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Lawsuit against San Diego Humane Society over policy of releasing friendly cats to streets moves forward

Ex-director of SD Animal Control calls program cruel, inhumane
Posted at 6:31 AM, Mar 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-01 09:31:21-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — It’s the slogan on the outside of the San Diego Humane Society building: "Dedicated to Saving the Life of Every Adoptable Animal."

But a lawsuit against the San Diego Humane Society claims when it comes to cats — that pledge does not apply.

At issue is what the SDHS calls its Community Cat Program.

Its website explains — if a cat has no verifiable owner, usually meaning no microchip or collar, and it’s deemed healthy, regardless of whether it’s friendly, young, or old — the cat is spayed, neutered, vaccinated, medically treated, and put back out on the street.

"It’s kind of a reversal to what you would think. If it’s confirmed to have an owner, then we’ll take it into the shelter, but if it doesn’t have an owner, we’re going to take the cat and put it on the streets…it just doesn’t make any sense," said attorney Bryan Pease.

Bryan Pease, the attorney who filed the suit on behalf of two animal rescue nonprofits, and two individuals, is trying to force the San Diego Humane Society to amend its Community Cat Program. He says friendly, adoptable cats are never given the chance to find a home.

"These are cats that are unable to survive on their own, completely dependent on humans, friendly, adoptable, social, and they're just being released out onto the streets in the hopes that community members will step up and feed them and take care of them, and things like that. And if they don’t it’s not San Diego Humane’s problem any more, which is apparently what they want," said Pease.

According to numbers provided to ABC 10News by the San Diego Humane Society, when you take out cats surrendered, emergency boarded, and euthanized:

In the last 7 months from July 2021 thru January 2022

  • 3,354 cats were found, and brought in.
  • 2,349 were returned to habitat.

That’s 70% that went back out on the street.

"We want to end the new part of this program, which is the releasing of friendly, domesticated cats on the street … it constitutes an illegal animal abandonment. It's completely different from the time-tested method of releasing feral cats after they've been spayed and neutered and provided medical care," said Pease.

Pease, and all the plaintiffs in this lawsuit agree, a Trap/Neuter/Release program is the correct protocol for feral cats. But he says lumping in all cats deemed "unowned" is a dereliction of duty.

The old protocol would have been to take the cat into the shelter, if the owner calls, great. If not, they receive millions of dollars of taxpayer money to provide shelter and care for these animals and seeking homes for these animals and adopting them out.

The San Diego Humane Society says it receives a total of $19 million a year from its 14 city contracts.

Dawn Danielson was the former Director of the San Diego County Department of Animal Services for 13 years, until 2016, a year and a half before the San Diego Humane Society took it over. She’s publicly come out against their policy on cats.

Part of her statement to ABC 10News reads:

"When adoptable cats are brought to a shelter, they should be vaccinated, altered and placed up for adoption. The main reason the practice of releasing cats is being taught now to shelters is to make their numbers look good. The shelters can brag how they didn't have to euthanize any cats. But what they are not saying is these cats are being dumped back on the streets and will likely suffer and die in some horrific manner. This practice is cruel, inhumane and should stop immediately."
Dawn Danielson

Anna Brown is a registered veterinary technician, and founder of Smittens, a nonprofit pet rescue. She says every week people bring her cats they had already brought to the Humane Society, but were surprised when they were called the next day by SD Humane to come pick up the cat and put it back on the street.

"They're not sticking to their policy of keeping and treating the sick ones and routing them thru adoption … keeping the kittens and putting them up for adoption," said Brown.

Brown said a cat named Abby is one example. She was tagged for return to habitat, but instead brought to Smittens. Brown says she arrived skinny, with diarrhea and eye infections. Brown got her medically treated and adopted to Jonathan and Pam Hunter in La Mesa.

ABC 10News went to the Hunters' home in La Mesa. As Jonathan was sitting with Abby, giving her treats and throwing her a favorite toy, he describes her as a people person never wanting to go very far from him or his wife.

Jonathan showed us Abby’s ear, where the tip has been cut off as part of the Community Cat identification procedure. He said it’s something that still bothers his wife.

Every Community Cat loses the top of an ear. It’s how the Humane Society knows they’ve already been spayed or neutered.

According to the lawsuit, a cat named Jordy was brought to the SDHS with a large gash on his side. After the would reopened twice and was surgically closed each time by San Diego Humane Veterinarians, the complaint says the Humane Society still insisted the caretaker come get him and put him back on the street.

Anna Brown says the caretaker really didn’t feel comfortable doing that.

"She ask the Humane Society okay, this is his third surgery are you sure he's thriving outside? Are you sure we should release him? And they said yes," said Brown.

The caretaker did not release him. His picture went up on a Facebook page called #SanDiegoHumaneRejects and he found a home with Michael Kahn.

Kahn describes Jordy, now named Walter, as a lap cat unable to hurt anyone, telling us he’s “cuddly, sweet, and truly the purest of heart.”

Not every cat on that Facebook page has a happy ending. A post shows a white cat its finder named Mango. The post tells the story of how Mango was brought to the San Diego Humane Society with Mange. He was neutered, vaccinated, and given a mange treatment. The next day he was released to the same neighborhood. The poster says a few days later they found Mango dead, with a slash on side from an apparent attack by a predator.

"Which is the life of outdoor cats. Unfortunately, cats allowed outdoors, especially in San Diego don't live very long," said Anna Brown.

In a legal objection to the lawsuit, San Diego Humane Society attorneys write:

"The SDHS (San Diego Humane Society) Community Cat program involves activities which are indisputably motivated by humane principles and intended to enhance the welfare of the animals in question."

"Prior to changing their policy, they had a successful adoption program for cats. They should just continue doing that and finding homes for these cats." said Pease.

A San Diego Humane Society impact report from 2018-2019 shows 86.7% of cats were either adopted, returned to their owner, or transferred to another agency.

Brown is caring for another cat during our interview. She says it was brought to her for the same reason as the others. This one she has named Phyllis.

"We have so many stories, they just blur together at this point," said Brown. "There are so many friendly ones, and sick ones, and so many who are not thriving, falling thru the cracks."

ABC 10News requested an interview with the San Diego Humane Society for this story. They declined the request but sent a statement, which reads in part:

"San Diego Humane Society was very pleased with the court's ruling to deny the preliminary injunction back in October 2021. The court's ruling showed that the law, the facts, and the opinions of the leading experts in the field all support what San Diego Humane Society is achieving with our comprehensive Community Cat Program - which is in the best interest of cats, people and wildlife."

Pease calls that misleading. He gave ABC 10News a statement reading in part:

“A ruling on a preliminary injunction is not a ruling on the merits. In fact, SD Humane requested that the Court dismiss the case, but the Court rejected that request and is allowing the case to proceed to trial. We look forward to trial when the case will be decided on the merits.”

If you would like to adopt one of the cats cared for by Smittens, including Phyllis who will need daily thyroid medication. You can find information on their website here.

You can also follow Smittens on Instagram.