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    Oakland Animal Services Director Ann Dunn Is Building Capacity to Save Lives

    If you are an animal lover, you will appreciate learning about some exciting changes happening across the bay. Oakland Animal Services (OAS), Oakland’s municipal animal shelter, has undergone a major transformation in the last few years, resulting in the lowest ever euthanasia rate for animals there.

    Ann Dunn, OAS Director since February 2020, approaches the role with the goal of bringing together her experience in human services organizations with her love of animals. She got her start in her professional career working at Shanti Project, the first HIV/AIDS service organization in San Francisco, in the late 1980s. Of that work, Dunn told the San Francisco Bay Times, “I was drawn to Shanti Project, first as a volunteer, then as a volunteer coordinator, when I witnessed the intense discrimination experienced by people with HIV. At a time when people were diagnosed and dying within weeks, I just felt compelled to do something to help.”

    After Shanti Project, Dunn began work at the San Francisco Housing Authority, which led to a 20-year career working in affordable housing. When her two cats, Langston and Tea Cake, passed away, it was her husband Steven’s idea, in 2009, to begin for her volunteering at OAS in their memory.

    Remembering that time Dun recalls, “I was so passionate about working in public housing that I wasn’t considering a career change, but once I got to OAS, I found myself spending more and more time saving animals. I never imagined when I went to OAS that it would lead me here, but with over 50% of the animals coming into the shelter being euthanized back then, I just kept thinking there has got to be a better way to help them.”  


    After considering the obstacles to shelter animals being saved, Dunn founded Cat Town, a nonprofit cat rescue organization, in 2011, to help cats from OAS who are most at-risk for euthanasia, mainly because they are too scared in a stressful shelter environment to seem adoptable.

    “When I would mention to new people I met that I volunteered at a city animal shelter,” Dunn remembers, “almost inevitably I would hear people say, again and again, ‘I would never go to an animal shelter because it would make me too sad,’ or something along those lines. And I thought, how are we ever going to make a difference here if the people we need to solve the problem aren’t willing to show up?”

    Cat Town opened the first cat café in the United States in 2014, but started as a foster-based rescue organization with a mission to support OAS by saving the cats who wouldn’t otherwise be helped. Cat Town still operates a large foster program. By the time Cat Town’s adoption center opened its doors at 2869 Broadway, in Oakland, Cat Town had already helped reduce the euthanasia rate for cats at OAS from 42% when Cat Town started operating in 2011, to less than 10% in 2014.

    “From the beginning,” Dunn says, “my goal for Cat Town was to build infrastructure in the Oakland community that would outlive my involvement. It’s thrilling to see that after leaving Cat Town in the great hands of the current Executive Director, Andrew Dorman, Cat Town is absolutely thriving.”

    It is Dunn’s intention for OAS that the transformation underway today will also be lasting and that future leaders of that organization will have a strong foundation to build upon.

    Having learned from her experience at Cat Town, Dunn turned to the Friends of Oakland Animal Services (FOAS, a nonprofit founded in 2007 to support OAS) when she started in her new role as OAS Director to ask for resources to start a foster program for big dogs. As Dunn sees it now, “Of all the changes we’ve made to increase lifesaving, the foster program for big dogs is the real gamechanger.”

    The program was launched in mid-2020, with about 250 dogs placed in foster homes that year. Now, just a few years in, the big dog foster program is on track to help 1,000 dogs by the end of 2023. On any given day, about half of the dogs in the care of OAS are in foster homes. What this represents is the community stepping up in a meaningful way to help save shelter dogs who would otherwise be euthanized because OAS only has 73 kennels for big dogs. With an average daily intake of over 12 dogs a day, OAS simply doesn’t have the physical capacity to help that many dogs without the help of foster families.

    Another major shift in how OAS saves more animals is the approach to adoptions. By creating a very welcoming adoption program, which is focused on matchmaking and helping people find an animal companion who is a good fit, OAS has seen its adoption numbers more than double in the last few years. It’s a big effort, through a great collaboration between FOAS-funded staff, the OAS volunteer coordinator, and a wonderful group of OAS volunteers, who dedicate themselves to making sure as many animals as possible get a chance for a loving home.

    Since Dunn started at OAS, FOAS has made it possible to create new lifesaving programs for dogs, cats, bunnies, Guinea pigs, and even pigeons. All of this effort has resulted in OAS experiencing the highest live release rate in its history, at over 94% for all species combined, and an increase from 87% save rate for dogs in 2019 to 95% today.

    “Even with all of the changes, it still feels like it’s an against all odds effort every day to keep up with intake,” says Dunn. With the affordable housing crisis, and end of Oakland’s eviction moratorium last summer, OAS is experiencing a huge spike in intake, having already taken in 1,500 more dogs and cats from January–October 2023, as compared to the same period in 2022, which is a 31% increase.

    “It’s heartbreaking what we are seeing today, with the number of people who are bringing animals to the shelter because they are newly homeless or are having to choose between being housed and keeping their pets, when leaving their family members is the last thing they want to be doing,” says Dunn. “If you told me last year that we would be faced with a 31% increase in animal intake, I would have said we are already at our maximum capacity. It’s been a minor miracle that we have been able to achieve the lowest euthanasia rate in the history of OAS despite this increase, but it is getting harder and harder to do so.”

    From Dunn’s perspective, she is part of a journey as OAS continues to improve outcomes for animals over many years and she knows that one day she will be stepping out of the way for the next leader.

    “As with Cat Town,” Dunn says, “I want my time at OAS to make it possible for the person who comes after me to continue building capacity to save more lives. What makes this all possible is the incredible support from the Bay Area community. It is such joy to be part of an incredible community of people who are willing to give of themselves to help vulnerable animals.”

    Take Action!

    Donate to the Friends of Oakland Animal Services:

    Support Oakland Animal Services as a shelter volunteer:

    Foster an Oakland Animal Services dog, cat, kitten, or rabbit:

    Adopt a companion:

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    Published on November 15, 2023