MARTINEZ, Calif. - The Contra Costa County Martinez Animal Shelter is home to nearly 300 dogs. But with an influx of a thousand animals or more coming in every month, critics say the facility is understaffed, overwhelmed and mismanaged.
Some say the shelter is forced to destroy too many healthy adoptable dogs. In one case, a dog set to be rescued was euthanized in what amounted to a fatal mistake.
The ABC7 I-Team has spoken with volunteers, animal rescue groups, customers, former staffers, consultants and medical professionals who have had experience with Contra Costa County's shelter system.
Two years ago, Kathleen "Kat" Stercks saw a dog called "Peaches" on the Save the Contra Costa County Shelter Dogs Facebook page. She says it was love at first sight, but when she went down to the shelter to get Peaches-she got devastating news instead.
"I went to the shelter to adopt a dog and found out that the dog that I came to rescue was put down hours before. So I went to the parking lot and cried," Stercks said.
She said right then and there she realized she wanted to make sure what happened to her didn't happen to anybody else.
Stercks, a real estate professional who goes by the moniker "Kat", says she made up her mind to make a difference.
Kat Stercks became a shelter volunteer.She's been working two to three days a week at the Martinez shelter for nearly two years. She started her own animal rescue group, Dogs and Kats Rescue.
And she's shooting and posting videos of dogs and cats from the Contra Costa County Shelter to Facebook to help get them rescued or adopted out.
Stercks has been vocal about what she sees happening at the shelter.
She said, "They have no room. They are overwhelmed. They're overcrowded and they will put dogs down for being overcrowded."
Contra Costa County Animal Services, CCAS, provided the ABC7 I-Team with data that demonstrates one of the profound challenges facility managers are facing: intake.
According to intake records from 2014 through 2016, the shelter has averaged nearly 12,000 animals per year.
During those 36 months, 6 times the intake surpassed 1200 animals in a month.
There are also a staggering number of dogs coming in for the past three years.
The shelter saw an average of just under 500 dogs per month coming in for the last three years. While the numbers have declined over the past three years, Contra Costa County has still faced an onslaught of 17,796 dogs since 2014.
Critics and shelter managers alike are aware the pressure and the stress on the system and the people who work there can lead to mistakes.
One case stands out.
A year ago, the fate of a pit bull named Barbie was the subject of a story reported on ABC7 News Bay Area. Barbie, a 4-year-old pit bull, was scheduled to be saved by a Bay Area rescue group.
Petaluma Pet Pals had officially notified shelter staff and confirmed they had a home for Barbie. They had arranged for Barbie to go to a foster family. But before Barbie could be picked up, she was put down.
Administrators at the shelter promised a thorough investigation. CCAS Acting Director Captain Jane Andreotti said, "We wanted to get her out of here."
Andreotti acknowledged, "There was a rescue group that had expressed interest in taking her out of here," she said.
She told I-Team Reporter Dan Noyes, "I know the notes weren't checked clearly by an employee."
Shelter notes obtained by the I-Team show 2 different rescue groups had volunteered to save the dog. But that information, contained in the shelter's computer system and accessible to the individual responsible for euthanizing the dog was somehow overlooked.
"The notes weren't monitored the way they should have been," Andreotti said. Captain Andreotti insists they learned from that fatal mistake and they've made changes to prevent it from happening again.
"We have put into place some policies and procedures to make sure that we are checking and double checking," she said.
Andreotti says they depend heavily on the rescue groups to get dogs adopted out and to reduce the number of animals the shelter is forced to euthanize. "We're blessed because we have excellent transfer partners," she said.
But three rescue groups told us they have quit working with the Contra Costa County Shelter.
The co-founder of Petaluma Pet Pals said they stopped working with the shelter a short time after Barbie was killed.
Layla's Animal Cause and Scooter's Pals say they have also stopped pulling dogs from CCAS. They complain about rude and uncooperative staff, long wait times for pick-ups and poor sanitary conditions.
Dani Camarra leads Hearts for Paws Rescue in Davis, California. She has pulled more dogs out of the Contra Costa County Shelter than any other rescue group this past year.
"As a rescue, we go into a great many shelters. This shelter in particular I wouldn't give high marks for cleanliness," she said.
With more than thirty years of experience caring for animals, she's blunt when asked about conditions at the facility.
"There's so many times I go in to look at the small animal cages where there's 10 dogs completely covered in feces," she told us.
Camarra was especially concerned when an outbreak of Parvo virus led to an emergency quarantine at the shelter.
The highly contagious and sometimes deadly virus impacts dogs' intestinal tracts and causes severe vomiting, diarrhea and dangerous dehydration. The resilient virus that causes the disease can live for some time on unclean surfaces and Parvo is often spread when a healthy dog comes in contact with feces from an infected dog.
Dr. Bela Kisamov is the Chief of Veterinary Medicine at CCAS-the first person to hold that position.
She's also the only full-time vet on staff at the shelter working with 8 other part-time contract vets to care for hundreds of animals. She told us stress can be a factor that causes a dog to come down with Parvo when it diminishes their immune system.
"Any animal who walks into a shelter environment, it's a stressful environment. This is not, you know, a Holiday Inn. This is a stressful environment," she said.
She said the outbreak of Parvo that caused them to quarantine was not an epidemic. "We closed three wards for Parvo," she told us.
And when we asked if unclean cages played any role in the Parvo quarantine, she said, "No, well, first of all the cages are being cleaned. We have a staff that does a fabulous job.
Several sources we spoke with did not agree with her assessment. "I've observed kennels with one dog that has had three or four incidents, three or four poops," Debbie DeMello said.
DeMello works as an animal behavior consultant. She is the founder of Who's Training Who and she is at the shelter in Martinez at least one day a week with her clients who are rescue groups and families looking to adopt a pet.
She said, "When dogs are living in kennels with their own waste-it's emotionally unhealthy for them."
DeMello believes the shelter is woefully understaffed.
We asked Captain Andreotti if they have enough staff to keep all 150 cages clean, to walk and care for all 300 animals.
She said, "I think any time you have more hands-you're better off. We are currently recruiting for numerous positions and we are moving forward with hiring. And the good news is we intend to have staffing at a better place within the next six months."
Debbie DeMello says she's had cases where the evaluation of a dog's temperament is delayed for weeks and that means dogs are not getting walked for weeks at a time. She says dogs can get sick or go mad when they are caged for long periods of time without getting walked or getting any exercise.
Captain Andreotti says they've hired a company in a pilot program to walk up to 60 dogs a week but it won't start until the fall.
She said, "I think it's always an issue in any shelter. I think that we do our very best to get these animals out as often as possible."
DeMello says dogs that go without walks for weeks can get sick or go mad. "Here's my reply to 'we're doing the best we can.' No, you're not. If that's the best you can, you're in the wrong business," she said.
Shelter officials say they're hiring a company to walk 60 dogs a week starting this fall and that no dogs died during that Parvo quarantine.