'The facility is very much last century. Far back in the last century'

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. - In one of her first official acts, Kern County's new Animal Control Director outlined her complaints about the animal shelter.

The facility has been the target of plenty of criticism, and it's one of the big issues Jan Woodard will have to deal with. She brought a review of shelter conditions to Kern County Supervisors on Tuesday.

Woodard's letter to the Board outlines a number of problems with the aging shelter, she lists some short-term improvements they've already made, and she argues more must be done.

Local animal advocates agree.

"The people working (at the shelter) are wonderful," Marilyn Stewart told Eyewitness News. "But, what it comes down to, is the facility is very much last century. Far back in the last century."

Stewart runs Alpha Canine Sanctuary, and her group gets calls from people who've adopted pets from the county animal shelter. "They're telling me some very sad stories about animals being sick when they come out, some dying," Stewart said. She blames the shelter facility, calling it inadequate in many ways.

That's how the new animal control chief sees it, too.

Woodard said the oldest buildings have maintenance issues, and even the newer ones "have not been able to withstand the daily wear and tear of multiple cleanings, weather conditions (i.e. extreme heat, wind), and animal housing."

Woodard said, for example, the old concrete floors don't drain properly when cleaned, leaving unsanitary conditions.

Woodard also worries about giving animals adequate medical care, saying there's been no dedicated medical area at the facility and no designated places to isolate animals with contagious diseases.

Even the design of the old shelter adds to these problems. The dog kennels face each other and have short walls, allowing big dogs to jump up and possibly pass germs on to other dogs. Those kennels also add "stress" to the animals, according to Woodard.

And her letter to the board says the size of the shelter hasn't kept up with population growth in the county.

"This has led to overcrowding in the kennels, which leads to an increased prevalence of diseases, increased stress on the animals, and extreme difficulty in properly cleaning and providing medical care for the animals," the letter reads.

Stewart agrees with all those issues, but she welcomes the attention from the new director. "I think we're very much on the right track," she said.

Woodard's letter tells county leaders her department is working on as many problems as they can. They've started a new intake and quarantine process to help lower disease rates. Some kennels are now set aside for dog isolation, and the small area that had been used for medical care is the new cat isolation area.

Shelter staff are also moving the medical area to a bigger space. It has been housed in a spot where a freezer was located.

Woodard will also tell supervisors about successful efforts get more pets adopted out of the shelter, and to rescue animals. Her letter says 4,645 animals were saved last year thanks to a department-created rescue team.

Stewart is encouraged. "I appreciate what they've done -- the immunizations -- everything they've done," Stewart said. "But, there's still too much sickness, and with the way (the shelter's) laid out, that's not going to change." She thinks the county needs a new shelter.

Earlier this year, the county was set to leave the location on South Mt. Vernon, and was ready to lease a warehouse and set up a new facility there. The county now leases the Mt.Vernon site from the City of Bakersfield, and the county complained about shelter conditions and how much money the city was paying them to handle animals brought in from city areas.

But, that split-up was avoided, and the county stayed in the site on Mt. Vernon. There's now a joint city/ county committee working on animal control and shelter issues. The committee's set up for a one-year period.

Meanwhile, Woodard is now chief of the county's operations and her presentation to Supervisors calls the letter a "summary of the limitations and hindrances of the current Bakersfield shelter facility on the ability to provide the appropriate level of care and housing for the community's homeless pet population."

She concludes by saying the recent changes have had positive impacts. But, Woodard says more needs to be done. "In order to sustain systematic and long-term improvements that dramatically improve adoptions and reduce euthanasia rates a shelter facility needs to be available that is conducive to the needs of the animals and the community," the letter reads.

Woodard doesn't spell out exactly what that should be. Stewart has some clear and strong opinions.

"Long-term we simply need to have something better, whether we rent, we lease, we build it," Stewart said. "I think what we need is just a new shelter."