It was a hot San Jose summer day two years ago when the city’s animal control squad set off to seize 20 dogs from a suspected illegal dog breeding business. The string of missteps that followed would mark one of the darkest days in the city shelter’s recent history, but records show it wouldn’t be the last time a dog lost a limb or died.
The shelter is currently facing a City Council-ordered audit amid ongoing criticism of conditions at the facility and inadequate staffing and infrastructure.
In the mishap in July 2021, which was never publicly disclosed, animal control truck No. 11108 arrived at the San Jose shelter with three dogs. As the temperatures inside rose, officers first unloaded other animals from the other vehicles. Inside the sweltering truck, the dogs became hotter and hotter.
An American bulldog named BMF and a French bulldog named Shika died, likely of heat stroke as their body temperatures reached nearly 110 degrees, a summary from that day and autopsy records show. The third dog survived after veterinarian intervention.
The animal control team said they left the engine running and didn’t realize the truck’s air conditioning was broken. Jay Terrado, director of the city-run San Jose Animal Care Center, said there was “no indication” that the truck’s air conditioning was inoperable.
“In light of this tragic incident, a new policy was created on October 19, 2021, that ensures animals are unloaded immediately,” Terrado wrote in an emailed statement, adding that sensors were also placed inside the trucks to ensure temperatures don’t reach a dangerous level.
Prosecutors with the district attorney’s office who reviewed the case said they found insufficient evidence to bring criminal negligence charges against the officers involved, citing a “onetime freak malfunction” without a “pattern of mishandling” when asked about the incident by this news organization.
Other incidents have followed at the shelter.
Records obtained by this news organization show that as recently as July of this year, an English bulldog named Brutus was mistakenly placed on the shelter’s neuter list, bit a worker’s hand while in the facility’s medical unit, and was later euthanized.
A couple of weeks earlier, a husky puppy named Sparrow was taken in at the shelter with a splint on its right front leg, but a breakdown in communication meant veterinarians weren’t made aware of the animal’s status and the Humane Society of Silicon Valley was forced to amputate it.
In September, the Bay Area News Group reported on the declining number of cats leaving the shelter alive, known as the live release rate, from 90% in 2020 to 75% this year, meaning the facility could no longer claim to be a no-kill shelter.
Critics of the shelter claim animals are receiving inadequate care, but shelter officials maintain they’re doing their best under particularly difficult conditions made worse by the pandemic on top of persistent staffing issues. The shelter’s leadership also says that animals are now coming into their care with more medical issues — and that their facility is spilling over with dogs and cats.
Opened in 2004, the shelter on Monterey Highway has a $12.1 million budget after the City Council approved an extra $1.3 million for the facility this year. The extra funding is meant for extra staffing and infrastructure improvements. As of late October, the shelter had about 650 animals, 150 more than its maximum capacity.
“We are beyond our capacity and having more animals means more time allocated to cleaning, feeding, enrichment, walking, medical treatment, evaluation, and networking,” Terrado wrote. “We are asking our community to help by adopting, fostering, or donating, and our rescue and shelter partners to continue helping (the shelter) by transferring animals.”
In an emailed response to this article, Mayor Matt Mahan called the “heartbreaking stories” a reason for the audit of the shelter.
“We have compassionate and hardworking staff, volunteers and advocates who are pushing for better at the shelter, and the community has a right to expect specific, undeniable indicators that improvements are being made,” he wrote. “It’s our responsibility to make sure our animals receive the best possible care.”
The shelter’s dogs haven’t seen quite as precipitous a drop in their live release rate as the cats, but it is still trickling down. In 2020, 96% of the dogs exited the shelter alive. That number is now at 92%. Animal shelters are generally considered “no-kill” if they have a live release rate of over 90%. Combined with the cats, the shelter is at 83%.
The euthanization of Brutus, the neutered dog sent to be neutered, occurred because of incorrect medical records, the shelter’s director Terrado wrote in an emailed response.
“Regrettably, the surgery notes were not saved in the database,” Terrado wrote. “Moving forward all surgeries that were done the day prior are looked up in the computer the following morning to ensure that the record was entered and saved. Also, staff is held accountable when the information is not transferred.”
He added that “euthanasia decisions are based on previous history, circumstances, safety, and severity of the bite and are not taken lightly.”
The case of Sparrow, the 14-week-old husky puppy who arrived from MedVet, a 24-hour emergency veterinarian facility, showed that the dog had been at the shelter for a week before she was transferred on June 20 to the Humane Society of Silicon Valley. Medical notes from that facility show that Sparrow’s splint smelled bad, and after workers removed it, they found a blue leg, oozing pus and the dog’s toes cold to touch. The limb was then amputated on June 21 due to “tissue necrosis.”
The shelter’s Terrado said while the dog was at his facility, medical concerns for Sparrow were not directly reported to a veterinarian, though he maintains that splints that haven’t slipped or are not soiled are usually not changed out more than every one to two weeks.
“In order to improve medical concerns, (the shelter) updated its reporting system for staff and volunteers,” Terrado wrote, explaining that staff and volunteers now scan a QR code to submit any issues that are automatically sent to management and veterinarians.
Randee McQueen, a coordinator for the local rescue Bay Area Siberian Husky who helped with the dog’s transfer out of the shelter, called it “unusual” that Sparrow’s splint wasn’t examined.
“But we’re hearing about that a lot at San Jose,” said McQueen, who has been working with the city-run shelter for two decades. “The dogs are being left without being seen, without having a medical check.”
“Someone,” she said about Sparrow’s case, “should’ve looked at the leg.”