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17,000 deaths at San Diego County Animal Shelter

Overpopulation solutions among the animals

Lieutenant Jim Wright: “We have rabbits and guinea pigs and we have iguanas... You name it, we deal with it."
  • Lieutenant Jim Wright: “We have rabbits and guinea pigs and we have iguanas... You name it, we deal with it."
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

“Last year, we dealt with over 31,000 animals in our department alone,” says Lieutenant Jim Wright from behind his desk at the Central County Animal Shelter. “But we don’t have 31,000 people knocking at our door adopting every single one of those. So the sad fact is we have to put to sleep more than half of those animals.”

The Central Animal Shelter on Gaines Street off Morena Boulevard consists of a mobile office building next to a half-acre kennel yard. Lieutenant Wright’s office looks out over the kennels. Thin and about 5'9", he is dressed in a tan Animal Control uniform. A touch of gray shows in his mustache and on the temples of his thin brown hair. He speaks at a machine-gun pace.

“We euthanized over 17,000 animals last year,” he tells me, reading the figure from handwritten notes on his desk. “The rest were either adopted or claimed. We try to move as many as we can, but there is a surplus of animals out there. These are the unwanted or, as we call them, 'throwaway pets.’ These are the ones people do not want. We have to euthanize them, which is unfortunate. But we look at it this way; if we did not perform this euthanasia, which is a painless death, on these 17,000, they would be out on the street, being abused, being hit by cars, and starving. So we try our darnedest to adopt out as many as we can, but the ones that we can’t adopt out, we have a responsibility to insure that they’re going to have a painless death."

Though 17,000 seems like a staggeringly high number, Lt. Wright says that it is lower than years past. ‘Ten, 15 years ago, we were probably euthanizing 25 to 30,000 animals.” The difference, he explains, is the result of more spaying and neutering of animals by the public.

How do you decide if a particular animal is a candidate for euthanasia?

“Age, health, temperament, and spacing,” Wright answers, counting them off on his fingers, “those are the criterion. I only have so many adoption kennels. Sometimes we will double up the animals in them, but there are only so many that can go into adoption, which means the others are going to have to be put to sleep because I’m full. I can’t put more in there. That’s the spacing requirement. Then there are the age and health requirements; people are not going to adopt a nine, ten-year-old German that has gray around the muzzle and a hip problem. Temperament; I can’t adopt out mean dogs. If we knowingly adopt out a dog that has a bad temperament that will bite you, bite your neighbor, or shreds some dog down the street, the county has a liability issue.”

Rising from behind his desk, Wright leads me out a back door into the kennel area of the shelter. Several rows of kennels and two small buildings sit in the yard. The smell of dung and urine is strong in the midday heat. Walking between the first two rows of kennels, which are loaded with dogs, Wright has to raise his voice to a near yell to be heard over the cacophony of barks. “These ones here are ready to be adopted. They’ve already been health checked, and they’re ready to be (spayed and neutered]. We’re waiting for someone to come in and say, ‘That’s the one I want.’ All they have to do is pay their fees and off they go.”

At the far west end of the kennel yard is the cat area. “We have a large adoption rate on our cats,” Wright explains, “because we ship a lot out to pet stores, and when people come in during our kitten season, we adopt out a lot of kittens. Kitten season is anywhere from March all the way through the end of summer. Right about that time you have breeding season, and we get a lot of newborn kittens that come through.”

Next to the cat area, six or seven cages sit on stands in the shade of a pepper tree. Wright points to them. “We have rabbits and guinea pigs and we have iguanas — we have a man coming in to adopt our iguanas tomorrow. You name it, we deal with it. This is not just a dog pound. That’s why they changed the term — about 30 years ago — to animal shelter.”

Walking toward the office, Wright stops at an outbuilding about the size of a park bathroom. “This is our medical building,” he says, holding the door for me. “We’re refurbishing it. This whole building is going to be revamped. There’s going to be a new surgery center, and there’s going to be a recovery area for the animals that have been altered. We try to alter — spay or neuter — every animal that leaves here prior to adoption. Unfortunately, sometimes we don’t have the staffing or veterinarian to provide that service to every single animal that leaves. We try to do that, but we only have so much staff to work with. We do, on occasion, allow animals to be adopted on what we call a voucher, which means they pay for the spay or neuter, and they'll take the voucher to one of our contract veterinarians, and they’ll provide the surgery.”

Can somebody request an unaltered animal?

“We won’t adopt to them. We’re not in the business of putting animals back on the street to reproduce. We’re trying to control the animal population. That’s our primary responsibility. If we’re not concerned with the over-pet-population problem, our euthanasia rate goes up, and quite honestly, we get tired of euthanizing.”

Near the back of the medical building, Wright opens a door just wide enough for me to see a white bull terrier lying dead on the concrete floor. Noticing the dog himself, Wright stops midstride and pulls the door shut. “You don’t want to come in here. We have a dead dog in here,” he says, blocking the doorway as if to prevent me from entering and disturbing the dignity of the moment. “This is the euthanasia room; this is where we euthanize all of the animals. It’s done by injection, the same method veterinarians use. The injection is of pentobarbital, which is injected into one of the major veins. They’re dead within ten seconds, very painless.”

As we walk out of the medical building, Wright tells me, “The people that work here are people that care about animals. We have a compassion for animals, and it’s very hard to come in and perform euthanasia and euthanize over 17,000 animals a year. It’s not an easy task."

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