Alana Yañez brings her lifelong love for animals to shelter for cats
Alana Yañez’s father, who grew up on a farm in the San Joaquin Valley, liked to take his sheep to school when he was a little boy.
Ms. Yañez inherited Jesse Yañez’s love for animals, so much so that she wanted to become a vet.
“But the universe had other plans,” Ms. Yañez, 42, said.
The Bs and Cs she earned at UC Santa Cruz weren’t seen as good enough to attend California’s only veterinary school at the time at UC Davis.
So after earning her bachelor’s in biology in 2001, Ms. Yañez lived in Los Angeles and tried her hand at other things like paralegal work and politics. She was a field deputy from 2006 to 2011 for then-Assemblyman Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles.
But Ms. Yañez never lost her interest in animals and worked from 2012 to last March in Los Angeles for the Humane Society of the United States as senior manager for its Life for Pets program. She also worked from 2012 to 2016 as a commissioner for Los Angeles Animal Services and still sits on a state board that oversees veterinary licenses.
All of that paved the way for her newest job as executive director of the Goleta-based Animal Shelter Assistance Program.
ASAP is well-known as the nonprofit shelter focusing on cats. The Overpass Road facility is kitty corner to Santa Barbara County Animal Services, where Angela Yates, the previous ASAP executive director, now works as the Animal Services director.
Ms. Yañez, who’s been in the role succeeding Ms. Yates for a little over a month, talked enthusiastically to the News-Press about ASAP and her love for Tio, her foster tuxedo cat, who she expects she likely will adopt.
At one point during this week’s visit, she stood surrounded by kittens, who were meowing loudly like a spirited chorus. She smiled at their refrain.
“The cats, especially our little kittens, are always ready to play,” she said with a grin. She picked up a kitten and put it on her shoulder.
But guess what?
Ms. Yañez is a dog person.
“I’ve always been a dog person. I always love cats too. I always consider myself slightly more of a dog person,” Ms. Yañez said.
But she smiled as she talked about Buddy.
That was Ms. Yañez’s name for the cat she shared with neighbors in her block in Los Angeles. Each household gave him a different name, but he slept each night at Ms. Yañez’s home and bonded with her. She came to consider herself Buddy’s primary owner.
“Buddy would purr on my belly when I was pregnant,” Ms. Yañez said.
The single mother speculated Buddy’s pre-birth connection with her son, now 3, may have figured into her child’s relentless love for cats.
“He’s obsessed with them,” Ms. Yañez said. “He could care less about my dogs. He’s hilarious.”
Today, Ms. Yañez, her son and her father and their two dogs and foster cat live at a Santa Barbara home just minutes from ASAP. Her road to the Goleta shelter included her work in politics, which she said helped her to work in pet organizations.
“I feel like working in politics prepares you for everything. You’re required to work with every facet of the public. I had to know all the city’s departments. I had to know all the businesses in our district. I had to know the community inside and out.”
Ms. Yañez said she became interested in ASAP after hearing about the organization and its work in saving cats and finding them homes in Santa Barbara County.
“I love the mission. I thought the (ASAP) story was inspiring,” she said.
Ms. Yañez noted ASAP has had to make adaptations during COVID-19 pandemic.
Most of the cats were placed in foster homes, and that has led to a strong adoption rate, she said. Only 1% have been returned to the shelter.
Ms. Yañez explained that people are very willing to provide foster homes because there’s no permanent commitment. But once the cat is in their homes, they fall in love with the pet and end up adopting the animal.
Ms. Yañez cited another advantage in placing cats in foster homes.
“The reality is that when animals are in a shelter, they get stressed. They get sick,” she said.
She noted ASAP’s cats in foster homes are less prone to suffer from upper respiratory infection than cats inside shelters.
In addition to the foster home approach, ASAP also has found permanent homes for cats through a virtual shelter at asapcats.org. People visit the website to see photos and videos of cats, then drive to the physical ASAP shelter to pick up their new pet.
Ms. Yañez said ASAP now has a total of 107 cats, including 86 in foster homes and 21 at the shelter.
The executive director noted that during the pandemic, ASAP has continued its working cat program, which places feral felines in barns, ranches and farms. They earn their keep catching rodents.
Ms. Yañez said 75 feral cats are in the program and that ASAP recently completed an outdoor enclosure at the shelter, where those cats can stay until they’re placed. “They’re outdoor cats, and metal kennels are stressful. I feel a lot of what ASAP does is to reduce the stress for cats.”
And ASAP has continued its Tiny Lions program, which prepares feral kittens for life as indoor cats in a new home.
“It’s all positive association,” Ms. Yañez said, referring to the program’s approach of putting food on the end of a chopstick or a finger. “It’s a matter of showing them humans are good and ‘You’ll get some food every time you let them touch you.’”
The shelter currently has six Tiny Lions, including Dawn, Midnight and Brunch, who lent their unwavering voices to the chorus of enthusiastic meows during the News-Press visit.
Ms. Yañez added that she likes partnering with other organizations to meet the community’s needs and help people to be able to keep their pets. For example, she said, ASAP refers people to local nonprofit C.A.R.E.4Paws for help with pet food or to the Santa Barbara Humane Society for spay and neuter services. (Like other shelters, ASAP makes certain all of its cats are spayed or neutered in an effort to control animal overpopulation.)
Ms. Yañez added she would like to eventually hire a community organizer and expand ASAP’s outreach to keep pets in homes.
For now, ASAP is working on its anticipated reopening but hasn’t determined a date yet, she said.
“Once we do, we’ll have a huge announcement. I see ourselves making it festive with some drinks, coffee and doughnuts. It’ll be something nice to say, ‘We’re back.’ ”
WHEN TO PICK UP STRAYS
Don’t pick up stray cats and bring them to a shelter if they seem healthy, have a nice coat and appear well-fed, Alana Yañez, ASAP executive director, said, citing the latest advice from the National Animal Care & Control Association.
“It’s most likely an indoor/outdoor cat and most likely belongs to somebody,” she told the News-Press. She noted that when those cats aren’t microchipped and don’t have collars, owners end up losing their cats.
“But if you see a cat and it’s clearly sick, injured or lame, that’s when you want to bring it to a shelter,” Ms. Yañez said.