/But groups have no oversight; some fear for animals’ safety
By Anne Krueger, UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
Saturday, March 20, 2010 at 2:38 a.m.
Michelle Johnson runs a large-dog rescue shelter in Valley Center. Volunteers care for and feed animals, and look for adoptive homes. California has no laws regulating inspections of rescue groups.
Michelle Johnson walked her dogs yesterday near her Valley Center home. Johnson says she has known Alice Via, who was arrested on suspicion of felony animal endangerment, for 20 years. “Alice is a fantastic rescuer,” she says.
Michelle Johnson says rescue groups perform a service in taking animals with medical or behavioral problems.
The volunteers take in dogs and cats, horses and rabbits who have been abandoned or whose owners can no longer care for them. They spend time and money caring and feeding for the animals and looking for people willing to adopt them, with no reward other than the satisfaction of helping the creatures.
But with the recent arrest of a Lakeside woman who authorities say had 63 boxers and other dogs crammed in cages in her house, some are wondering if rescue groups need more government oversight.
“The majority of rescue groups are fabulous,” said Julie Morris, senior vice president of community outreach for the American Society for the Protection of Animals. “They’re by people who really care and spend an inordinate amount of their own money, but there’s definitely bad apples in the crowd.”
California is among the states with no laws governing inspections of animal rescue groups. Elsewhere, Virginia requires such organizations to register with a state office; in Michigan, an alliance of rescue groups has set up a code of ethics.
With the lack of regulations, rescue groups here are rarely inspected by animal control officers. Alice Via, 65, came to the attention of authorities only because they received a complaint from someone visiting her Lakeside home who was considering adopting a dog.
Via was arrested March 10 on suspicion of felony animal neglect and four misdemeanors related to allegations that she had unsanitary conditions for the dogs in her two-bedroom home. She is also accused of keeping more than six adult dogs without having a kennel license.
Via was released from custody and is scheduled to make her first court appearance Monday.
Via did not return phone calls, but on her Web site she defended her operation of 17 years. “The dogs here were safe, happy and healthy,” she wrote. “I know, I lived with them.”
Via’s arrest generated sympathy from some other rescue group operators.
“Alice is a fantastic rescuer,” said Michelle Johnson of Valley Center, who runs a large-dog rescue shelter in Valley Center and has known Via for 20 years. “She has a very good reputation.”
Animal control officers said Via told them she became overwhelmed caring for the boxers, Chihuahuas and terriers in her home. Other rescuers said they are also getting more calls from desperate animal owners who must relinquish their pets when they lose their job or their home. Debbie Paradise, who’s run a rescue operation for 20 years, said she now has six rescued adult dogs and nine puppies in her Spring Valley home.
“Sometimes you can’t say no,” Paradise said. “I have a lot right now. I have more than I usually do.”
Lt. Dan DeSousa, spokesman for the county Department of Animal Services, said Via was allowed to take boxers from county animal shelters, although her group was not one of the 151 rescue groups approved by the county. Rescue groups are not required to be approved by the county, but getting on the list allows rescuers to take animals from county shelters without paying the $69 fee that the public is charged.
DeSousa said rescue groups approved by the county agree to inspections by the Department of Animal Services. However, he said the department’s 31 animal control officers don’t regularly inspect the groups. They go only when they receive a complaint about the condition of the animals.
The county department handles animal control in unincorporated areas and in Carlsbad, Del Mar, Encinitas, San Diego, Santee and Solana Beach. As law enforcement officers, animal control officers must have a reason to go into the home of someone running a rescue group, DeSousa said.
The San Diego Humane Society also has volunteer community service officers who inspect pet stores and rescue groups that offer animals for adoptions at the stores.
“Rescues have done remarkable work,” said Humane Society Capt. D.J. Gove. “There’s a lot of good out there, but the challenge is: Do they have the resources?”
DeSousa said the county shelters work closely with the rescue groups in finding homes for abandoned animals. State law requires shelter officials to release an unadoptable animal to a rescue group when the group is willing to take the animal, he said.
Johnson said rescues perform a valuable service of taking shelter animals with medical or behavioral problems.
“If it wasn’t for rescues, the amount of dogs and cats that would be euthanized would be unimaginable,” she said.
DeSousa said the dogs seized from Via’s home are getting medical treatment and will be offered for adoption when they are no longer needed for Via’s criminal case..
ADOPTING A RESCUE ANIMAL
Many animal rescue groups operate in San Diego County. Check Web sites such as petfinder.com or adoptapet.com to locate them. Here are some of the questions to ask when adopting an animal:
Is the rescue group a nonprofit organization?
Where did the animal come from?
Does the animal have any medical or behavioral issues?
How long has the animal been at the shelter?
Is the animal good with children or other pets?
Can I return the animal if the adoption doesn’t work out?
For animals who no longer have a home, a rescue group can mean a second chance at a good life.