A year after fire, Berkeley animal shelter lands on its feet

Chaps, a special-needs dog, at the East Bay Humane Society. He would get less one-on-one attention a the city shelter. Photos: Rachel Gross

Against the back wall of the Berkeley East Bay Humane Society’s adoption room is a maze of cages, containing one lone cat. Magdalene, as she is called, is a black feline with patches of tan. She lies curled on a towel. When approached, she promptly rolls onto her back and paws the air, revealing a white underbelly.

Magdalene was found by a woman and brought to Berkeley Animal Services, the city’s animal shelter, two weeks ago, according to Valerie Mizuhara, the Humane Society’s Shelter Manager. At the time, the cat was extremely pregnant. Now, two faint blue lines on her stomach attest to the spay and surgery the Humane Society gave her to prevent “just one more unwanted litter,” from entering the world.

The Berkeley East Bay Humane Society, on the corner of Ninth Street and Carleton Street.

Magdalene sits up and emits a guttural purr. She is behaving so affectionately, Mizuhara says, because of residual pregnancy hormones in her system.

That Magdalene is the only cat in the room is a telling sign. It has been almost one year since a fire ravaged the nonprofit East Bay Humane Society nonprofit on May 20, 2010, killing 15 cats and wreaking $1.5 million worth of damage on the building. Most of the facilities remain condemned by the city, and the room that housed the cats is sealed with plastic and still smells eerily of smoke.

Since the fire, the shelter has spent $200,000 on rent and construction, according to interim Director Stephanie Erickson. It will be at least two years and potentially millions of dollars before the fire-damaged areas are completely rebuilt.

With nowhere to house the dozens of animals that might otherwise be put down, the shelter has switched to fostering animals at volunteers’ homes before adopting them out. There are 44 dogs and cats currently being fostered.  As Shelter Manager, Mizuhara oversees foster owners, adoptions, and “matchmaking” — pairing an ideal adopter with an animal.

Magdalene was recently adopted from the shelter.

Mizuhara recalls the night of the fire: as she was heading to bed around midnight, she received a call from a community member alerting her to the blaze. She immediately got into her car, arriving on the scene at the same time as firefighters.

One there, she was told to wait for the building to be secured before she could enter it.

“We had to just stand outside,” she says, “and watch it burn.”

After firefighters put out the flames, she was able to lead them into the area where cats had perished from smoke inhalation. Then, she helped carry the surviving 12 cats to safety. In the following weeks, all were adopted by the community. The dogs in kennels, all of which survived, were immediately taken in by Berkeley Animal Services.

The cause of the fire may never be known. However, Mizuhara and others suspect it was electrical, because it broke out in a room that housed wiring.

Recovery has been an uphill battle, but Mizuhara has seen cause for celebration. On Jan. 21, the city allowed the Humane Society to move back into a portion of the building. And the shelter has already received $600,000 in donations from community members — a response she called “overwhelming.”

“We wouldn’t still be here if it weren’t for the community,” she said.

In the tragedy’s wake, making the choice of which animals to take has become more difficult. There are a limited number of volunteer owners, and many of them stop fostering when they become attached to their foster pets and decide adopt them, Mizuhara says.

Moreover, springtime is mating season for cats — and that means more orphaned kittens on city streets. These kittens, many of which are less than five weeks old when they are abandoned or found by a local shelter, have been separated from their mothers and are not old enough to feed themselves. They are called “bottle babies” because they require hourly feeding from a bottle by foster owners. Mizuhara says it is “heartbreaking” that the shelter cannot rescue more bottle babies, but at this point their resources simply can’t take the strain.

The Humane Society was started out of a pool room on the corner of Ninth and Carleton in 1927. Besides adoption services, it offers training classes, a low-cost spay and neuter clinic, and even a program on dealing with grief over a lost pet.

Oona is taken for a walk three times a day, either by Mizuhara or another staff member.

As a private organization, the Humane Society is not under the same obligation as the city shelter to take in every stray or abandoned pet. Instead, it has its pick of the litter from municipal shelters like Berkeley Animal Services and Oakland Animal Services. The choice is guided by a core mission to reduce the rate of euthanasia in the city.

For the Humane Society, this means taking animals from both ends of the spectrum: those that are the most “adoptable” (well-trained and compatible with humans) and those who suffer from medical conditions that would otherwise go untreated at a municipal shelter. (Unlike the city shelter, the Humane Society has a working veterinary hospital on the premises.)

Magdalene, with her precarious pregnancy, falls into the latter category. As Mizuhara tells me of the cat’s surgery, a baleful meow fills the room. I turn to find that Magdalene has crawled into the nearest cage and is now looking straight at me with unblinking green eyes.

“She’s attention-starved,” explains Mizuhara, reaching in to stroke her with two fingers.

At the end of April, the Humane Society opened its outdoor dog kennels for the first time since the fire. The kennels, which can hold up to 30 dogs, currently house three.

These include Chaps, a floppy cocker spaniel mix who suffers from hypothyroidism and separation anxiety, and Oona, a chocolate-brown pit bull terrier puppy with orange stripes who tends to chew on her leash — a sign of teething.

Mizuhara unlocks the door to the back area. Chaps is waiting for her, his pink tongue lolling out, apparently having escaped from his kennel. She chuckles tolerantly and leads him back, this time locking the gate securely.

Mizuhara herself was a foster owner until she adopted her two current dogs, Nestor and Money (who, incidentally, was given his name by a homeless man who owned him before surrendering him to the city shelter). They are a pit bull and a Chihuahua, respectively — two dog breeds that are least likely to be adopted and so are often found in shelters.

In his kennel, Chaps licks his lips and plunges his nose into the water bowl beside him.

“He needs a home with lots of care,” Mizuhara says. “When he’s with people, it completely alleviates his anxieties. And he’s a gentleman on the leash.”

Magdalene was adopted shortly before this article was posted. To adopt Chaps or Oona: email adoption@berkeleyhumane.org, call (510) 845-7735, at extension 203, or visit BEBHS at 2700 Ninth Street during adoption hours. To volunteer as a foster owner, fill out an application here and fax it to (510) 845-3088 or e-mail it to foster@berkeleyhumane.org.

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  • Audrey’s mom

    I realize this story is all about the Berkeley  East Bay Humane Society, but unless you read the entire article, it perpetuates the long standing confusion between BEBHS and the Berkeley Animal Care Services (BACS is the city run animal  shelter).  The headline of the story sounds like the city run shelter had the unfortunate fire.

  • Berkeley5960

    Yeh, I agree: I’d go even further to say that there really is no need to even include “Berkeley” in most headlines of this blog, as it seems redundant. It’s reasonable to assume that readers are going to get Berkeley news in a blog labeled … “Berkeleyside.”

  • http://berkeleyside.com Tracey Taylor

    @18b9f9a1a8d1286ac4d76ac5095c372c:disqus We mention the East Bay Humane Society in the opening sentence and, after reading your comment, I adjusted a little of the phrasing further on in the story to try to eradicate any potential for confusion.

  • http://berkeleyside.com Tracey Taylor

    @2f39c6fb132efe242ac2e438376fac10:disqus  There is a reason we mention Berkeley in many headlines — it’s to do with making sure our stories are picked up across the web and reach people who are interested in getting news about Berkeley (SEO for the techies). Otherwise, I would agree with you that it would be redundant to use Berkeley in headlines on a news site which covers Berkeley and only Berkeley!

  • berkeley5960

    Ah, Ok, thanks! Anyway. great job!

  • Audrey’s mom

    Thanks, Tracey.  I guess I am very sensitive to the confusion between the two facilities and it kind of annoys me that MANY, if not MOST of Berkeley residents do not know (or care?) the difference.  And as I mentioned, this confusion goes way back.

  • TN

    Chaps was adopted last weekend. According to the BEBHS staff, he went to a home where people are always home.

    Besides Magdalene, there were 2 other adult cats at the Humane Society last weekend plus some very lively kittens. I don’t how the reporter missed them.

    We provided Magdalene with a temporary home for what turned out to be a very short while. Congrats to her and her new owners.

  • GM

    Great article. 

  • Susan

     hi

  • Annonymous

     After reading this article, I ask myself numerous questions: Why isn’t bebhs having fundraisers to raise money to rebuild their shelter? Berkeley is an animal-loving city and it’s residents have a good amount of money. Why is one employee taking credit for the whole rescue effort the night of the fire? There were numerous first responders that night and I don’t see Ms. Mizuhara give them credit for their heroic actions. Where have all of the long-term staff gone? All of the people I recognized from before the fire are not there anymore Why are they suddenly all gone? Why when people call up and ask to volunteer they are told they are not needed? I thought this organization was trying to move forward and rebuild, you would think they would appreciate all the offers of help they get.

  • CW

    This article appears to have a lot of untrue facts. On the night of the
    fire, it was a former employee who was staying down the block, who
    called the fire in to the Fire Department.  There were many
    other first responders that night and the article makes it sound as
    though Ms. Mizuhara was the only staff member who was on the scene.
    Also, she was not the person who removed the cat’s bodies from the
    shelter, that was done by the firefighters. Berkeley Humane has squandered the money they received
    initially after the fire and now, one year later, very little has been
    done, as evidenced by the article. One other question to ask is: why
    was there no sprinkler system or fire alarm in the building, as the
    shelter had been advised to install many times.  BEBHS has
    a history of terrible treatment of their employees, causing many Veterinarians and staffers to quit in frustration.Of the 44 animals the article states are in foster, most of those are kittens, there are perhaps one or two dogs, if that, in foster.

  • anonymous

     This article is so obnoxious, despite the cute stories of Chaps, Oona (brindle) and Magdalene (tortoiseshell). It is told through the eyes of a single person, and she takes credit for so much more than she is worth- Ms Mizuhara, get over yourself! There is no mention of the TRUE good samaritans that were also there rescuing the survivors and retrieving lifeless bodies of those that perished.

    As a reader, I want an update on the hard working HOSPITAL STAFF that continues to save animals. I want an update on the SHELTER STAFF that actually works with the animals. I want to read about how deeply appreciated the FOSTER PARENTS are for being the lifesavers of a foster based shelter. That’s what I care about, not “her” opinion!

  • BB

    Is this Mizuhara the only employee at Berkeley Humane? I’d like to hear what the other staff members “think” of everything as well.
    I have seen the shelter crumble from the inside out. I have seen the employees hunch over with a miserable look on their face. I have seen moral become non existent. I have heard that staff have to ASK their manager to help out while low staffed. The staff  have to remind their manager about cleaning protocol.
     From what I know, the shelter and hospital staff themselves make that place keep going, aside from the amazing, yet under-appreciated, fosters, volunteers, adopters and donors.
    All I have seen and heard about since the fire is the management’s perspective. Don’t the people who actually selflessly ran into the flaming building to save the animals they call their own deserve any credit at all? My hat goes off to you, brave, young, passionate people. Keep up the good work, and good luck with working in such a corrupt environment.

  • sad

    I agree with BB, GM and Anonymous. The Board of Directors need to hire an Executive Director to lead the organization and to clean house. To many upper manager, “directors” who are getting over paid for doing very little for what they are receiving. It is money wasted and not used where needed. The last two years, the shelter has been run correctly, money wasted, not going to the animals and supporting the needs of the community.