Animal rescues criticize OC shelter’s ‘up to 30 days’ policy

Shelter director defends procedures and policy

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published September 18, 2013

 Local animal rescue groups and officials at the Oakland County Animal Control and Pet Adoption Center in Auburn Hills are at odds over a hold policy.

Local animal rescue groups and officials at the Oakland County Animal Control and Pet Adoption Center in Auburn Hills are at odds over a hold policy.

Photo by Deb Jacques

OAKLAND COUNTY — Several animal rescues have recently come forward with concerns about Oakland County Animal Control and Pet Adoption Center (OPAC). Their main concern is a policy limiting when rescues can pull certain dogs from the shelter, and at what price.

The rescues claim certain dogs are in danger of illness or behavioral change, since they’re being held at the shelter for an extended period of time — up to 30 days beyond the state-mandated stray hold period — as the shelter tries to adopt them out.

They also say the fee for rescues to pull the dogs early is prohibitively expensive.

The shelter argues that the fee is fiscally responsible and helps defray some of the enormous expense that comes with operating an open-admission shelter with an intake of more than 5,500 animals a year. They also claim that most dogs find homes before the 30 days pass, that they take measures to keep them healthy, and that there are hard-to-place dogs and cats available for rescues to pull for free at any time.

Policy breakdown
The shelter asks rescues to pay a fee of $136.50 — what the public pays — in order to pull select dogs in the first 30 days they’re available to the public. This applies to dogs the shelter says are “easy” to adopt out — typically smaller, popular breeds. As with all animals from the shelter, they come fully vetted, vaccinated and spayed/neutered.

If a dog is still there after 30 days, it can be pulled by rescues for free from now through the rest of September. In October, this offer will be reassessed. If discontinued, the dogs will cost $27.50 for rescues to pull after the 30-day period.

As for larger dogs and bully breeds, which are harder to place in homes, the shelter allows rescues to pull them anytime, at no cost this month. Cats and kittens, meanwhile, will always be free for rescues to pull, and can be pulled at any time.

The 30-day hold policy begins after the state-mandated stray hold period of seven business days for dogs with ID, and four business days for dogs without. Prior to this summer, there was no way for rescues to pull certain dogs during the first 30 days after the stray hold period in Oakland County.

The price factor
The option for rescues to pay $136.50 to pull the “easily adoptable” dogs early was added in recent months to reduce overflow at the shelter.

An open-admission shelter serving Oakland County alongside 10 other shelters, OPAC must accept every animal brought to them, no matter its condition.

The Oakland County Board of Commissioners is responsible for setting the prices. The revenue raised is less than $100,000 annually, which defrays little of the shelter’s $3 million in operating expenses. But every bit helps, according to Animal Control Division Manager Robert Gatt.

“If they (the rescues) want to adopt a dog in the 30-day period, they will still be charged the same as a citizen because we are good stewards of the taxpayers’ dollar, and we have to do what’s right for everyone concerned,” Gatt said. “We still lose money on every transaction, but the fee helps abate some of the cost.”

The $136.50 price tag only keeps rescues from pulling more animals, said Courtney Protz-Sanders, executive director at Paws for Life Animal Rescue in Troy and spokesperson for Oakland Pet Advocates, Michigan’s lone statewide political action committee backing candidates who support pro-animal legislation.

“The bottom line is quality shelters, ones operating using best practices, just want to move animals out of their shelters, so if a rescue comes along and wants an animal, they hand it over,” Protz-Sanders said. “At the most, they charge a licensing fee. The goal is not to make money; the goal is animal welfare, to help these pets.”

She said that no other shelter she knows of has such restrictions on timing or price.

Macomb County Animal Control has no 30-day hold period, and charges a $27 spay-or-neuter deposit, which is returned once the rescue has the animal fixed. If the animal is already fixed, there’s no fee. Livingston County Animal Control also does not have a 30-day hold period, and charges $55 for dogs and $40 for cats, fully vetted.

“The faster I can get the animals out of here, the more I can take in. If the rescues weren’t there, I’d be in big trouble for cage space,” said Debbie Oberle, director of Livingston County Animal Control. “I want to save as many as I can, so if another rescue can take an animal, fine, let them take it.”

Gatt said the shelter actively works to adopt out animals during the 30-day period, with social media outreach, direct contact with visitors at the facility and discounts for those who mention a volunteer’s name. He noted they have plenty of cats and large dogs the rescues can pull for free, but he suspects the rescues only want popular breeds that are easy to sell.

But Susan Edwards, president of the Animal Welfare Society of Southeastern Michigan, in Madison Heights, insisted this is not the case.

“They always say, ‘Rescues just want the cutesy dogs,’ but that’s not true,” Edwards said.

She said her group has tried to pull large dogs before, but the free ones were limited to pits, pit mixes and dogs who were aggressive or severely injured.

“They have rescues begging to pull animals, and they won’t comply. I don’t understand their policy.”

Animal welfare
Edwards and other rescues said the real reason they want to see the 30-day policy and $136.50 price for pulling animals dropped is so they can get animals out of the shelter before they become ill or undergo behavioral change due to confinement-related stress.

They point to the UC-Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program, which on its website says that “length of stay (LOS) is increasingly recognized as a critical factor in shelter management, with implications for animal health, well-being, sheltering costs and ultimately a shelter’s capacity to save lives.”

The program cites multiple studies, such as a 2004 study in Preventive Veterinary Medicine, which indicate that LOS is “the most significant risk factor for illness in U.S. shelter dogs and cats.”

Jaime Wolfe, of NBS Animal Rescue in Madison Heights, said she tried to pull an animal being held for adoption Aug. 17, but couldn’t due to the price and 30-day hold policy. She alleged that the dog wound up being euthanized without warning by the shelter.

“I’m concerned about the lack of communication,” Wolfe said. “They say they want to build relations with rescues, but their actions don’t speak to it.”

Gatt said people should rest assured the animals are in good hands at the shelter.

“People should note it’s very rare that an animal is at the shelter for the full 30 days. Instead, they are adopted by families who provide permanent, loving homes,” Gatt said. “And every single day, every dog except those isolated for some reason — court order, sickness, etc. — every dog is taken outside and walked and exercised, every single day, seven days a week, rain or shine, hot or cold.”

As proof of his shelter’s good work, Gatt points to OPAC passing a surprise inspection conducted by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) Aug. 14. Gatt also says his shelter has the best save rate among open-admission shelters in the state with an intake volume of more than 5,000. 

Deborah Schutt, board chair of the Michigan Pet Fund Alliance, an all-volunteer nonprofit dedicated to saving healthy and treatable homeless dogs and cats, said the save rate claim doesn’t match up to her group’s findings. Each year, she takes the data that shelters report to MDARD and calculates save rates by looking at the shelter’s intake that year and determining the percentage of animals adopted out or returned to their owners.

Schutt said that among the few open-admission shelters of comparable intake in 2012, the best save rate goes to the Humane Society of Huron Valley, which serves all of Washtenaw County and its partner city of Canton. OPAC would be No. 2. Schutt also noted that OPAC is No. 24 out of the state’s 58 open-admission shelters when intake volume is not a consideration. She asserted this is a fair assessment, due to economy of scale, but Gatt disagreed, claiming it’s an apples-and-oranges situation to compare OPAC with a shelter out in the country caring for the pets of a few locals. 

In sharing concerns about dogs being held at the shelter, some of the rescues also allege they have witnessed poor conditions there before. Edwards obtained photos she alleged were taken Aug. 26 and Aug. 31, after the state inspection, apparently showing animals lying in their own feces, sick and without water, in what were allegedly sweltering temperatures.

When The Madison-Park News visited OPAC unannounced Sept. 6, all of the animals had water, the cages were clean and the fans were keeping the room cool, albeit it was a cooler day in the first place. Gatt claimed that in addition to the fans being used and the portable AC units that were donated after rescues raised concerns about temperatures at the shelter, his staff works to keep the water fresh and cool, and they even take the dogs across the street to cool off in a pool.

Gatt claimed the pictures and allegations are out of context.

“I praise my staff, every one of them, for doing such a great job under such circumstances,” Gatt said. “When it’s hot for the animals, it’s hot for the staff. When we have 400 cages, it’s hard to keep the animals watered and fed, and keep their cages clean, but they do it on a daily basis, and they do it way above the norm.

“Everyone here — from me at the top to our newest employee — is an animal lover,” Gatt said. “There’s no one who has more compassion for animals than the people who work here.”

Oakland County Animal Control and Pet Adoption Center is located at 1700 Brown Road in Auburn Hills and can be reached at (248) 391-4100.