When Nuno and Gretchen Ferreira visited Oakland Animal Services in mid-May to adopt a kid- and cat-friendly dog, they never expected to end up with a pit bull. But Rayna was almost as warm and friendly as any yellow Lab could have been, Nuno Ferreira said, and he and his wife adopted the dog, changed her name to Silver, and welcomed her into their Oakland home.
Though Silver was "super docile and very sweet" with the Ferreiras' two kids, she showed a strong "prey drive" toward the two family cats, Ferreira said. So after only a week, the family, reluctant to deliver the pit bull back to the very facility from which they had rescued her, posted a Craigslist ad, seeking a better home for the dog. But the shelter's animal care coordinator, Martha Cline, heard about the ad and sent the Ferreiras an e-mail, encouraging them to return Rayna to Oakland Animal Services. "We told her flatly that if there is any chance [Rayna] would be put down we would find someone to adopt her on our own," Ferreira said.
But Cline talked them into bringing the pit bull back, which they did on a Friday. By Monday, Rayna was dead, injected with a lethal dose of pentobarbital sodium. She had become just another statistic in the kill records of Oakland Animal Services.
Ferreira and his wife learned of Rayna's death several days after it happened. "We were floored," he said. "They didn't even try to adopt her again. They just killed her."
Rayna's death is hardly an exceptional case. Four out of every ten dogs that enter the premises of Oakland Animal Services leave again lifeless. The rate, among the highest of Bay Area shelters, amounts to several animals every day.
Former volunteer Ian Elwood recalls regularly seeing dead dogs laid out in rolling pushcarts outside the rear entryway as he entered and exited the shelter for his shifts in the rabbit ward. "It's like they had no space for all the bodies," said Elwood, an Oakland resident who quit volunteering in August 2009. "And it was happening with enough frequency that it began to freak me out."
Oakland Animal Services euthanized 1,023 animals between January 1 and May 28 of this year — 38 percent of the animals that passed through the premises, according to Elwood, who crunched the shelter's euthanasia records after obtaining them through a public records request. In 2009, 37 percent of animals that saw the inside of the shelter wound up in the euthanasia room. According to Megan Webb, the director of Oakland Animal Services, the shelter euthanizes about 25 percent of all cats that pass through the premises and approximately 40 percent of all dogs.
Such kill rates are lower than the 50-percent average among shelters statewide and are much lower than the worst of the nation's animal shelters. However, Oakland Animal Services' euthanasia rate is higher than those of many big-city shelters in California and is about four times higher than that of its neighbor public shelter in Berkeley.
Some animal rights activists say Oakland Animal Services, a division of the Oakland Police Department, could be doing a much better job. "Any shelter that does all it can to save its animals will save at least 90 percent of them," said Nathan Winograd, the director of the Oakland nonprofit No Kill Advocacy Center. "And if a shelter is saving only 60 percent of its dogs, then it is definitely killing animals that could be saved. There's no doubt about it."
However, social demographics and economics appear to play a role in why Oakland's kill rate is higher than other Bay Area shelters. Oakland backyards, for example, are populated by far more abused and unmanageable pit bulls than properties in Berkeley. And Webb, who became the Oakland shelter's director in April, 2009, insists that its unique challenges keep the shelter from having lower euthanasia rates.
Economic hardships have played a role in canine overpopulation in the East Bay, she said. Dog breeding — often of large breeds like pit bulls and German shepherds — is popular in Oakland and has increased with the decline of the economy, she said. "People are trying to breed dogs for money," she said. "They know they can get $300 for a puppy."
Such endeavors fail as often as not, however, leaving Oakland Animal Services to rescue the litters, often of abused, neglected, and behaviorally damaged dogs. "We are at 100 percent capacity all the time," Webb said. "There are days when we receive 35 or 40 animals, and I have to make sure that we're moving them through. I'd like to not euthanize any animals, but I won't have them suffer, and I won't put dangerous animals into the community."
Just a decade ago, Oakland Animal Services faced a vastly different situation than it does today. Webb said that all the small dogs and puppies, for example, were housed in a single room of twenty cages. But today, small dogs have nearly overrun the facility, filling up a warren of rooms throughout the shelter.
What happened? Webb suspects that it's a matter of bad timing. The economic crash arrived when owning a little brown dog had never been so trendy. And so an increasing number of people abandoned their animals when they realized they could no longer afford to care for them. The number of unwanted pit bulls and other big dogs is on the rise, too, she said.