FRESNO -- Doubts about whether Fresno County could find an animal shelter to replace the SPCA have been eased by a so-far successful transition to a new contractor.
Nearly a month after the Central California Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ended its contract with the county, privately held Liberty Animal Control Services is operating a 90-cage shelter in Fresno west of Highway 99 with about a dozen staffers to tend to the county's lost, sick and vicious animals.
The upstart already has handled more than 500 calls and brought several hundred animals to its new home near the Highway 99/180 interchange.
Among the shelter's current residents: Twinkle, a miniature horse picked up after it got stuck in a barbed-wire fence; Kipper, a friendly German shepherd who doesn't appear to have a home; and Jinx, a black cat who was named by shelter staff in honor of Halloween.
"I think they've been working better than expected," said county Supervisor Henry Perea, who helped lead efforts to hire the new animal-control provider. "We're very satisfied with what's happening." Liberty officials say the key to their initial success is working with animal rescue groups to quickly find homes for the animals and keep their new digs from filling up. The company continues to expand capacity at the shelter, which went up just five weeks ago.
No animals have been euthanized so far because of space limitations.
Liberty Animal Control came on the scene after the SPCA terminated its contract with the county Oct. 1. The SPCA had been under fire for euthanizing too many animals and not being more transparent with its policies.
Initially, the longtime animal control provider announced it was severing ties with both the county and the city, but now is staying on with the city indefinitely.
The SPCA's parting with the county prompted fears that animal control would be compromised in Fresno County's unincorporated areas. County officials appear so far to have proved the naysayers wrong.
"We've got really experienced people who we've handpicked," said Liberty owner and director Karen Wilkins. "Everything has gone just fine." The company was founded by Wilkins, her husband Charles, who owns a veterinary clinic in Clovis, and Daniel Bailey, a former Tulare County animal control officer. The founders recruited employees who have worked for city and county animal control agencies.
Liberty was the only organization to bid on the county contract.
The company has a one-year deal to provide animal control services for the county, at a cost of $750,000 -- $250,000 less than what the county paid the SPCA. The county, though, is underwriting a number of the contractor's expenses, such as vehicles.
Despite Liberty's strong start, challenges remain.
The company is providing mostly the minimum services that the county is required to provide under state law, which could become an issue with a public accustomed to getting more. For example, stray animals don't have to be collected, just injured and dangerous ones; the SPCA had typically welcomed all.
Liberty officials, however, have accepted homeless animals that people have dropped off as well as picked up some strays. They intend to expand services as they grow into their new role.
The company's shelter, on the grounds of the old county morgue, also could become problematic. Space is limited, and employees are using portable cages and mobile offices, which are not ideal for the long term.
County officials are evaluating other locations to construct a better shelter.
To help reduce the burden on animal control, Supervisor Susan Anderson is planning to introduce a spay-and-neuter ordinance before the end of the year.
While the SPCA no longer is providing animal control for the county, the organization is continuing to provide education on pet care and spay and neutering.