San Diego Both sides agree the seeds of the dispute were planted in 2000 when the County Board of Supervisors announced that the three county animal shelters -- in Carlsbad, Linda Vista, and Bonita -- would be "no-kill" shelters within five years. "No kill," at least for public shelters that can't turn away animals, does not mean a complete cessation of euthanizing animals. It means no "adoptable" animals will be killed. The announcement resulted in the summer 2003 hiring of Marlena Young, an animal-behavior specialist formerly of the Kansas City Humane Society. She is trained in a method of dog temperament testing known as the Sternberg Method. Young's hiring and her subsequent implementation of the temperament testing touched off a round of infighting and firings among staff, management, and volunteers at the shelters.
Cynthia Starkovsky volunteered at the central shelter for 12 years. She leads a loose group of people in the local animal shelter and animal rescue fields who are unhappy with the changes. "At the top of our list," Starkovsky says, "is our objection to the imposing of these very harsh tests on older, very young, sick, injured, and very frightened animals. I would say that is the core issue. A collateral issue also is, since they imposed this system, they are now recharacterizing euthanasia in new ways, declaring animals untreatable for behavior or medical reasons. There are other issues, too, such as the fact that the Department of Animal Services has retaliated against any volunteers and rescue groups who have attempted to speak up on behalf of these animals simply by firing [the volunteers]."
Starkovsky, who was asked not to come back to the shelter after protesting against the test, complains that the county's new system fixes something that wasn't broken. "Historically," she explains, "animals at public shelters were evaluated by a very democratic system. There was input from volunteers, kennel staff, even members of the public as to the adoptability -- in terms of behavior -- of an animal. Now, one evaluator basically has displaced that democratic method of deciding which dogs live and die, which is going to be helped and which not."
Marlena Young believes there's a danger in being too democratic when deciding a dog's future. "We actually have a form that is called a Behavioral Awareness Form that volunteers can fill out and give to the staff at that shelter to review, and they can write anything on there that they want. The problem is that they want to excuse behaviors that we feel are legitimate. In other words, if a dog snaps at you, people tend to go, 'Oh well, it was just...' and we say, 'No, we want to know what the trigger was and if this is going to happen again.' We need to know more about that behavior. We don't want to ever excuse that away because it may mean that somebody is going to get hurt. There was a Doberman in New Jersey, in the last few months, that was adopted out after 87 days in a shelter where he never showed any aggression. The staff liked this dog, it was great, they adopted him out. Ten days later, he killed a woman."
Young was hired, she says, "because the county decided that they wanted to gather more information about each animal and make a decision based on that in-depth information. The only way that you can do that is to get the animal out of the kennel and do an assessment of its behavior. They hired me and said, 'We want to have some sort of a behavior-evaluation system with which we can begin to separate out these dogs not only for our purposes of moving animals through the shelter but also to protect the public from dangerous animals.' "
"Dogs that Marlena Young cleared," Starkovsky responds, "have actually bitten adopters and have been returned to the shelter and euthanized. So are her judgments any better?"
No standardized system has ever governed the animal-sheltering field. Individual shelters have always developed their own protocols for euthanizing and adopting out dogs. The Sternberg Method, in which Young was trained, is the first system to spread across the country. It was developed in a private shelter in Upstate New York by a woman named Sue Sternberg. "Her motivation," Young explains, "was that she was sending out dogs that were coming back having bitten. She wanted to stop that, so she decided we need to learn as much as we can about dog behavior by watching dog-to-dog interaction. Because dogs speak body language with the way they hold their body, tail, mouth, and eyes, and the way they move and turn and all that. So because dogs speak the same language, we watch what they are doing with one another. Then we apply that to what we are seeing when we bring these dogs in here."
Young, an energetic woman about 40 years old with short brown hair, demonstrates an evaluation in her office at the central shelter. While her trained assistant, Jenny, takes notes, she first stands silently for a minute with the dog on a leash. Later, Young explains that she wants to see if the dog is interested in making a personal connection and receiving affection from her. But the Dalmatian is indifferent. Next she begins to talk to him in a high, sweet voice and reaches down to pet the dog, who accepts one pet but shrugs off the second. Young then sits in a chair, and the dog puts his head on her lap. This time, he willingly receives affection from her. He even accepts the full-body hug Young gives him, though with noticeable tension in his body.
Young stands up and places her left hand under the dog's chin. With her right she attempts to lift his upper lip and inspect the teeth. The point is not the teeth but his reaction, which is to pull away forcefully though with no attendant growling or snapping. Young tries another 10 to 15 times with the same results. Next she tries to interest the dog in toys, but he is unmoved. He sniffs at the door while Young offers him a doggie treat. He does accept a rawhide chew but not enthusiastically. When Young reaches to take it away, he makes no attempt to resist.