Dogs behind bars

A shake-up at the Alameda Animal Shelter has left its charges locked up 23 hours a day
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news@sfbg.com

Why would an underfunded, understaffed, volunteer-dependent organization dedicated to taking care of animals institute new policies that prevent volunteers from volunteering and, some say, put the animals at risk?

That's the question some people are asking about the Alameda city animal shelter, where the director has fired several core volunteers, reduced the number of hours other volunteers can work, and at one point temporarily suspended the volunteer dog-walking program.

After some outcry, the dog walkers are back — but there's still a lingering battle between director Diana Barrett and the volunteers, and the result is a policy that leaves shelter dogs in conditions that experts say border on inhumane.

Under Barrett's new rules, laid out in a June volunteer handbook, dogs not yet eligible for adoption are now kept in small kennels 24 hours a day, for as long as 11 days if the dog is a stray and up to 21 days for any dog ever registered to an owner. Barrett's policy dictates that these "on hold" dogs may no longer be visited, petted, walked, bathed, or allowed to play with toys.

Dogs eligible for adoption are locked in kennels 23 hours a day, with dog walks limited to 20 minutes, at most three times a day.

"I think those conditions border on abuse," behaviorist Bob Gutierrez, who for 10 years was coordinator of the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal's Animal Behavior Program, told the Guardian when we described the rules to him.

At the SPCA, Gutierrez recounted, "we would encourage people to interact with the dogs as often as possible because socialization is an ongoing process, even with adult dogs."

There's also a physical health risk. "Dogs will not foul their own space," Gutierrez explained, "and dogs that are confined that long often develop some medical issues from not emptying their bladders at regular intervals."

And the shelter doesn't routinely vaccinate the dogs in its care.

Deb Campbell, volunteer coordinator at the San Francisco animal-control shelter, said dogs there are generally taken out five or more times a day and are also given a socialization hour in a dog park where volunteers supervise group play.

BAD BEHAVIOR

Barrett, an animal control officer with the Alameda Police Department, which manages the shelter, has been on the job since 2000.

Since the shelter has only limited paid staff — three animal control officers, including Barrett — who also have to go out on calls, much of the work of walking and caring for the animals has been done by volunteers.

But some of those volunteers have clashed with Barrett — in one case, a Barrett memo talks about "foul language" and "argumentative-confrontational stances toward staff members" — and as a result, the entire program has been changed.

Although a half-dozen core volunteers had each previously worked from three to five days a week every week, Barrett's new rules permit only two volunteers per hour and limit each volunteer to a maximum of 20 hours per month — one half day per week. Anyone who works more than four hours a week "will be given a mandatory break of two weeks," according to the August edition of the shelter's volunteer handbook, and if the infraction is repeated, the volunteer's service will be terminated.

At least six volunteers have resigned in protest. As Mary Sutter and her 16-year-old daughter, Kaity Sutter, who were volunteers for four years, explained in a July 25 letter, a copy of which was provided to us, "We left ... because we felt that policies were being put in place to control people to the detriment of the dogs."

Alameda city manager Debra Kurita has barred Barrett from speaking to the media, and Lt. Bill Scott, Barrett's supervisor, serves as her designated spokesperson.

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