At first glance, nothing appears out of the ordinary at San Jose’s animal shelter.
A steady stream of kittens comes through its doors, as they do every day. Dogs bark ferociously in their kennels. Rabbits sit peacefully next to leafy greens beneath the brightly lit atrium of the nearly 20-year-old city shelter.
But a deeper look at the city-run San Jose Animal Care Center reveals a simmering crisis.
Amid an explosion of needy animals, a culture of neglect and inadequate medical care for cats is rapidly enveloping the facility, a group of volunteers, veterinarians and rescue organizations told The Mercury News.
The situation is complicated by a confluence of challenges exacerbated by the COVID pandemic, including staffing and funding issues, the reduction of spay and neuter services and a jump in veterinarian costs.
Shelter officials acknowledge the facility is inundated with animals — and say they are taking steps to address the problems.
“Line up outside our door,” shelter director Jay Terrado said in an interview. “Please. Take 100, 200 animals from our shelter.”
Those concerned about the shelter’s management point to a sudden reduction in the number of cats who leave the shelter alive — known as the live release rate — as further evidence that something is wrong. The rate fell from 90% in 2020 to 78% this year.
With dogs included in the data, the shelter is at an 83% live release rate, according to its website. A 90% rate is generally the threshold in which a shelter is considered “no-kill” — a label the facility once displayed prominently on its popular Facebook page but removed this month after inquiries from this news organization.
City and shelter officials say the live release rate data tracks with a policy change this year in which the shelter now takes in animals with more precarious health issues while turning away healthy ones due to limited capacity. In May, the shelter had over 900 animals, a record high, and it is currently at around 600, which is still about 100 more than what the facility was built to handle. Cats also are staying longer, from an average of seven days in 2021 to up to 13 days this year, according to city-provided data.
To manage the influx, the shelter will be increasing its veterinarian staff from two to three this month. It also organized regular meetings beginning this year with advocates in an effort to improve animal outcomes. Officials said they never euthanize animals to create space in the shelter, which has 73 employees.
Dr. Elizabeth Kather, who oversees veterinarian care at the San Jose shelter, said the situation is the most dire she has seen in her career. “I’ve been in shelter medicine for almost 10 years now,” she said. “And I can say that (in) the last six months, I have never seen so many severe, sick, injured (and) poisoned (animals). It’s been rough.”
Challenges aside, retired veterinarian Dr. Monica Rudiger, who offers volunteer surgical services to South Bay cats brought in by area rescue organizations, said the shelter’s practices have forced her to speak out.
“The neglect is so blatant,” Rudiger said. “The medical care is so profoundly bad. And from a doctor’s perspective, if I were to do the things that they’re doing, I would lose my license.”
Shelter officials say they are doing their best under difficult circumstances.
“We’re seeing a lot of animals that are coming in that are sick, and yet still trying to give them a chance,” said Terrado, the shelter’s director. “It’s not going to be always a success story. But when we do have success stories, we are going to start to share those more and more.”
According to Mayor Matt Mahan, funding for the shelter has historically been an issue. This year, the City Council passed a budget that devoted an extra $1.3 million to the department, raising its yearly budget to $12.1 million. The extra funding will go toward night shift staffing, additional services to help with animal behavioral issues and $500,000 in infrastructure improvements.
“We’re the place where all the toughest cases go,” the mayor said. “And we’re at capacity. And now we’re trying to dig out from a reality which is that it’s been a city service that has not gotten a lot of additional investment over the last few years. And it’s hard. We have to prioritize.”
Critics of the shelter specifically cite two cases this year involving cats that they said reveal systemic problems in the delivery of appropriate medical services.
In mid-August, a rescue organization brought a 4-month-old kitten named Linguine to Rudiger’s attention. The orange tabby entered the San Jose shelter on July 30 with diarrhea and eye discharge, medical records show. On Aug. 9, he was neutered, even though he was reported as “thin” and “dehydrated” on that day. He was given a regimen of fluids and antibiotics.
On Aug. 11, Jennifer Flick, who leads a local rescue, says volunteers at the shelter alerted medical staff to Linguine’s declining condition. Flick said they were told Linguine would be seen on Aug. 14 — but he wasn’t given a medical exam until the day after, according to a copy of a complaint she filed with the California Veterinary Medical Board about the kitten’s care.
By Aug. 15, Linguine was lying flat in his kennel and had experienced “significant weight loss” — though his actual weight was left blank in his medical documents. Flick pulled Linguine from the shelter and brought him to Dr. Rudiger, who was able to stabilize the cat. He is currently in Flick’s care.
“When I gave him a big bolus of fluids, it would just suck in,” Flick said. “He was severely dehydrated.”
The state’s veterinary medical board is requesting more information about the case, according to an email correspondence between the agency and Flick.
In a statement, Terrado said Linguine was “stable” at the time of his surgery and received “intensive medical treatment” before he was placed in the possession of Flick. He confirmed that a volunteer alerted the shelter to a “concern” about Linguine’s medical condition, though he did not specify when that occurred.
In another case in February, an 8-month-old black cat named Bacon came into the shelter after a reported dog attack. At the time, records show the cat was having trouble using its hind legs. After a couple of weeks in the shelter, Bacon was neutered on March 1. By March 5, a medical examination was conducted because of leg issues — and notes show Bacon was having problems moving his hip.
Despite these complications, Bacon was put up for adoption and records show no X-ray was taken to determine the cause of his leg problems. Flick removed Bacon from the shelter and gave him to Dr. Rudiger, who ordered an X-ray that showed a broken hip, Flick said. Dr. Rudiger amputated Bacon’s left rear leg and Flick took him home.
A second Bay Area-based veterinarian who reviewed Bacon’s medical notes, Dr. Shira Rubin, said she couldn’t think of a “single municipal animal shelter that will put up an animal for adoption that can’t walk.”
Video of Bacon at the San Jose Animal Care Center on March 6, 2023. (Courtesy Jennifer Flick)
Rubin said shelters will normally put up animals for adoption who have easy-to-manage health issues to increase capacity, “but this is way past the line.” She also acknowledged that the influx of animals would be difficult for any veterinarian team to handle. Deputy City Manager Angel Rios said the shelter only allows the adoption of medically challenged animals to experienced individuals.
The shelter’s director said that during a medical examination before Bacon was neutered, “there were no initial signs at the time that there were any medical concerns.” He confirmed that no X-ray was taken after the medical exam on March 5.
The shelter, he said, has “looked into this matter and the situation was addressed internally.”
Mayor Mahan says the shelter’s “outcomes are not good enough today” and asked that residents think “long and hard” before adopting an animal so they don’t end up surrendering it later. He also urged more volunteers to give their time to the shelter.
“We should have fewer animals dying at the shelter; we’ve got to do better,” he said. “And part of how we’re going to do better is by inspiring our community to be part of the solution. We have to do that in a lot of different ways.”
Source: Orange County Register