Of the nearly 2,300 dogs the city-run shelter took in during 2021, only about 7% were euthanized. Credit: Amir Aziz

New data from Oakland Animal Services shows the city-run shelter is putting down fewer dogs than it has in previous years. Part of the reduction can be traced back to a cultural shift in the department’s enforcement approach, shelter director Ann Dunn said Monday. 

Oakland’s animal control officers are taking a less punitive approach. Whereas dogs used to be taken indiscriminately from low-income families in cases of suspected neglect, the department is now taking pains to distinguish between loving families without means to care for their animal and situations of willful neglect and abuse. 

Providing food, shelter, and education instead of snatching a dog resulted in a 23% reduction in animal seizures in 2021, Dunn said during a report to a City Council committee Monday. And a program placing dogs who don’t do well in a shelter setting—because they’re poorly trained, for instance, or too big— in foster homes instead has helped increase adoption rates. 

It’s also led to a dramatic decline in the number of animals put down at the shelter. 

“For a municipal shelter, our euthanasia rate is extremely low. It’s by far the lowest it’s ever been in Oakland’s history,” Dunn told members of the City Council’s Life Enrichment Committee. 

This represents a remarkable turnaround for a department that recently faced a lawsuit from a former manager who alleged control officers neglected and abused cats and dogs and bullied others who tried to stop their behavior. 

Until 2014, animal control was under the Oakland Police Department. Even after it was established as its own freestanding department, control officers continued to wear police uniforms and some refused training on newer, more humane procedures, the lawsuit alleged. The city settled the case for $150,000 in December

Ann Dunn, director of the Oakland animal shelter. Credit: Amir Aziz

The allegations predated Dunn’s arrival in 2020 as director of animal services. The department, Dunn said, has undergone a transition from a shelter-based model to a community-based one, expanding weekly hours of operation from 20 to 42 hours, allowing for walk-in adoption appointments on weekday evenings and weekends, and restructuring the organization to have more animal care attendants and veterinarians. 

The majority of the people who used OAS’ services—primarily to surrender animals, find lost animals or seek veterinary care—are low-income or come from predominantly underserved Oakland neighborhoods. 

“Rather than thinking of itself as an animal shelter to take in animals,” Dunn said, the operation is now more focused on helping people with limited resources “to keep their animals so they never have to come to the shelter.” 

Between 2019 and 2021, adoption of dogs jumped from 14% to 39%, while the percentage of cats who found homes went from 41% to 47%, according to a report Dunn compiled. (Dunn said 2020 was not a reliable year to look at because of the coronavirus pandemic.)

While euthanisia dropped dramatically, it’s use isn’t likely to ever end completely. Many animals come to the shelter with life-threatening diseases and others are badly injured from things like car collisions. 

Of the 2,297 dogs taken in during 2021, 166 or 7.2% were euthanized, compared to 16.6% in 2019. The number of cats put down also declined, although at a lower rate, from 9.4% in 2019 to 7.8% in 2021.  

Last year, animal control officers investigated 313 animal bites and 681 reports of cruelty or neglect, and of those, 20 cases were referred to the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office for prosecution. 

David DeBolt reported on City Hall and policing for The Oaklandside. He spent 12 years working for daily newspapers in the Bay Area, including on the Peninsula and Solano County. He joined the Bay Area News Group in 2012 where he covered a variety of beats, most recently as a senior breaking news reporter. During his time at BANG, DeBolt covered Oakland City Hall, the Raiders stadium saga and the A’s search for a new ballpark, as well as the Oakland Police Department and police reform efforts. He was part of the East Bay Times staff honored with the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News for coverage of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire.