HESPERIA — Longtime Adoption Coordinator Tammy Cummings said there's been a resurrection of "hope and positivity" at the Hesperia Animal Shelter.
Cummings is one of several shelter employees who told the Daily Press the City of Hesperia has poured "more than financial resources" into the aging facility that cares for thousands of animals a year and was once the center of controversy nearly two years ago.
"We're now working with over 50 animal groups to insure our animals find a loving home," said Cummings, who's been with the shelter for 15 years. "New leadership has empowered our people to do the very best in what they love — care for our furry friends who don't have a voice."
Animal Service Manager Don Riser, who's been in the role for nine months, told the Daily Press "hard work and passion for animals" by a "passionate and caring staff" is one of the main reasons the shelter's live release rate has jumped from 44 to 77 percent over the last two years and has helped earned back the respect of many in the community.
"I'm basically the orchestra conductor, while members of our staff are in the trenches making it happen," Riser said. "They've been through the fire, but after some personnel changes we've seen some positive and dramatic changes."
The February 2015 "dragging dog" video and the May 2015 "bloody dog" photo, both captured at the shelter and posted online, thrust the city-run facility into the media spotlight and angered animal lovers across the High Desert and the nation.
After a San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department investigation, officials announced two shelter workers were no long longer employed by the city and the San Bernardino County District Attorney's Office found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing regarding the photo of a bloody dog that had been euthanized prior to the photo being taken by a shelter employee over four years ago.
Over the years, the shelter has been the target of angry residents who've claimed it has been less than transparent with the public, killed animals unnecessarily and prevented volunteers and animal groups from helping.
After an evaluation of the shelter by an independent full-service consulting company from Arizona, Hesperia Director of Development Services Mike Blay told the City Council last year the report revealed shelter staff were stretched to the limit, with a lack of leadership over the years negatively affecting staff at the 8,00-square-foot facility on Santa Fe Avenue.
"The evaluation was right on the money — we definitely had a people problem," Mayor Paul Russ told the Daily Press. "Don Riser has really helped change the mood at the shelter and the city has released about $500,000 to clean up the shelter and to improve morale. Staff is currently working on a proposed shelter remodeling project and we're looking into using development impact fees to help fund improvements at the shelter."
Russ said the city is also considering the establishment of a reserve fund/separate corporation to take donations, with the goal of building a new facility that would cost nearly $8 million.
"Our euthanasia rate was up around 50 percent, but we've cut that in half and we're now hovering in the 20 percent area," Russ said. "We'd really like to get that number down to single digits."
During a tour of the facility Thursday, the Daily Press discovered the shelter had made several changes and was in the process of remodeling an area that will become the shelter's new cattery, housing over 1,700 felines that come through the shelter each year.
"Our cats are currently housed in different rooms throughout the shelter, with many of them very close to barking dogs," said Natalie Warren, an animal care technician. "Separating the cats will allow them to rest and to recover from any stress."
Warren, who owns three cats of her own, said one of her greatest joys is seeing the animals "open up" to their human caretakers and watching her "furry friends" being adopted out.
"You don't work with animals unless you really love them," said Warren, as she held a large cat. "We're a family here and these animals are part of that family."
Some physical changes at the shelter include the addition of an X-ray room for shelter Veterinarian William Connelly, a policy and training manual, a dog ID engraving machine, a new work space environment for staff and an emphasis on social media and community engagement.
"The new X-Ray room allows our contracted veterinarian to do X-rays in house," Blay said. "We used to have to take our animals out to another facility to have them X-rayed. This helps the staff to stay in house to care for the animals and we save money by doing the work right here."
The shelter also includes a new outdoor desert mural, painted by Randee Quinonez, which depicts several smiling animals posing for a photo. The mural stands near a newly installed park bench and fire hydrant that is painted to look like a Dalmatian wearing a firefighter helmet.
"We've had the sharp and dangerous plants removed from the front of the building and we added trash cans, new plants and a bench," Riser said. "We also take photos of families and their newly adopted animals in front of the mural."
According to Riser, several groups have volunteered or have completed projects at the shelter, including the Boy Scouts of America who plan to upgrade the shelter's outdoor dog cages.
During the tour, Riser introduced "Wally," a friendly Golden Retriever who plays the role of shelter mascot as he greets visitors at the counter, travels with shelter staff to various events and is paired with dogs coming into the shelter that need help socializing with humans and other animals.
Tammy Scarff, the shelter's senior office assistant and social media guru who updates the shelter's Facebook page on a regular basis, said keeping an open dialogue with the community has been one of the keys to building relationships with the community.
Elyse Jansson, one of four animal control officers, said her colleagues are also experiencing the "wind of change" at the shelter and feel supported as they play the role of "social worker and police officer," enforcing city and state law while helping residents to create a safe environment for their animals.
"The change has been like day and night at the shelter," said Jansson, 27, whose team responds to nearly 7,000 calls for service each year. "It's a hard job, but feeling the strong arm of support goes a long way."
Jansson said as a "107-pound female," she loves the adrenaline rush of working with large animals, but also feels the emotional pain of holding an injured dog clinging to life on the side of the road.
Cummings told the Daily Press animals brought into the shelter become the facility's property if they are unclaimed after four business days.
"We make every effort to place animals with a home or rescue group," Cummings said. "We keep these animals as long as we can. We even kept one dog for 41 days until he was placed."
Cummings began to tear up when she explained how some injured, dying and unplaced animals are euthanized, which takes an emotional toll on the entire staff.
"When you bond with these animals your heart is broken when they are euthanized or even when they leave us for a new home," Cummings said. "I know everyone here appreciates the changes that have been made for the staff, but more importantly for the animals."
Rene Ray De La Cruz may be reached at 760-951-6227, RDeLa Cruz@VVDailyPress.com or on Twitter@DP_ReneDeLaCruz.