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The Cat is Out of the Bag

| News | March 19, 2020

On the Friends of the Castaic Shelter Facebook page are numerous posts announcing the latest dogs and cats that have come into the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control’s shelter in Castaic. They need homes, and when one is adopted, the site proudly trumpets that, too.

One such cat that came in last year was Dot, and she had a litter of kittens with her. According to several volunteers, the family was separated, which was never supposed to happen, helping to bring about the sad result of the kittens being euthanized. Dot was later adopted.

The head of the shelter said the separation was due to miscommunication, expressed regret over the incident and said steps have been taken to avoid a repeat. Some volunteers complained that the problem lies with the acting kennel sergeant, who they allege is a cat-hating bully who euthanizes them faster than dogs.

Therein lies the philosophical disagreement occurring at the shelter. While nobody claims any laws or rules have been broken, these former volunteers allege the cats are not being given enough time to acclimate and adjust to the shelter.

“I have a problem with the way she euthanizes animals,” former volunteer Sheila Cannon said of Sylvia Rodriguez, the acting kennel sergeant. “There are eight (cages) available. They should be able to be adopted. Why are we putting down cats when there are cages available?”

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Rodriguez was not made available to comment, and Karen Stepp, the shelter’s animal control manager, said she could not comment on any personnel matter. But Stepp expressed disappointment in the volunteers’ claims and asserted the staff and volunteers do everything possible to keep animals alive and get them adopted.

“If it’s a philosophical difference, it’s unfortunate,” Stepp said. “I don’t know how to change their feelings. I don’t think they understand. I don’t think they look at the total picture. Sometimes, the parameters don’t fit the ideals.”

Debbie Somers started volunteering at the shelter in March 2018. She said she recalled another volunteer quitting around the same time, upset that the cats were not getting proper medical care and were euthanized. “She didn’t feel it was appropriate,” Somers said.

She soon saw a reason: Rodriguez. The kennel sergeant’s job description requires, among other things, engaging the animals to determine their current conditions (including physical and mental states) and suitability to be fostered and, hopefully, adopted. Stepp said the shelter has a high adoption rate, something Somers agreed with, “especially with dogs.”

Somers said Rodriguez treated cats differently. She would take a pole with a rubber hand on it and poke the cat in the cage. “Any cat with a brain will hiss,” Somers said, and Rodriguez would determine that if it hissed, the cat must be feral. If it hid in the back of the cage, it also must be feral.

Feral cats are considered unadoptable and are placed in a room the public can’t access. The longer they’re in there, the more likely they will be euthanized. Somers questioned if those cats were really feral or just frightened. Sometimes, she said, staff and volunteers would be able to go in and see if they could hold or pet the cats. If so, they were more likely taken out of the room and placed in public areas where the odds of adoption increased. But Somers said Rodriguez was inconsistent in her allowing people into the feral room.

“Cats take longer to adapt to a shelter setting,” Somers said. She added that animals are supposed to have 10 days to adjust, but Rodriguez was deciding in just minutes. “It’s an extreme overreaction, and it results in cats being put down,” she said.

Stepp acknowledged the shelter doesn’t get too many friendly cats, but those that do come in are kept “for a long time.” She also said she never saw Rodriguez use the pole with rubber hand “but I believe volunteers have done that.”

Even if the cat bites, that doesn’t necessarily make it feral, Stepp said.

“You wouldn’t know how many cats that bit me that I adopted out,” Stepp said. “We do everything we can to keep them alive. If they’re feral, that’s the tough spot.”

Somers and Cannon said Rodriguez would pressure volunteers to foster or adopt the cats or they would be euthanized.

“People are afraid to confront her. Volunteers are afraid to confront her,” Somers said. “She is a classic bully, and one way or another, you’re going to pay: The cat gets put down.”

Said Cannon: “This isn’t a secret. This is a problem, and this isn’t a secret who it is.”

One June 4, Cannon and Somers said, with Rodriguez on vacation, volunteers, veterinary staff and Stepp met and decided that if a fostered kitten or cat were to be returned, there would be no euthanizing the animal for at least 72 hours. Additionally, no cat would be euthanized without someone first getting a chance to foster it, and volunteers could now work with feral cats to see if they could be, as Stepp said, “turned around.”

When Rodriguez returned, Cannon said, she announced that she wasn’t at the meeting and, therefore, wasn’t part of the agreement.

“She started cleaning house.” Cannon said.

Cannon acknowledged that, while she didn’t agree with how Rodriguez did her job, she didn’t think Rodriguez broke any rules or laws. She pointed out that the county’s nine-page euthanasia policy, of which the Gazette obtained a copy from Animal Care and Control’s deputy director, is written “in such a way that if favors animal care staff than the animals” and that it appeared contradictory in places.

As examples, Cannon mentioned the last paragraph on the first page lists that symptoms of “irremediable suffering” such as diarrhea, vomiting, some skin conditions, arthritis and wheezing are not, by themselves, not grounds for euthanizing an animal. Yet there is a list on the seventh page of some of these same symptoms as reasons that could be given for euthanizing, although the introductory paragraph clearly states “The following are not necessarily justifications for euthanasia within the statutory holding period.”

Stepp said she didn’t have the guidelines handy and acknowledged it’s always possible policy changes could be contradictory. “We’re hoping they’re not,” she said.

Regardless, it was the incident last July with Dot and her kittens that caused volunteers to speak out, complain and, in Somers’ case, quit in protest.

According to a Facebook post and emails given to the Gazette, Dot was a friendly black-and-white stray cat that had given birth to five kittens in the Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital parking lot. Nurses wanted to know if it was safe to bring the family to the shelter, and on July 12 after hours, the six felines came in.

The intake worker, on just his third day and not knowing how to input new arrivals into the computer system, felt overwhelmed and resentful that he had been left alone to care for the animals. He needed to leave in an hour and had yet to clean the dog cages. He did not enter Dot into the computer, instead making notes on a pad of paper. He left the family in the carrier overnight.

The next day, a Saturday, a similar-looking cat had given birth to four kittens and was in the same cage as Dot’s five kittens, but Dot was not there.

Naturally, Dot’s kittens stopped eating, although some of them weren’t healthy to begin with. Unweaned kittens are supposed to stay with the mother. Some volunteers and Rodriguez succeeded in force-feeding some of the kittens.

Somers said Rodriguez asked her if she had found anyone to foster the kittens. Somers said not yet. She left to visit her sister in the hospital. Upon returning, the on-site veterinarian told her that after she had left, Rodriguez euthanized all of them and tried to blame the volunteers for mistakenly separating them from Dot.

“I held the five kittens. They were in my arms,” she lamented. “It breaks my heart and I couldn’t continue.”

Stepp, due to retire in two weeks after 13 of her 31 years in animal control at Castaic, sent an email apologizing for the mistake and promising changes to prevent any future reoccurrence. An investigation began, but Somers objected to Rodriguez’s involvement.

“You don’t have the executioner investigate the execution,” she said.

The damage had been done. Cannon’s loud complaining, in house, to the press and up the chain of command, led Rodriguez to complain to Stepp that Cannon was creating a hostile work environment. Cannon said she felt retribution by Rodriguez and has decided to take three months off from volunteering.

“I don’t want me being there to be an excuse to not change things,” she said. “I’m not looking for mutiny. I’m looking for a correction of course.”

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About Lee Barnathan

Lee Barnathan has been a writer and editor since 1990. His articles have been published in newspapers, magazines and online. His new book "If You Experience Death, Please Call and Other Fatal Mistakes We Make With Language," a humorous look at the ways people misuse English, is available on Amazon or at his website, www.leebarnathan.com. He is hired by people all over the country to help them refine the message or story they wish to share with their target audience or demographic.

One Response to “The Cat is Out of the Bag”

  1. This happened around the same time that a small dog named Neveah was not properly restrained when being moved from her kennel to the med ward. Neveah escaped the volunteer or employee, ran under a fence and escaped the property….running into the desolate landscape. The last sighting of that pup was on July 5. She probably suffered a horrible death. Though I reached out to several administrative personnel, including Rep Barger, no one took time to respond to my concerns.

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