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Life, Death and What's New at the Animal Shelter

A chat with Melanie Sobel, Director of the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter.

When I was a kid, we called them the Dog Catcher…

That evil government workman (it was never a woman in those days) in the scary looking truck full of cages, looking for stray dogs to put in doggie jail. Once at the Dog Pound, you paid a ransom to get your precious pup back. As a kid, we got our dog from a litter of puppies in front of the grocery store and I didn’t know the word “euthanasia.”

Today’s reality is much different.

Recently, I sat down for a chat with Melanie Sobel, the new director of Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter (Santa Cruz and Watsonvlle). Originally from Chicago (with stops in Texas and Milwaukee), Melanie came to Santa Cruz about a year ago to escape cold, snowy winters. Except for the accent that creeps in (Mil-WAH-kee), you’d think she had lived here for years—a woman comfortable in her own skin and the Santa Cruz environment.

“I love it here. It isn’t just the weather,” Melanie explains. “It’s this part of California, and in particular this county, is so socially conscious… the environmentalism, the social activism.” Hmmmm… maybe she’s not just another bureaucrat?

Melanie’s office walls are covered in pictures of her dogs, past and present. Her dogs, all large, German Shepherd mix mutts, have names like Floyd (Pretty Boy Floyd) and Stella.

Her favorite place to walk dogs is near Land of the Medicine Buddha. She drinks her coffee from a “Keep Austin Weird” mug and she likes to shop local. Her name, surprisingly, shows up on IMDB for the film “Benji: Off the Leash!” because one of her Chicago shelter dogs was a runner up for the part of Benji (probably due to her aggressive efforts for animal adoption). 

She received her Masters in Public Service Administration from DePaul University in Chicago and has a history of creating progressive programs that are beneficial for a community’s animals in the long run.

Even though the county shelter system has had a rough time for the last five years, Melanie found that the shelter staff is unbelievably good, self-sufficient and has compassionate dedication.

Her longterm goals are to provide effective leadership and get the shelter’s name out in the community so people understand who SCCAS is and that they are not the SPCA (as they were years ago). She wants you to know about all their great programs, the volunteer opportunities, and what an important part the SCC Animal Shelter plays in our community.

Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter is a “joint powers authority” which means the shelter is its own entity and acts like a vendor to the county and surrounding cities. It provides services that include licensing, 24-hour animal rescue, shelter services for lost and homeless pets, humane education for schools and much more.

The county and each city pay according to their population. SCCAS has its own budget and its own board of directors including a rep from each city. Donations and bequests are tax deductible and soon you will be able to donate to the specific program you choose.

Melanie has made changes, lots of changes. She changed the name (and the logo) to Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter (instead of Services) to help change people’s perception and reflect their commitment to the animals. She has been aggressive in her efforts on behalf of the animals and brings so much compassion to this bureaucratic position that she has inspired a fierce loyalty from her staff and the volunteers.

Melanie started new low-cost spay/neuter programs “Planned Pethood” and “Fix-a-Pit” ($50 fee for all Pit Bulls). Working with FOWAS, FOSCCA and Project Purr, vouchers for free spay/neuter were offered in February. At the “Watsonville Healthy Dog Fair” in May, over 350 dogs received free microchips, and free vaccinations for rabies, distemper, and parvo. Forty-one dogs received $20 vouchers for spay and neuter services.

There have been creative adoption events, such as the Valentine’s Day “Meet Your Match”, at which 24 animals were adopted and 40 pets got rabies vaccinations or microchips. In July, she teamed up with the Animal Shelter Relief and Project Purr and they hosted “Meow Luau," an event that helped 53 animals find new homes. She has expanded “Pet of the Week” to more papers, TV and radio stations.

SCCAS has a new website (designed and produced pro bono), has put licensing online, and a web-based program to manage the 900+ volunteers. There is also a daily email that auto-sends to more than 50 animal welfare placement agencies about shelter animals that would be good candidates for rescue.

Melanie’s least favorite parts of the business are dangerous dogs and euthanizing. She stresses the point that she chooses to work in an “open door” or “open admissions” shelter because she feels that is the best way to serve the neediest animals in the community. “We are the safety net for these animals. I want to make sure the animals in our care are taken care of in the best best possible way.”

“Open door” means the shelter will take in any animal, unlike some other rescue organizations. It also means euthanasia is in the equation.

“We’re the ones that have to do the dirty work and decide who lives and who dies.” Melanie says. “There are just not enough resources to help every animal, not when we have perfectly adoptable animals sitting in our shelters, let alone ones that need rehab.”

The decision to euthanize is not simple, there are so many factors. Does the shelter have space? What condition is the animal in? What is the temperament of the animal?

Is it kenneling well (some animals go nuts in a kennel)? What resources are available? Are there foster homes? What happens to the animals already in the shelter when they receive a bunch of animals from a hoarder or abuser?

They never know what is going to come in and they have to be ready at a moment’s notice. A couple of weeks ago, 14 Chihuahuas of all ages came in from one breeder. What do you do when the shelter is already full?

“There’s a big no-kill movement that stirs people up, it’s emotions and people get upset at euthanasia, but it’s painting good guys and bad guys, and it’s divisive.”

Personally, I see no reason to blame the shelter for having to euthanize. It would be like me blaming the garbage man because I overfilled my trash can. It is our failure as a community that makes euthanasia necessary. If we all spayed/neutered, got our pets from a shelter or rescue group (instead of a breeder), and took our responsibility towards animals seriously, I doubt there would be any need for euthanasia.

Don’t like euthanasia? Here’s what you can do to be part of the solution:

  1. Spay or neuter. Besides cutting down on the pet population, it helps your pet live a longer, healthier life.
  2. Adopt pets from the shelter or a rescue group. No matter what breed you are looking for, there is already an animal looking for a home. Check out www.petfinder.com, type in the type and breed of animal you want, and see all the choices.
  3. Consider adopting an older animal. Puppies can be a lot of work and older dogs may already be trained.
  4. Be sure you are ready to commit to the responsibility for this animal for the rest of its life – not just while it is convenient for you.
  5. Know the breed before you adopt – not all breeds are the same and you need to choose an animal that fits in with your lifestyle.

I want to thank Melanie Sobel for being so generous with her time for this interview/article. Through our conversation, it became obvious that the “dog catcher” has changed over the years—a change for the better. Gone is the government bureaucrat, today’s successful shelters are run by animal activists.

sandy masib November 07, 2011 at 07:55 PM
Great interview, it shows we have a very human, caring and capable woman in charge of our animal shelter. I feel better knowing this. -Sandy
Jennifer Squires November 07, 2011 at 09:33 PM
Sandy, I think you hit the nail on the head. Melanie is a great asset to our community.
S.Charboneau March 11, 2013 at 04:19 AM
I have taken sick pets there to be put to sleep,I stayed with them and paid extra to do that.I now here they do not allow that and that they do not tranquilize them before they inject the heart stopper...is this true?

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