Citing a staffing shortage, Palo Alto abruptly shuttered last week the spay and neuter clinic that the city has been running at the municipal animal shelter on East Bayshore Road for more than 40 years.
In a surprising move that had not been discussed by the City Council or any of the council's committees, staff had temporarily halted a service that the city has been offering since 1973. With little explanation, the announcement of the clinic's closure was posted on the Animal Services webpage late last week.
Chief Communications Officer Claudia Keith said the move was not a part of a long-term plan. Rather, it was caused by recent changes in personnel that made it difficult to sustain the operation. She said she became aware of plans to eliminate the spay and neuter clinic just last week.
"We're looking at this as a temporary disruption," Keith told the Weekly.
The change comes at a time of transition for Palo Alto's beleaguered animal-services operation, which has seen its revenues drop and its expenditures rise in recent years. The problem was exacerbated in 2014, when View withdrew from the partnership.
Now, the city is in the process of transferring the operations of the shelter to Pets In Need, a Redwood City-based nonprofit that would take over some time next year, if things go according to plan. Concurrently, the city and the nonprofit would work toward raising money to build a new shelter that would replace an existing facility that a 2015 audit deemed to be "outdated and inadequate to meet modern animal-care standards."
The city's announcement on closing the clinic attributes the decision in part to the pending change in shelter management.
"Unfortunately, due to a current lack of staffing, and planned changes in shelter management in the near future, we have decided to temporarily close our spay and neuter clinic," the city's announcement states.
The announcement notes that the "shelter animals will still receive the same high-quality care they always have" and the weekly vaccine clinic will continue every Wednesday, from noon to 1 p.m.
Deputy City Manager Rob de Geus, who is managing the animal shelter's transition, said the closure was prompted by two factors: the veterinarian's departure for the next two weeks and by uncertainty over the future of other shelter employees.
According to the city's budget, the animal services operation consists of 10 positions: a superintendent (a position that is currently vacant), four animal-control officers (one of whom is temporarily filling the superintendent vacancy), a veterinarian, two animal-service specialists and two veterinarian technicians.
Though the city plans to continue providing animal-control services even after the transition to Pets In Need, other positions could be eliminated under the proposal being negotiated between the city and the Redwood City-based nonprofit.
This has created a rift between city management and shelter staff, who have argued against the contracting out of animal services to Pets In Need. The city has been entangled in negotiations with the Service Employees International Union, Local 521, since late 2016 over the potential elimination of five positions.
In late August, as the council was preparing to approve a letter of intent with Pets In Need, staff from the city manager's office vowed to give the union employees "priority hiring for any vacancies within the City (for) which they qualify" and to provide training resources to help employees with the transition, according to a report. At that time, the union had indicated its intent to propose severance options that management said were "above and beyond" those in the union contract.
While the animal shelter is dealing with employee shortages, Palo Alto officials are referring customers to the Pets In Need facility in Redwood City. The city also lists other Bay Area organizations that provide spay and neuter services: the Peninsula Humane Society in Burlingame; the Humane Society of Silicon Valley in Milpitas; the Silicon Valley Animal Control Authority in Santa Clara; San Jose Animal Care and Services in San Jose; and the Santa Clara County Animal Shelter in the unincorporated community of San Martin.
The city's announcement states that once the partnership between the city and Pets In Need is in place, "all Animal Shelter services will return to normal."
The sudden closure of the spay and neuter clinic came as a surprise to Carole Hyde, executive director of Palo Alto Humane Society, a nonprofit that has been involved in the city's negotiations with Pets in Need and that expects to be involved in the fundraising effort for Palo Alto's new shelter.
"We've had a lot of meetings with the city and Pets In Need and are very enthusiastic about the idea of a new shelter," Hyde said. "The closure of the spay and neuter clinic was never mentioned in those meetings."
Hyde said she had reached out to city leaders to urge them to hire a temporary veterinarian to keep local clinic open. Going to another community for spay and neuter services would be a "hardship for Palo Alto's pet-owning community," Hyde said.
De Geus acknowledged that the city should've done a better job in communicating the pending changes at the animal shelter. He noted, however, that it's not just the veterinarian's temporary absence that is driving the decision.
De Geus said the clinic is already booked solid through Dec. 8. And with the staffing plans in flux because of negotiations (various shelter employees are considering whether to retire or take different positions in either Palo Alto or another city), it's hard for shelter management to commit to making new appointments for spay and neuter operations, he said.
"We want to be careful that we're not booking surgeries beyond what we're confident that we have staff in place to perform," he said.
De Geus said the city plans to discuss the spay and neuter situation with Pets In Need and see if the organization can help with providing the service. He called the shuttering of the spay and neuter clinic a "situation of temporary inconvenience."
"The bigger point is that we're on a path to something better and we have a vision to build a new shelter with Pets In Need and our outstanding nonprofit partners," De Geus said.