But animal control officers say the vast majority of the animals die because some human being--by intent or neglect--dropped the ball.
"There's more owner irresponsibility than ever before," says Koerner, nursing an abandoned cat with a rich butterscotch coat and an abscessed tail. "I'm seeing more animals come in with more chronic neglect, abuse, long-standing injuries and illnesses that are not being dealt with."
People give all sorts of excuses for abandoning their pets:
The pigs were left because the owners moved.
Kittens and puppies are given up routinely because their owners--who never thought to have the parent animals spayed or neutered--can't afford to feed them.
Officer Cindy Boaz recalls one woman handing off her pooch in a huff: "Just take him. I'm tired of picking up his dog poo-poo."
Pat Haskett, another officer, remembers, "One lady signed in her cat because she redecorated her house, and it didn't match the new decor."
The officers do what they can. Koerner remembers two kennel hands begging him to nurse a cat back to health and then sedate it so they could groom its matted fur, clip its claws and find it a home.
And Jenks says, "We will kill no animal before its time." But nearly every morning, that time comes.
The condemned--but for the county-issue blue plastic leashes and coded number tags around their necks--look healthy and well-kept.
Senior Animal Control Officer James Barber has pulled euthanasia duty this morning. He is already hard at work.
The limp carcasses of three freshly killed dogs line a steel counter. Nearby stands a 55-gallon drum, half full with the remains of other unwanted dogs and cats.
Haskett ushers in the next case, a trembling German shepherd that clearly senses something is up.
He lifts her onto the killing table and firmly cradles her head, muzzling her with a few loops of leash. "That's good," he murmurs. "That's a good girl."
Barber double-checks the dog's tag against the PTS list, then fills a thick syringe with ice-blue poison--one cc of sodium pentobarbital for every 10 pounds of estimated body weight.
He grips her foreleg, slips the needle in and squeezes the plunger. The dog whimpers and struggles.
The poison stops her heart, knocks the light out of her eyes, drops her slack body into Haskett's arms. He carries her to the counter.
They keep coming: A small tabby cat. A beloved Australian shepherd mix that got too old and sick for its family. A goofy black Labrador mutt that frolics and plays with Haskett right up until the needle fills its veins with poison.
And eventually, the day's PTS duty--rotated among the senior officers so they don't have to face it too often--is done.
A few more drums packed with carcasses of the unloved line the foul-smelling freezer, ready to be carted off to a Los Angeles plant where they will be boiled down, skimmed of fats for the cosmetics industry and ultimately pulverized for fertilizer.
It has been a light day, a dozen or two animals put down. In summer, when breeding season and human irresponsibility are at their height, the shelter must kill as many as 50 animals a day, Barber says.
"Over the years, I've learned not to take it personally," he says somberly. "I know that I'm not the reason why I have to put all these animals to sleep."
After her partner checks to make sure the black dog's description is not on the master "lost and found" list, Dillard carries the crippled dog to a cage, whispering tenderly into its furry ear. She draws a few cc's of sodium pentobarbital into a syringe and sticks the needle into an IV plug left in place by the first veterinarian who treated the dog. She squeezes. The dog's eyes go blank. Its heart stops within seconds. It slumps to the bottom of the cage.
The second-guessing of the Ventura County department began in 1992.
The city of Thousand Oaks, looking for a more cost-effective contractor to handle its animal-control needs, signed up with L.A. County.
So far, the service has cost Thousand Oaks an average $67,994 a year--compared with about $250,000 the city estimates it would pay Ventura County.
The L.A. program more than doubled the number of licensed dogs in the city in just two fiscal years, from 7,837 in 1991-1992 to 16,531 in 1993-1994, city records show.
Likewise, Simi Valley hopes to recoup more money in license sales through the aggressive Los Angeles County canvassing program than it has through Ventura County's, Hreha says.
Jenks says Simi Valley could obtain that same service at any time through her department but has declined offers to send a canvassing team across the city for a relatively small fee.
"Simi Valley refused to let us put a [canvassing] crew in Simi Valley a year ago," Jenks said. "We said, 'Ultimately, that'll bring you money,' but they never took advantage of it."
Jenks says the current trend smacks of the kind of cost-cutting expeditions other cities have recently toyed with, such as pulling out of the county Fire Protection District and library network.