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Californian staff writer James Burger

The Californian's James Burger was the winner of a major award at the 26th annual George F. Gruner Awards Thursday night in Fresno.

Burger's entry, "Decade of Failure," contrasted 10 years of largely ineffective efforts by the county of Kern to reduce the annual euthanization of 20,000 unwanted animals against Jacksonville, Fla.'s dramatic success in using targeted spay-neuter programs to slash deaths from 20,000 in 2002 to 5,000 in 2012.

It was the winning entry among newspapers with under 50,000 circulation.

The Californian's package of stories chronicled Kern County's years of haphazard support for spay-neuter programs, the challenges presented by conflict between the city of Bakersfield and the county on the issue, hopeful developments in county attitudes and private support for saving animals' lives.

Burger's work was supplemented by Californian columnist Lois Henry, who noted in the package that "Kern County Animal Control does not have a money problem. It has a data problem."

The Gruner Prize among newspapers with more than 50,000 circulation went to The Fresno Bee's "Locked in Terror," an investigation into the systematic withholding of psychiatric medications from Fresno County Jail inmates and the human and financial toll it had on families and the community.

The George F. Gruner Prizes for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism was established in 1989 by McClatchy Newspapers in honor of the former executive editor of the Fresno Bee to recognize impactful journalism in the Central San Joaquin Valley. The event was hosted by the Bee and the journalism school at Fresno State University.

Two days after The Californian published the series of articles, the Kern County Board of Supervisors tore apart the spay neuter proposal brought to them by Kern County Animal Control Director Jen Woodard.

Later that day, in a closed door session, they fired her.

Woodard had presented a plan to use private veterinarians to administer spay and neuter surgeries though a voucher program based on the animal owner's income.

But supervisors asked why she wasn't targeting the county's biggest geographical problem areas and questioned her decision to require veterinarians to do income verification for pet owners.

Underlying the whole discussion was the SpayJax program and Jacksonville spay-neuter model -- a model supervisors had heard about from Californian reporters and had ordered Woodard to explore.

Woodard's firing was followed by months of turmoil and uncertainty for city and county animal welfare operations.

But once the dust of the city-county divorce settled supervisors called on Woodard's replacement, Shyanne Schull, to adapt the Jacksonville concept to Kern County.

Schull culled through county databases and scraped together an imperfect -- but serviceable -- analysis of where most animals taken into the shelter come from.

Then, working with a subcommittee of the Board, the county developed a plan to use a mix of nonprofit groups and county animal services officers to get $250,000 in vouchers out to the specific areas with the biggest problems.

Unlike Jacksonville, the spay-neuter program uses vouchers -- essentially county-backed coupons for low-cost or free spay or neuter surgeries.

But it targets pet owners living in the low-income areas of east, southeast and north Bakersfield.

And the county also implemented a TNR program which has trapped, altered and released more than 1,000 cats so far.

Supervisors, in calling for change, continue to refer to Jacksonville when calling for change in the current killing culture in Kern County.

"We believe all of this progress took place because The Californian meticulously outlined the problem and then illuminated the proper course to rectify it," Burger said. "Since these articles were published, shelter kill numbers are down -- and dramatically so."