure rose to 45.4 percent. In 1985-1986, 66.7 percent of shelter dogs were euthanized. Last year, that fell to 29.6 percent.

Clearly, there is still a long way to go before the shelter can be considered a no-kill shelter. In a five-year comparison report on the outcome of animals that ended up in the shelter, the recession has had a negative effect on progress. In 2004-2005, 5,321 dogs came to the shelter and 1,654 were euthanized. In 2008-2009, 6,728 dogs were taken in and 2,041 were euthanized. The percentages may have gone down but the sheer volume of dogs has risen dramatically.

The reasons for dropping off a dog at the shelter are often tied to the popularity of certain breeds. The top three breeds that have been licensed in Ventura County are Labrador retriever, short-hair Chihuahua and German shepherd.

The three breeds most often impounded are the pit bull, the short-hair Chihuahua, and the Labrador retriever. So it is no surprise to learn that the three breeds that bite most often are the pit bull, shorthair Chihuahua and Labrador retriever.

On a national scale, the top three reasons that people leave their dogs at the shelter are moving, landlord issues and the cost of pet maintenance. This survey was conducted by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy.

None of these reasons can be pinned on the animal’s behavior. It is people’s attitudes toward animals that must be addressed in order to reduce the number of euthanizations.

Maddie’s Fund is a Northern California organization that is dedicated to transforming all shelters to the philosophy of no-kill. Communications Director Lynn Sparks provided national statistics that show a trend toward a large reduction in euthanasia and an increase in adoptions. The numbers even show a sharp drop in the number of animals entering shelters.

3Comparing data from 884 shelters, animal management system PetPoint looked at numbers from October to December 2010 vs. 2009. There was a 5 percent drop in the number of animals entering the shelters, a 2 percent increase in adoptions, and an amazing 13 percent reduction in euthanasia.

Sparks said these new figures were far better than she had expected. “What is amazing about these numbers is that (they are) occurring during the worst recession we’ve ever had,” she said. “We attribute this to shelters doing a better job of marketing their pets.”

Other reasons given by Sparks for the improvement were social media, clever advertising campaigns, improved customer service, Internet search engines (like, many years of spay/neuter efforts, and even more support from corporate pet product companies.

Sparks also believes that the public attitude has experienced a turnaround in how shelters are viewed. “People are three times more likely to look for a pet at a shelter if they know friends or family who’ve adopted at one.”

Diane Rowley has one last bit of advice: adopt locally. “One of the big problems with private rescue groups is where they get their dogs,” she said. “Our local rescues are not pulling dogs for adoption out of the Camarillo shelter, they are going elsewhere. I think communities should take care of their own, and then, when Camarillo is a no-kill, then we can go to places like Bakersfield that have such a high kill rate.”  

Volunteers can make all the difference, especially in times of budget cutting and staff reductions. Volunteers do a variety of tasks including fostering pets, dog walking, or taking pictures of the animals for posting online. If you would like to find out more about becoming a volunteer, go to