Calls For Help

Advisory committee hears about 311, but will anything change?

By Cathryn Rakich
July 2023

The questions were straightforward. Does Front Street Animal Shelter provide policies and protocols to 311 on how to respond to animal-related requests?

How do 311 call agents determine if a situation is serious enough to dispatch an animal control officer?

How does 311 address urgent situations when animal control is days behind responding to requests?

Local animal advocate Julie Virga posed these questions to a city 311 representative at a recent meeting of the Animal Care Services Citizens Advisory Committee. The seven-member panel makes recommendations to the City Council regarding Front Street Animal Shelter.

The questions went unanswered—essentially ignored—by advisory committee Chair Leah Morris and 311 Manager Ivan Castellanos.

“Public comment periods are not intended to be question-and-answer periods,” says Tim Swanson, the city’s media and communications manager. “Committee members determine what questions they would like to ask a presenter during a discussion item.”

Apparently, no one thought Virga’s questions warranted a response.

Sacramento residents use 311 to request service, report problems or get information on everything from garbage pickup to stray animals. Requests are received via phone, email, web portal and phone app.

City 311 received 493,000 service requests last year. Almost 10 percent were about animals.

Going through 311 is the only way to contact Front Street Animal Shelter, short of visiting the shelter in person. The shelter doesn’t provide a direct line.

“One of the things that comes up often is that every time (people) call 311 they hear a different response,” Virga told the committee. “They may hear, ‘Leave the animal where you found it.’ Or, ‘The shelter isn’t taking any animals.’ Or, ‘The shelter doesn’t take cats or kittens.’”

Virga cited a recent case of a starving dog on an apartment patio. “Front Street animal control said they were days behind in responding.”

With recent upgrades, phone calls to 311 now go to a virtual agent, but callers can ask to speak to an agent, Castellanos told the committee. “If the caller says the call is about a sick, injured or aggressive animal, the call is moved to the front of the queue,” skipping a wait time that can be 20 minutes or longer.

Debbie Tillotson visits homeless camps near Highway 160 almost daily. She takes food, water and supplies to camp dogs. She logs every 311 call she makes.

In March, Tillotson called 311 about a camp dog in a cage with no food or water for several days. “People that live in the camps said the dog cries all night long,” Tillotson says.

She gave 311 details on where to find the dog. She logged the reference number and the 311 agent’s name. Two days later, when no animal control officer was dispatched, she called again. “I was told that they had no record of me ever calling. Even with the reference number and the name of the person I spoke to.”

Jace Huggins, Front Street Animal Shelter’s chief animal control officer, reports Front Street has 500 to 600 pending service requests, some dating back months. The shelter logs 50 to 70 requests a day.

“The reality is that everybody feels like their call is an emergency,” Huggins says. “We get a lot calls that there is no food, water and shelter and this animal is going to die. People call and tell whatever they can to try to get us to go out there. But with the number of officers that we have, we have other things we have to get to.”

Other things besides a dying dog.

Referring to a recent list of pending requests, Huggins says three are for starving and emaciated animals with no food or water. “We get those calls constantly. We are inundated with people wanting us to come out and handle everything out there that’s related to animals. And it’s physically impossible.”

Front Street accepts animals who are ill or injured, but 311 agents are instructed to tell callers to leave stray healthy cats where they are found. “If it is healthy, it is very likely that the cat has an owner or caretaker,” Swanson says.

“Leaving animals on the streets was one of the main complaints,” community member Elyse Mize told Castellanos during the meeting’s public comment period. “If Front Street is not going to accept animals, what else is the 311 operator supposed to say?”

The same is true for unaltered or possibly pregnant felines.

Front Street Manager Phillip Zimmerman calls the shelter a “scary place” where cats can get upper respiratory infections. Animal advocates opposed to Front Street’s policies say cats left on the street face multiple risks, including being hit by cars and multiplying exponentially.

Accepting all stray cats into the shelter and ensuring they are spayed/neutered are the best ways to combat overpopulation.

Committee Chair Morris asked Castellanos about a “dedicated agent” model, where 311 agents specialize in animal-care requests.

On average during the week, 20 to 30 callers are waiting to speak to an agent. “We are stretched thin to handle the volume that is coming through 311,” Castellanos said. “Having specialized agents makes sense, but I just don’t see being able to do it now with the current model that we have and the staff that we have.”

“There’s multiple welfare complaints,” Zimmerman says. “You’re talking to community members and they’re saying a dog is living in feces. There are 10 other calls that could be even worse than that. You have to make a choice and unfortunately, somebody’s going to have to wait.”

Unfortunate, indeed.

Cathryn Rakich can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento

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