Although a trial may be months away, the Ventura-based attorney who filed the landmark lawsuit said she next may turn her focus to Stanislaus County.
"That's one of the next counties we're looking at," said Kate Neiswender, the attorney representing the Kern County animal-rights advocate who initiated the lawsuit last month. It's believed to be the first of its kind in California.
Stanislaus County's Animal Services Department has likewise drawn fire from animal-rights groups. They say the agency's policy of killing owner-surrendered dogs and cats violates the six-year-old Hayden Act, which is designed to protect impounded animals from early euthanasia.
In August, Animal Services Director Michael Rodriguez admitted that owner-surrendered animals are sometimes euthanized within a day or two of being dropped off.
"In my opinion, people have the right to do with their animals what they choose to," Rodriguez told The Bee in August. "People that walk in the door and request that their animal be euthanized, it's uncommon. But it does happen, and we have an obligation to provide that service."
A judge will decide that in Kern County. Following a preliminary hearing in Bakersfield on Nov. 10, Superior Court Judge Gary Friedman granted a temporary injunction forcing the county's animal control to hold owner-surrendered cats and dogs for the minimum four days required under the Hayden Act.
Regardless of the outcome, Neiswender said she's also considering filing public information requests with animal services departments in Stanislaus and San Bernardino counties in preparation for future lawsuits.
"What we're finding from looking at (Kern County) records, sadly, is that they're sometimes killing animals the same day they're being dropped off," said Neiswender, an environmental law attorney who worked for Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) on the Senate Natural Resources and Wildlife Committees in 1999-2000. "(It's) a clear violation of the law."
Passed in 1998, the Hayden Act requires all county and city-run animal shelters in California to hold dogs and cats between four and six days before they are put to death. During that time, shelters are required to work with local pet rescue agencies to track down the animals' original owners or find new homes. The law makes no distinction between strays and animals surrendered by owners, other than to set different minimum holding periods.
Animal service directors talk
According to Rodriguez, 60 percent of the 8,864 dogs and 80 percent of the 11,981 cats turned over to the county's animal services in 2003-04 were euthanized. It's unknown how many weren't held at least four days, as required by law.
After hearing about the lawsuit Friday, Rodriguez said he called Kern County Animal Services Director Denise Haynes and spoke about the charges.
"She told me about the details of the suit, and I told her what our situation was," Rodriguez said. "She seemed to think we weren't doing anything wrong and that our situation was very different from hers."
The lawsuit claims Kern County animal control has an "ongoing pattern and practice of abuse and failure to follow state and federal law." It alleges that animal control officers routinely euthanize owner-surrendered and stray cats and dogs before the state-mandated holding period.
The lawsuit goes on to claim that Kern County animal services employees accepted owner-surrendered animals without proper owner verification; that the department has a history of "failing to cooperate" with local rescue organizations; and that the public was frequently denied access to all impounded animals.
Maxine Gonzalez, a Turlock Animal Control officer from 1990-1999 and frequent critic of Stanislaus County's Animal Services Department, said the lawsuit addresses many common issues with the local agency.
"When you read the first couple pages of this suit, all you have to do is change the words Kern County to Stanislaus County," Gonzalez said. "A lawsuit is inevitable here unless something is done to fix this problem. An owner-surrendered animal has as much of a right to be adopted as any other animal that comes into the pound."
In September, Rodriguez and other Animal Services employees met with the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors to address the euthanasia issue. Supervisors asked Rodriguez to report back to the board with plans to improve the Finch Road facility to allow all surrendered cats and dogs to be kept a minimum of four days.
That proposal includes an expansion of the facility's holding area and is expected to go before the board next month, Rodriguez said.
Bee staff writer Joel Hood can be reached at 238-4574 or email@example.com.