A California sheltering report with national implications

It was 15 years ago when California State senator Tom Hayden sponsored legislation aimed at saving more lives in the Golden State. Considered to be groundbreaking at the time, the Hayden Act mandated longer hold times for animals in shelters, and gave greater access to rescue organizations looking to save lives. Shelters were required to release animals to qualified organizations in certain circumstances. Problem is, California is financially broke and has been for a long time. In California, costs that are mandated by the legislature must be reimbursed to local agencies. With no money, reimbursable portions of the law were often suspended (five times since 2001).

You may remember last year when Governor Brown attempted to permanently repeal the unfunded mandates contained in a host of laws, including Hayden. As you can imagine, the rescue community was rightfully very upset. Many activists and 501(c)(3) organizations, including Best Friends, made our voices heard to prevent the repeal from going forward.

A stakeholder group was formed, following Governor Brown’s attempted repeal, with the intent of analyzing the impact of Hayden, and developing legislative and best practice recommendations that would advance the two policy objectives identified in the Hayden Act: “that no adoptable animal should be euthanized if it can be adopted into a suitable home" and "that no treatable animal should be euthanized." The group was also looking to get shelter regulation, policy and practices off the budgetary rollercoaster that has crippled Hayden.

Over the coming weeks, Best Friends will offer a detailed analysis of the white paper findings and recommendations right here on this blog. For now, I want to share my topline takeaways and some of the more interesting conclusions presented in the white paper.

The topline conclusion that I drew from the white paper should be no surprise. The California state shelter system fails homeless pets on almost every front. The state’s shelters and shelter policies are antiquated and do not match the public’s expectations of what a municipal shelter should provide for the animals in its care or for the taxpayers that it serves.

The findings for cats in general and community cats in particular are most disturbing, and the recommendation for change in this area is most encouraging. The report affirms what Best Friends and other no-kill advocates have been preaching for 20 years, which is that community cats have no business entering shelters except for the purpose of being neutered and released. This may be an “aha” moment for some, but this kind of policy is in effect in cities across America as Best Friends programs. It is, not surprisingly, working as expected with cat save rates through the roof. You can read more about our Feral Freedom program in our 22-page guide.

Shelter policy in California and elsewhere has been simply to kill community cats after a mandatory hold period. Even friendly strays and owner-surrendered cats are unlikely to survive a stay at a California shelter. Fully 71 percent of all cats taken in are killed in the shelter regardless of behavior, health, age or appearance.

Imagine the resources that could be freed up if that policy were implemented statewide. Imagine the lives that would be saved. And while owners reclaim only 2 percent of shelter cats, national surveys indicate that 60 to 66 percent of cats who were recovered after going missing returned home on their own. The logic of existing cat sheltering policy crumbles in the light of this analysis.

There’s a November 15th deadline for feedback, and a series of town hall–style meetings have been organized for the next few weeks.

Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society