County shelter expands efforts to reunite lost pets with owners

Heidi Schmidt could tell by their panting that the dogs were tired and thirsty.

The small brown dog and large husky mix were an odd pair. Stranger still was how they ended up last week at Schmidt’s house on remote Coleman Valley Road in Occidental.

Schmidt gave the dogs water, but hesitated to call Sonoma County Animal Services out of fear the dogs would be killed, she said.

“I wasn’t going to call if that was the case,” she said.

Brigid Wasson has heard such concern plenty of times in her career, which is why the director of Sonoma County Animal Services is seeking more effective and humane ways of connecting people with their lost pets.

The effort isn’t just about the county shelter in Santa Rosa overcoming its reputation as the final stop for lost or deserted pets, but also shelter staff members overcoming their own dim view of people whose pets end up at the facility.

“It’s moving away from that old-school thinking that owners are irresponsible,” Wasson said. “Every grieving pet owner who is looking for a lost pet deserves the same level of high customer service.”

Wasson wants the county to embrace new technologies and to make better use of the tools it already has to increase the odds of people reuniting with their lost pets. She also brought in Washington state pet detective Kat Albrecht last week to lead a seminar for more than 50 animal welfare and law enforcement professionals.

“Why would we want to find a new home for an animal that already has a good home?” Wasson said.

Sonoma County Animal Services, which spans unincorporated areas of the county and the cities of Santa Rosa and Windsor, took in 1,422 stray dogs and 1,106 stray cats in fiscal year 2013-14. The county successfully reunited about 55 percent of the dogs with their owners; for cats, it was about 20 percent.

That’s well above the national average, but Wasson said the county can do better.

Among her new initiatives is asking animal control officers to spend more time in neighborhoods where they find strays in an effort to locate the animals’ owners.

Veteran Animal Control Officer Shirley Zindler responded last week to Schmidt’s phone call reporting the two dogs that showed up at her home. By the time Zindler arrived at Hand Goods, Schmidt’s store in Occidental, the dogs were lounging outside on leashes alongside Schmidt’s own dog.

“Oh, aren’t they a couple of cuties!” Zindler said. “They look like somebody’s babies.”

The Chihuahua sported a collar with a tag bearing its name, an address and a phone number that was disconnected. Zindler scanned both dogs for microchips without success before she radioed to dispatch seeking information about prior contacts with the dogs or their owner.

The officer was given a name and an address on Morelli Lane, more than a mile away. But before she loaded the dogs into her van, Schmidt wanted further assurances the dogs would not be taken to the shelter and killed.

“If they’re not claimed, they’re highly adoptable,” Zindler said to her. “We don’t euthanize healthy, adoptable animals.”

Zindler drove on Bohemian Highway before turning onto Morelli Lane in Camp Meeker. After winding up the narrow, single-lane road, she finally arrived at a two-story house where laundry hung from rafters on the front porch.

A woman who answered the door recognized the dogs. She said their owner had let them out of the house that morning.

Zindler received assurances from the woman that she would not let the dogs out again before the officer relinquished the animals from her control. She did so with a warning that the county’s fine for a loose animal is $250.

Zindler said officers tended to assume the worst about people who didn’t make an effort to find their missing pets, which in turn often resulted in the animal being whisked away to the shelter. But she said that attitude is changing.

“Some people don’t realize their animal’s gone yet,” Zindler said. “They’ve been at work, the animal dug out. Certainly every effort would be made to return the animal in the field.”

Albrecht, the pet detective, said shelters often focus on programs such as spaying and neutering animals in an effort to reduce animal populations. But she said there’s value in keeping animals out of shelters in the first place.

“If we can help people find their missing pets, we’re saving taxpayer money and we’re saving animals’ lives,” she said.

The county paid Albrecht $3,480 and travel expenses to lead last Wednesday’s seminar in Santa Rosa. She said the goal was to give animal welfare officials tools they could share with the public for finding lost pets.

She said dogs and cats behave differently when they are on their own and require different strategies on the part of their owners to try to get them back.

She said for dogs, the most critical strategy involves getting the message out far and wide, and with as much visibility as possible. She suggested owners use neon markers to write a “lost pet” message on their vehicles, much as they would to celebrate a wedding or graduation. When using posters, she said it’s best to make them big and bright, and to limit the verbiage and numbers written on them so that they are easily processed by passing motorists.

Albrecht referred to this as the “five words in five seconds when going 55 mph” rule.

Cats, which are more territorial than dogs, require a different strategy and focus, Albrecht said. She said an indoor cat that escapes outside usually will seek out the first place it can find to hide and remain there quietly. Often that’s within a small radius of the house.

She suggested using humane traps to try to coax the cat back and asking neighbors for permission to enter their yards and look for the animal, which may have gone beneath a deck or into a crawl space.

Wasson said county staff will be helping people “tag” their vehicles with information about their lost pets based on Albrecht’s suggestions. The county already offers a complimentary microchip for every animal reclaimed from the shelter, as well as a free identification tag. All adoptable pets also are chipped.

Wasson said she’s exploring a program to provide complimentary kennels to pet owners whose animals escape from their homes, such as through a hole in a fence.

She also is looking into a county partnership with a company that employs facial-recognition technology to help pet owners find their lost animals.

The service, Finding Rover, scans the unique features of a dog’s face and keeps the image on file in case it ever gets lost, in which case the company sends the image to shelters and other animal welfare organizations seeking a match. People can monitor the search using an application they download to their smartphone.

“I love the idea because it’s new and thinking outside the box,” Wasson said.

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