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Advocates still calling for change Orange County Animal Services

Four months after a dog was accidentally euthanized, animal-welfare groups say more needs to be done to improve shelter

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In August 2013, Orange County Animal Services received the most publicity it had probably seen in years. Unfortunately, it wasn’t good publicity. The shelter had taken in a brown-and-white pit bull dog named Hershey, and his good looks had helped him beat the odds that face many shelter pit bulls – a family applied to adopt him, and they were ready to take him home. But somebody didn’t get the memo. Before his new owner could pick him up, Hershey was euthanized.

There was a public outcry, during which animal-welfare advocates wanted to know how and why such a thing could be allowed to happen by people who are charged with animal welfare. When a citizen emailed the shelter’s longtime head vet, Dr. Robert Ridgway, to inquire about the matter, he responded by complaining about his job, calling her email “dumb” and comparing her to people who “know everything but know nothing.”

The episode put the shelter, which operates as an open-admission municipal shelter serving all of Orange County, into an uncomfortable spotlight. The dog’s death and Ridgway’s response highlighted the fact that OCAS, as the shelter is called, is neither the most efficient nor the most sophisticated, by modern sheltering standards.

Quickly, though, the shelter’s administrators promised improvements, including a new system in which three people had to sign off on a dog before it was euthanized was implemented. The shelter promised that Ridgway would soon be on his way out and replaced with a new vet. Dil Luther, manager of OCAS, did not respond to a request to discuss the shelter’s issues, but according to meeting notes, he promised at a September meeting of the Orange County Animal Services Advisory Board that OCAS would work on improving communication with the public and rescue organizations. Dr. George Ralls, director of health services for the county, promised to implement an “error reduction” strategy to prevent similar mistakes from occurring again.

But nearly four months later, advocates for animals in Orange County say, not much has changed. The new euthanasia protocol is in place, but Ridgway is still employed by the shelter. Some rescues say the communication from the shelter staff is still seriously lacking, and veterinary care for sick animals needs improvement. Advocates say that although administration promises that change is on the way, it isn’t coming fast enough.

“There need to be more checks and balances in place,” says local rescuer Pam Strickland, who says she used to take dogs from OCAS to place them in rescue. In December 2011, she says, she offered to take in an elderly, emaciated dog from the shelter that had an upper respiratory infection. She named the dog Nicky, and asked the shelter not to neuter the dog because he wasn’t healthy enough to undergo surgery. The shelter refused. When she picked the dog up, she says, he had a fever and green mucus was gushing from his nose. He never fully recovered and died not long after leaving the shelter. Strickland says she would like to see more compassion brought to the shelter’s decision-making process, which she says doesn’t always take into account what’s best for the animals.

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