Where’s The Urgency?

Want fewer unwanted pets? Start with the unhoused

By Cathryn Rakich
November 2023

It’s illegal in California to deprive an animal of food, water or shelter.

It’s a crime to tether or chain a dog to a stationary object for longer than three hours in a 24-hour period. It’s against the law to allow that rope or chain to become entangled.

Are unhoused people exempt from these laws? Their dogs are denied food, water, shelter and the ability to move freely on a daily basis.

I’ve seen it. Empty food and water bowls, covered in dirt and grime, scattered about the camp. Dogs tied 24/7 to trees and poles, tangled with inches to move. Oblivious, indifferent or incapable owners.

“They don’t pet them. They don’t walk them. They keep them tied to trees,” says Debbie Tillotson, who has cared for approximately 24 dogs at eight homeless camps near the American River for almost two years. Tillotson and friend Linda Massaro bring food, water and supplies to the camp dogs nearly every day. They pay for everything themselves.

“I never see these people loving their dogs or talking to them,” Tillotson says. “The owners are all in tents, smoking or doing drugs. The animals are lying in the dirt. Lying in the filth. Lying in the rain. That’s their entire existence.”

Tillotson and Massaro have struggled to get camp dogs spayed and neutered. Three female pit bull mixes are on their second and third litters. A shepherd mix recently gave birth to nine puppies—eight females. Mom nursed her brood in a dirt-filled hole until Tillotson provided a canvas pen to keep the young safe. The owner sold the puppies to passersby for $50 each.

At Mercer Clinic, held once a month at Loaves & Fishes, pets of the unhoused receive free medical services, such as vaccinations and flea treatment. The clinic does not spay or neuter.

Mercer is run by UC Davis veterinary students with no university funds. For spay/neuter, Mercer relies on the Sacramento SPCA, which has a wait list of up to six months.

“Six months is insane for a homeless person’s dog.” Tillotson says. “They are on chains. They can’t get loose. Any male dog out there running around will get them pregnant.”

Inside Sacramento reported on Tillotson and Massaro’s efforts in June. The two women shared their stories with the city’s Animal Care Services Citizens Advisory Committee in March, pleading for help.

Lynette Hall, the city’s community engagement manager, facilitated the March meeting. Hall said she would follow up with the women. “Never heard from her,” Tillotson says.

I reached out to Jenna Topper, homeless outreach coordinator for the city’s Front Street Animal Shelter. No response. “The city respectfully declines this interview request,” Tim Swanson, the city’s media guy, told me. Front Street’s chief animal control officer Kimberly Green also ignored my request.

“Animal control? I still haven’t seen anybody out there trying to help these animals,” Tillotson says. “They don’t want to go down there. These people can be violent. Mentally ill. Doing drugs. And the animals suffer for it. Animal control is not trying to find a solution to the problem.”

Topper, who heads Front Street’s Homeless Outreach and Assistance Program, or HOAP, visited the river camps last month, seven months after Tillotson and Massara brought their concerns to the animal advisory committee. Topper scheduled nine of the camp dogs for spay/neuter surgery. But still no sign of animal control.

I asked Front Street why the owners of dogs living in homeless camps without food, water or shelter, tangled on tethers, are not cited for breaking the law. “As with any laws, our officers can use their independent judgment if an animal owner is going to be cited, whether they are housed or unhoused,” Front Street’s communications manager Ryan Hinderman told me.

Sacramento County District Attorney Thien Ho called on Mayor Darrell Steinberg and the City Council to hold unhoused people accountable for their offenses, which include animal neglect and abuse. “Laws apply to everyone, even unhoused people,” Ho says.

Is it any wonder why thousands of stray animals enter local shelters every year? As of mid-October, Front Street took in more than 6,000 strays. Nearly 1,000 were euthanized.

“It’s a puppy factory down there,” Tillotson says. “You want fewer dogs at the shelter? Start fixing them.”

Lengthy spay/neuter wait times are blamed on a veterinary professional shortage. With a budget of $7.3 million, why doesn’t Front Street hire contract veterinarians? Reach out to private vets? Use UC Davis vet students? Why aren’t vulnerable camp dogs moved up on the spay/neuter priority list?

City Councilmember Katie Valenzuela, whose district includes Front Street Animal Shelter, ignored multiple requests for comment.

Phil Pluckebaum hopes to replace Valenzuela in next year’s election. “It requires a lot of care, attention and cost to be a good responsible pet owner,” he says. “Mandatory spay and neuter is definitely a strategy worth looking at.”

Tillotson says, “There are so many levels of wrong having to do with animals and it starts down here with the homeless. It’s a horrible life and the animals don’t deserve it.”

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

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