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.