A better day but shelter dogs need a better way

Riddle me this, if a California Supreme Court denies review of a lower court’s decision, so that in effect, the lower court’s September 18 decision stands and under the Hayden Act, animals should not be euthanized if they are adoptable or treatable, how is it not a stunningly good thing? That’s what happened in Santa Paula Animal Rescue Center, Inc. v. County of Los Angeles, 2023 Cal. LEXIS 6868. But it’s those details, the devil is always in the details.

In December Santa Paula Rescue Center (SPARC) and Lucky Pup Rescue, argued that Los Angeles County shelters routinely fail to perform the “ministerial duty” of releasing dogs to any 501(c)(3) without further qualification unless the animal is suffering from an irremediable serious illness or injury. The County argued that they had the discretion to determine the animal’s fate. However the imposition of a mandatory duty with respect to any stray dog is it shall be released to a 501(c)(3) nonprofit if requested before the scheduled euthanasia.

Upholding the Hayden Act is the headline, but the fine print, so to speak, is where loopholes lurk. There’s that question of qualified. The court sided with the County as to approving or not approving the non-profit that is to receive the animal concluding with a broad explanation of the shelter’s discretion as being “to qualify organizations as animal rescue or adoption organizations through means that the County determines are appropriate(page 17). So this appellate decision may save more lives but the County can still abuse it’s power by not qualifying or disqualifying a rescue. History shows that if the shelter leaders have discretion they will abuse it. Either by denying good rescuers the right to rescue if they speak up about bad conditions or bad leadership or, worst case scenario, retaliating by killing the animal the group wanted or conversely; by allowing bad rescuers to take animals so the shelter can win the stats game.

The court gave no guidance on what the qualifications are. What it takes to qualify and what it takes to stay in a shelter’s good graces can be problematic. Per the County’s current application (page 3): “References from two current Adoption Partners (APs), one veterinarian, and one animal care and control agency or open-admission humane society/SPCA with which the applying AP has done business.” What if a 501(c)(3) group is new, or new to the area and has not yet “done business” with any of the above? Or a group has chosen to not “do business” with another group for a long time before deciding to be an AP. Would either be a reason to not approve a rescue?

Adoption Partner Responsibilities (page 3)

  • Work cooperatively and professionally with DACC staff and volunteers.
  • Manage the volunteers authorized to adopt animals for their organization and ensure they follow all program and DACC policies.…

It’s fairly easy to see how such generalized language could be used to revoke a rescue’s status. Speaking negatively about a County shelter(s) could result in privileges being revoked on the basis of not following all DACC policies, no matter how true. Wouldn’t it be more fair to revoke privileges only if the accusations are false or determined to be excessively disruptive to shelter administration or operations?

The simplest and cleanest qualifier should be that a rescue is 501(c)(3) with an animal welfare mission and is subject to rescue status termination if facts establish that the AP does not/no longer safely and appropriately adopts out animals or does not provide appropriate care for its rescued animals. And that termination should be open to an appeal. And if the matter of rescue qualification is going to be dealt with, it’s the state legislature that should now wrestle with it.

In general, rescuing an animal should always be allowed. The goal is what Hayden’s Law and the court said – reduce euthanasia while providing appropriate care and careful placement for rescued animals. And any rescue ready and able to save lives in an appropriate and careful way should not be excluded by the County system.

The way Christine Haslet, founder of Lucky Pup, sees it, this court action is “a baby step, putting the County on notice, we’re here, we’re watching.” Haslet feels that this ruling is welcome support for the intent of Hayden’s Law, to save animals lives, and with that legislative package as the backbone of rescue’s ability to take dogs out of harm’s way, more lifesaving needs to be done with an emphasis on shelter cooperation. Her worry is that there’s no accountability since Hayden’s Law dates back to 1998 and here we are in 2023 with Lucky Pup and SPRC in court insisting that County shelters follow the law. Christine further questions, “What’s the punishment for not following the law? Where’s the enforcement?”

Since 2001 Marcia Mayeda has been paid a whole lot of money and tasked with the responsibility of animal welfare as the Director of Animal Care & Control for LA County, $329,176. And yet, once again, it’s the court insisting that it’s the shelter system’s mission to save lives, not take them.

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