Kern County Animal Control Director Jen Woodard has been on the job for 2 1/2 weeks and already has plans to completely reorder operations at the county's South Mount Vernon Avenue animal shelter.
She plans to put cute, adoptable dogs and cats closer to the public when they walk through the door, attack fatal disease rates among animals in the shelter and community, and promote community education, fostering and rescue efforts.
She wants to talk about save rates, not kill rates, find every animal a home, team up with the city of Bakersfield and repair the reputation of Kern County Animal Control. She's up against social and cultural challenges that have blunted efforts to improve the county's care of all animals -- wanted and unwanted -- for years.
The Californian met with Woodard to discuss her first impressions of Kern County and the job she's signed up to do.
What have you been doing for the first two weeks of your job?
A: Obviously, the main focus was the shelter; making sure that we can address the operations issues that are going on as far as disease prevention. Some of those things are going to be more long-term.
Just meeting with my key staff members, kind of learning what was going on. I had to learn about The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals challenge (a national competition to earn grant funding by saving more animals lives). Sort of delve into some of those things that were happing, and then of course other things are sort of just putting in a planning stage of programs. We're going to expand; add staffing. And all of the fun meetings I get to attend. And the city-county conversations, I'm in a lot of those right now.
Q: What are the immediate changes that need to be made to the shelter operations?
A: Over my 2 1/2 weeks, I have learned about parvo and how much that is something coming into the shelter not as much being passed at the shelter. We're going to add a few other cleaning chemicals to help with enzyme breakdown and smells. And also some of the cleaning was skipping a key step. There was a disinfecting step being missed on some of the bowls and litter boxes. We've added that back in.
What we came to is a new puppy area, which is the old back cat room. We're going to use that back room for puppy isolation and quarantine. We're going to try to see if we can control the parvo. You can't prevent it from coming in. But we want to see if we can prevent the spread.
We also want to see if we can quarantine the puppies a little bit longer. We'll be able to see if they're going to 'blow' with the disease here rather than in a home or a rescue. We need to do sort of a public education outreach, not only at the vaccination clinics but as a standalone campaign (against parvo virus and distemper).
Q: How big of a problem is kennel illness for Animal Control?
A: I always remind people that animal control is a service but it's really a people business. There would be no unwanted animals if people kept their animals and were responsible. It really is a community issue. Together we need to solve it.
The part about vaccinating your animals is the key piece. The shelter is really representing what is going on in the community at large. Many of these puppies are dying in their homes and dying in their yards of parvo, we just aren't seeing them because they're not in here. It really is just a microcosm of what's going on. We need to address the community issues on top of it and that'll trickle down and solve some of the shelter issues as well.
Q: Where's the biggest benefit from city-county cooperation?
A: There have to be partnerships. Animal welfare transcends the city/county boundaries because everybody has animals. People don't necessarily think, 'Do I live in the city or do I live in the county?' They need to be able to reach out for services from either side -- even the Bakersfield SPCA and other rescues in the area -- everybody needs to have a consistent message.
If we work together and partner that message, we'll get out loud and clear and there won't be any confusion for people about what is expected from them, and what we're here for.
Q: Why do you say Kern County doesn't have an animal overpopulation problem?
A: There's enough homes in this country. Statistically only about 20 percent of people who have pets adopted them or rescued them. Most people still get them from breeders, free ads or pet stores. Adoption in general still needs to be pushed out there. But we also have to provide good animals and good customer service. We need to let people know you can get great animals at shelters. There are enough homes.
Q: In Kern County and Bakersfield, there are not too many animals for us to handle?
A: It's hard to say there is a pet overpopulation area when we're not providing any spay-neuter services to people who are low-income. There are a lot of animals in Kern County but I still do think that there are plenty of people who could adopt who would make wonderful homes who may be finding animals elsewhere.
Note: To end the interview, Woodard talked about the diversity of Kern County, the challenges created by its low socio-economic environment, the shelter's problems with illness and a poor public image, the lack of low-cost spay-neuter services and a host of other problems she faces.
There is plenty of opportunity for the community to improve itself and that improvement will start at the county shelter, she said.
"In Kern County, we are not representing as animal welfare; we aren't creating an environment where people can adopt and feel comfortable adopting," Woodard said.
"It's really the throwaway dogs, the diseased dogs ad cats: that's what the public view is. That's why I was hired in. Now's the time to.. move forward and change everything about this facility from operations to the care of the animals to what we provide the community."