Quick Take:

The Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter population is exploding with mistreated, unwanted, abused and abandoned pets and too few staff members and volunteers to care for them, volunteers and staff write. Most of the issues, they say, stem from bad shelter management and inaction. Volunteers and staff, united here under their union, insist they are burned out and frustrated by poor leadership choices. They have created a petition to get action for themselves and the animals in their care.

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The staffing situation at the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter is spiraling out of control.

Dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens, hamsters, reptiles and pigs ready for adoption are collateral damage in a struggle that pits volunteers, workers and homeless animals against management. Despite consistent advocacy, shelter administrators continue to impose outsized demands, while making decisions about hiring at such a glacial pace that little has changed after years of struggle.

Dog and cat kennels are packed to the brim, with animals locked for up to 13 hours a day. Some kennel areas exceed 80 degrees. Far too many animals come into the shelter than we have available kennel space to house. Even shelter partners and foster homes offer little to no vacancy.

Shelter management must prioritize serving animals and our community by immediately hiring permanent, full-time, desperately needed staff. Animal care must also be restored as a top priority, which means resuming Planned Pethood program services that used to provide accessible, low-cost spay, neuter and adoption services to our community.

Instead of offering this community service, shelter management is advising people to do a Google search for local low-cost veterinary services. This type of management is detrimental to our shelter because fewer animals are now being spayed and neutered, which means more puppies and kittens are arriving at the shelter.

Since the pandemic began to abate, the number of animals being brought into the shelter skyrocketed. The dramatic increase of labor demands on veterinary staff to keep up with the medical needs of admitted animals has created a backlog of foster animals.

In 2021, the shelter took in 4,050 animals, and in 2022, that number rose to a record high of 5,114. Predictions for 2023 total 6,600-plus, shattering the 2022 record.

Cats in a cage inside the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter
Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Key positions like animal control officer, animal health specialist and — importantly — an on-staff veterinarian are unfilled. As we move to publish, we are hearing there might be a pending contract for a veterinarian. We are hopeful, but not yet reassured.

In June, volunteers and workers went to the Santa Cruz County/joint powers authority (JPA) and animal shelter board of directors to testify how urgently we need changes to keep the shelter running. Shelter director Amber Rowland and, by extension Santa Cruz County/JPA, promised to make adjustments. Yet they have failed to make hiring permanent, full-time, front-line staff a priority. Rowland insists the shelter is “closer to being fully staffed than … in several years,” while crucial staff vacancies, an influx of temporary workers and the skyrocketing animal population under her authority reaffirms the exact opposite.

Without our approximately 200 volunteers, the shelter literally could not run: From June to August, volunteers donated 6,941 hours of their time and yet, that labor is still not enough to handle the influx of new animals. Workers ask for new staff hires, but shelter management responds by directing the volunteer program to ask more of volunteers.

The result is terrible for animals.

Some of this work, which is forced onto staff and volunteers, includes washing mountains of odorous laundry, cleaning kennels overflowing with waste, improvising overflow kennel spaces and addressing community concerns at the front desk. When the washing machines break down — which happens frequently — volunteers are asked to scrub by hand. They do this rather than spending time at adoption events and helping more animals find forever homes.

With fewer staff, dogs have less opportunity to relieve themselves outside and end up urinating and defecating in kennels, on top of toys, food bowls and in sleeping areas. They also have fewer opportunities for socialization and enrichment, which are key to maintaining their wellness and making them adoptable. Without sufficient front-line staff, the shelter is de facto testing the limits of how long dogs can wait to relieve themselves outside of their kennels. Dogs remain inside for 13 hours each night, from the latest possible 6 p.m. volunteer shift to earliest possible 7 a.m. shift.

A dog in a cage inside the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter
Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

The animal care community often hears the mantra from management that “all shelters struggle.” However, management’s exaggerations are beyond the problems other communities that don’t have open shelters may face. In two years of struggle, management did not hire an on-staff veterinarian, despite having county general fund money allotted to fill this position and has now increased its offer by 20% to $193,814.96.

Santa Cruz County shelter board and shelter management act incredulous when we suggested we needed an on-staff veterinarian to abate the use of temporary, contract veterinarians or the county’s effort to shift full-time work to temporary or seasonal positions without benefits.

During the June meeting, shelter volunteers asked Kate Hurley, the program director of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, to explain the need for a full-time vet to shelter board members. She complied, but also noted that she is rarely called on to justify the need for employing a veterinarian. Instead, she is asked to help advise a hiring committee to find a professional to hire.

By eliminating positions and not filling vacancies, shelter management continues to mismanage operations. One example is the defunding of the shelter’s program and development manager position. This job involved working on adoption promotions and providing community members with affordable vaccine and spay/neuter services to keep pets out of the shelter. Management eliminated this position even though it had funding for it — including the 10% budget increase offered by the county to fund a veterinarian. Instead, management used contract veterinarians, defunded and eliminated shelter positions and hired a few temporary, part-time workers.

Instead of creating a functioning system, management has cobbled together a dysfunctional operation.

Here’s how the shortage of staff on site plays out.

Recently, a tiny dog needed special care to address her eyes, which meant three appointments at a specialty pet clinic 30 minutes away. Each time, a volunteer took her in their own car and cared for her during and after the appointment. Volunteers are regularly doing this work — driving as far as San Francisco and Sonoma County — to help needy animals. This work should be done by staff.

A cat in a cage inside the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter
Inside the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Management may claim it doesn’t have resources for staff. This is contradicted by handsome annual increases for management. Despite overseeing these shelter failings, the director’s annual salary is $186,576. She received a $30,000 retention incentive, a 3% salary increase in September and will see another in 2024. This situation is unfair when it’s done on the backs of mostly volunteers who choose to do an immense amount of work to support overworked staff and ensure animals’ needs.

Shelter management definitely does one thing well: Managers are great at making volunteers and staff feel guilty about their complaints and frustrations. They often insist everyone who works for the shelter is “all in this together,” but staff and volunteers do all the messy, hard work well beyond regular hours. People do not “come together” when workers and volunteers are unevenly separated by management through low pay, lack of agency over their time and unreasonable, heartbreaking workloads that negatively impact animal care.

We created a petition to demand Rowland hire more permanent front-line workers and prioritize animal welfare. Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter director, management and county animal shelter board / JPA must fundamentally change the way they operate to maintain humane care of homeless animals, staff and volunteers.

Service Employees International Union Local 521 represents 53,000-plus public- and nonprofit, private-sector workers in California’s San Francisco Bay Area, Central Coast and Central Valley. The shelter is in an ongoing labor dispute with SEIU Local 521, largely focused on staffing and resource issues. This opinion piece includes materials and contributions provided by SEIU Local 521 representatives. Workers and staff did not want to include their names for fear of retribution.