In Hesperia, Impatience Mounts Over Languishing Animal Shelter

What have been characterized as long-existent serious problems at the City of Hesperia’s animal shelter have grown even worse in recent weeks, individuals with access to the facility have told the Sentinel.
Those conditions are so bad that the city has instituted measures to prevent citizens or outsiders from coming into the facility in an effort to prevent the public at large from seeing the deteriorating conditions. Nevertheless, photographs that appear to document the accounts of abuse and neglect have been taken and made available to the Sentinel and other media outlets.
The untoward condition of the shelter was a talked-about reality as early as 2013. In 2016, the city commissioned Surprise, Arizona-based Animal Shelters Services, LLC to carry out an examination and evaluation of the shelter. Some of the conditions that Tim Crum, the chief executive officer of Animal Shelter Services, LLC and the company’s other employees encountered were of such a disturbing nature that the report they generated, which was provided to the city in June 2016, was deemed confidential and an attorney/client work product so that the city did not have to release it publicly. Instead, the glimpse the public did get of the conditions documented by Animal Shelter Services, LLC came through a staff report by the city’s then-director of development services, Michael Blay, to the city council that month. The Sentinel, more than seven years later, has obtained a copy of the Animal Shelter Services report.Among the animal control division’s shortcomings “in need of immediate remedy,” according to the report, were a lack of strong leadership, which was cited as being a significant barrier to the shelter’s efficiency; a lack of general hygiene and the failure to use prompt and proper disinfecting protocols; manpower shortages within the animal control division and kennel staff such that they were “stretched far beyond any reasonable capacity to provide care to the animals;” a reduction in the live release rate of animals, which in the animal shelter/care industry is a key measurement of effectiveness; and a generally inadequate shelter facility, which included nonexistent or inadequate climate control.
The report noted that the Hesperia Animal Control facility, i.e., the shelter, was located in a retrofitted set of office buildings that were not intended for that purpose. As such, according to Animal Shelter Services, the physical facilities were poorly laid out and in a state of disrepair.
One outcome of the report was that within a few months, the city moved to hire Donald Riser, a former San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department lieutenant who had worked with both Blay and then-City Manager Niles Bentsen when they had previously worked in the sheriff’s department, as the city’s animal services manager from 2016 until 2021.
According to employees and shelter volunteers, Riser did a decent job organizing the animal control division into some semblance of order.
There was what ultimately proved out to be misplaced confidence that the city would come up with the roughly $8 million to build from scratch a new animal control facility designed for that purpose. Ultimately, after indicating that the city would eventually fund the project, city officials backtracked, saying they simply did not have the funding available to construct a new shelter. The city did carry out some limited repairs and modifications, although that work did not meet the level specified in Animal Shelter Services’ recommendations contained in the report.
With Riser’s 2021 retirement, according to volunteers at the facility, it declined into a state of functionality below what had been the case in 2015 and early 2016 when the Animal Shelter Services’ survey and evaluation of conditions were carried out.
Photos show animals living in wretched conditions. Observers say temperatures in the kennels have typically reached or exceeded 100 degrees in recent weeks and months.
It is reported that Dr. Jaime Velasco, a veterinarian who had provided competent care for the animals, for reasons that have not been explicated, has not been regularly seen at the facility over the last three to four months. The Sentinel was told that Briget Nicole Bengoechea-Meaden, who was the city’s animal services coordinator, was performing spays and neuterings on animals, despite not being trained or licensed to do so. Bengoechea-Meaden was also diagnosing animals and administering pharmaceuticals to them, according to individuals involved in the shelter’s operations.
Within the last three weeks, it appears that Bengoechea-Meaden has been relieved of her position as the animal services coordinator.
There were conflicting opinions with regard to Bengoechea-Meaden’s action and whether it was justifiable. Some said she clearly was overstepping both her authority and ability by what she had done. Others said she was well-intentioned but had been relegated to a situation in which her options in caring for animals and performing her assumed duties had been foreclosed to her. The Sentinel was unable to reach her to get her version of events.
According to one volunteer at the shelter, a goat that was hit by car and brought to the shelter needed to see a veterinarian to have a decent shot at survival. Instead, it was put in a dog kennel where it languished and died.
A photo taken inside the facility showed a dog lying in its own feces.
The city put out a statement that the shelter is at near capacity and was accepting stray animals by appointment only it. Simultaneously, the shelter began turning away those seeking to look over the dogs available for adoption. Some Hesperia residents charged the city with deliberate obfuscation. They claimed the shelter is nowhere near capacity and that a third to half of the cages are empty because animal control officers are not actively patrolling the city to pick up strays. In fact, some residents said, the division is not responding to citizen calls vectoring the animal control officers to where those stray animals have been spotted, and wild dogs continue to run free throughout the 73.1-square mile city.
Another photo circulating showed caged dogs in an area of the shelter which the individual displaying the photo said had no ventilation and where the temperature reached 105 degrees Fahrenheit on a daily basis.
One shelter volunteer told the Sentinel of concern that a padlock on the entrance/exit to the section of the facility containing kennels left the dogs entirely vulnerable to perishing in a fire.
An unverified report is that the city has appropriated $2.6 million per year for the shelter operations that city officials, because of conflicting prioritizations, are not spending.
-Mark Gutglueck

Leave a Reply