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Crowd Control: County shelter responds to criticism, reveals major changes at facility

It's the perfect storm at the Coachella Valley Animal Campus county shelter in 2024. Between inflation, HOA rules, and post-pandemic effects, people are having a tough time adopting large dogs, which means more of them are crowding the kennels.

It's part of the reason behind recent animal advocate protests, which have taken place at the Coachella Valley Animal Shelter. It's also led to questions about euthanasia rates.

Morning anchor Angela Chen took those concerns to Riverside County to see what they are doing to meet the call.

"The very best place for an animal to be should be in a home, and that's where an animal is going to be successful," said Erin Gettis, the Director of Animal Services for Riverside County.

The county is so overwhelmed that staff are now calling on the community to help.

"Volunteering helps, promoting individual dogs helps, networking dogs helps," said Gettis. "The shelter cannot be the be all end all fix all of all of these problems. It will need strong community partners." 

Amid this crisis, pressure from animal lovers accusing the county of unnecessary euthanasia.

The animal campus – or CVAC – is the only Riverside county shelter in the valley. And lately, it's been the site of protests.

"Best Friends were quoted as saying that the Riverside County Department of Animal Services shelters killed more animals than any shelter system in the country," said David Kirk, longtime critic of the animal shelter and the co-founder of ForEverMeow, a cat rescue.

That's according to a Best Friends Animal Society press release from 2023, which said in part:

 “The increase in dogs and underage kittens entering Inland Empire shelters are reflected in all the shelters across the county, including Riverside County Department of Animal Services, which ranked number 1 in the top agencies nationwide with the highest numbers of dogs and cats killed in 2022,” said Kaylee Hawkins, Pacific Regional Director, Best Friends Animal Society. “We urge the community to support Riverside, or their most local shelter, by adopting or fostering an adult dog or underage kittens to provide the direct relief needed at shelters in order to save lives.”

Riverside County has not denied the report, but says it’s an incomplete picture because not every county shelter self-reports euthanasia numbers and that it doesn't consider Riverside County's substantially larger jurisdiction and animal intake.

"It doesn't take into account some of the nuances, like what is the per capita? California's the largest state in the country. And so obviously, we probably have the most animals too," said Gettis. "Riverside County is a huge county with a huge population based on kind of the figures that we're looking at, you know, there's possibly a million animals here."

Numbers and data are a big concern for Kirk. 

"And when I started looking into the data, I found irregularities that I just couldn't account for. It certainly made me think and I dug deeper and found some great inconsistencies," said Kirk.

Kirk says public data shows the county doesn't always input the outcome of each animal, leading to wrong numbers on how many are actually in a shelter. But the county says he is looking at incomplete data online and that county systems are currently being updated to produce numbers in real time.

Check out Angela Chen's previous in-depth report on the overcrowding issue

"On the effort of spay and neuter availability, low cost available for people with both their own family pets and for community animals — I think woefully lacking. You know, an F would be generous," said Kirk, when asked to give a grade on some of the county's efforts to address animal overpopulation. But he did acknowledge there are passionate and animal lovers who work at the shelter to save lives.

Both sides agree that spay and neuter is the most effective way to bring numbers down. And while county officials say more can be done, they're also sharing that meaningful changes are already happening.

First, CVAC has a new pet counselor program that helps people who are thinking of giving up their pets

"We're asking them what services do you need to keep your pet? And that may be food, it may be 'I need a rabies shot so I can get my license,'" said Gettis. "And if we can help out, we do, so that the pet can stay with the owner. It's the best place for them. And since that program's inception, we've helped over 5,800 animals stay with their owner or be fostered by their finder." 

Second, the county has just completed its first-ever operating room at CVAC, which will allow for in-house spay and neuter and other surgeries. The priority is shelter animals, but eventually, staff said they would open up services to the public.

Third, CVAC currently doesn't have an full-time in-house veterinarian. Gettis said she has asked the county board of supervisors to approve the budget for three new veterinarian teams and is hopeful the board will approve the request in a June 10 vote.

Separately, it's important to note that the number of cats in shelters is down significantly. County officials said that's because of the recent "Trap - Neuter - Return" program in which Animal Services brings in feral cats, neuter or spay them, then return them to the community they were taken from. It's all a part of its "5,000 Cat Challenge" to improve the outcomes of Riverside County cats and reduce their numbers in shelters.

The county also says donations from the public would go a long way. 

Here's a quick breakdown of what certain amounts could do:

  • $3,000 can support wellness clinics for 250 people which offer preventive care for the health of your pet, to include vaccinations, microchipping, flea and tick treatments, de-worming and rabies vaccines
  • Need blankets, towels (used and all sizes) and sheets 
  • $3,000 to send out mobile clinic to communities for one full day 
  • $100 can sponsor one spay or neuter surgery
  • $50 can support kitten kits which include adoption supplies like formula and litter
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Angela Chen

Angela comes to the Coachella Valley as KESQ’s morning anchor after teaching graduate school classes at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism and Communication. Learn more about Angela here.


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