Political Animal

If you talk the talk, you better walk the walk

(Part 2 of a 3-part series on the complex relationship between animal shelters and activists.)


When Oakland Animal Services (OAS) posted pictures on their Facebook page of a handsome male shepherd-hound mix found as a stray after the 4th of July, the outpouring was instantaneous. “Don’t kill that dog!” one commenter wrote. Because of the large social media response, shelter staff named the dog Facebook (Booker for short). There was no doubt he was beautiful, but he also showed serious aggression toward other dogs that made him unsuitable for a standard adoption.

“I have so many wonderful, well-behaved dogs that can’t find homes no matter how hard we try,” OAS director Rebecca Katz said. “It’s really hard when we get a dog like Booker who can’t go just anywhere. One of the volunteers calls them ‘Project Dogs’ — they have potential, but it will take a lot of time, effort, and money to get them where they need to be in order for them and the community to be safe.”


With the smallest budget of any stand-alone shelter in the Bay Area, OAS also doesn’t have the money to work with Project Dogs, particularly in the most difficult cases. Private adoption centers like the San Francisco SPCA, with its multimillions of dollars, could be the perfect solution for those cases; however, they don’t want to take them on, preferring to pick and choose easily adoptable dogs that enhance their reputation as a no-kill shelter. Because the SF/SPCA is privately run, they can do that. OAS, on the other hand, must take every animal that comes through the doors, from pit bulls confiscated in dogfighting busts to pigeons with broken wings.


The good news is Rebecca doesn’t like giving up on animals. As director of San Francisco Animal Care and Control, she worked with a behaviorist who specializes in hard cases to save a pit bull named Titan, who had killed a small dog that belonged to the mother of a police officer. Titan had an irresponsible owner, breeding for size and not temperament. He was untrained and unaltered. I first met Titan in the dark, dank section of the shelter known as the custody kennels where dogs are held for court cases. It was immediately evident despite his intimidating look and enormous size, Titan wasn’t a bad dog.

Rebecca allowed the behaviorist to take Titan to his facility, where he worked with him for months. Rebecca visited and kept up on Titan’s progress, and the turnaround was remarkable. Once labeled “vicious and dangerous” by the city of San Francisco, Titan (renamed Yogi) now lived in harmony with other dogs, including small ones. He was the first dog in the city’s history to have the vicious and dangerous designation removed, allowing him to leave the county. The behaviorist and his wife adopted Yogi, who was a model canine citizen until he passed away not long ago from cancer. Years later, Rebecca would turn to that same behaviorist for help with Booker and a pit bull mix named Blackie. Because of his sensitive line of work (“I can’t have people dropping their dogs off here…”) he asked me to change his name for this article. We’ll call him Mike.

“When Rebecca called me to evaluate Booker and Blackie, I noticed right away that Booker was smart and confident, but a very dominant male. Blackie was all over the place, barking and crazy, just young, but amazing,” Mike said. “When I took Booker out, I got him to focus on me, but I could tell he needed a really structured environment so I told Rebecca to send him to Lisa at Shamrock Ranch for some training.”


I asked Mike about activist groups like People Animals Love Support East Bay (PALS) that say Rebecca doesn’t do enough. “That’s so untrue,” he said. “Rebecca has gone the extra mile for numerous dogs like Booker and Titan. Most directors are willing to go that extra mile, but only as long as there’s someone capable of caring for that difficult dog and making sure the dog and the community are safe.”

Mike believes most people, including activists, don’t understand the municipal infrastructure. “They don’t know how it works; who makes the decisions. They think shelters decide the policies but that’s done by the city councils. And the bottom line is you can’t release a dangerous dog into society. All this effort is made for one dog because people are shouting not to kill the dog, but what are shelters supposed to do? It’s expensive and time consuming and they have no budget and no time.”

The nonprofit Friends of OAS paid for a week at Shamrock Ranch, the most they could afford. Lisa said that, while Booker has improved, he still has some issues with dog aggression and will need the right owner. OAS is looking for a dog savvy person to foster or adopt Booker. “All these people like PALS who were screaming about ‘Save this dog!’ have not stepped up,” Mike said. “Booker needs a place to go — the right place to go. Just sharing him on Facebook and leaving encouraging comments like ‘Hope this cute guy gets a home!’ is not enough.”

Booker, a ‘Project Dog’ at OAS, needs an experienced foster or adopter.

With hurricanes and wildfires from coast to coast, resources are even tighter. “Rescues and shelters are swamped and these two dogs are becoming irrelevant,” Mike said. He and his wife renamed Blackie “Odama” and have committed to caring for him as long as it takes. “If there’s a disaster and you want to help animals that’s great, but shelters are already flooded and now you bring in all these other unvetted animals. You cannot ask animal control agencies that get their tiny budgets from the city to deal with these animals and all the animals they already have — it’s not as simple as just ‘Don’t kill that dog!’ Rescuers and activists are often people with huge hearts but often aren’t equipped to care for animals that could be a danger to the community without the proper care.”

Editor’s note: We reached out to PALS via e-mail for this article, but as of press time they had not responded.

Next month in Part 3: Why shelter activists should refocus their energy on decision makers.



The total number of adoptions for the Pet Food Express Bay Area Pet Fair is 1,538, making it the largest single-location adoption event in the state of California.


Thank you, Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell (D-Long Beach) and Gov. Jerry Brown for making AB 485 a reality. The bill, authored by O’Donnell and signed into law by Governor Brown, makes California the first state to forbid pet stores from selling animals that don’t come from shelters or adoption centers. Starting in 2019, stores can be fined $500 for each animal sold that is not a rescue.

As I wrote a few months ago, pet stores are notorious for selling animals from puppy mills and kitten factories. In a country where half of the 8 million animals at shelters are killed annually for lack of homes, this is a law that should be nationwide. Of course the ever-out-of-touch American Kennel Club opposed it. Considering the fact that 37 percent of animals in shelters are purebreds, I think the AKC should spend less time talking and more time walking — into the shelters where the dogs they sell so often end up dumped.


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