Trying to Fix L.A.’s Animal Death Row

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October 1, 2011 · Posted in Commentary 

How is our new head of Animal Services doing in her effort to stop the killing?

By Leslie Evans

Brenda Barnette

Brenda Barnette was sworn in as head of the Los Angeles Animal Services Department in August 2010. She had a long history of efforts to halt, or at least slow down, the mass government killing of lost and abandoned pets. Most recently she had been CEO of the Seattle Humane Society, where in 2009 they found homes for 6,091 animals and raised the save rate from 77 to 92 percent. Barnette at her swearing in said she would try to match the Seattle numbers in Los Angeles within five years. Before Seattle she had run the Tony La Russa Animal Rescue Foundation and been Development Director of the San Francisco SPCA.

Ominously, Barnette was the sixth General Manager in ten years to try to reform the dysfunctional Animal Services Department. By the end of her first year it was already apparent that the various and sundry partisan interests didn’t mean to give her much of a honeymoon before starting to look for candidate number seven.

I had an unexpected chance to meet her on Saturday, November 24, at the Congress of Neighborhoods at City Hall, the annual gathering and pep rally for the city’s 95 volunteer neighborhood councils. The format includes a score of panels, usually on working with city agencies, parliamentary procedure, funding, and such. This year as a first  there was a panel headed “Animal Issues.” The featured panelist was Brenda Barnette.

Unhappily, animal rescue was not much on the minds of the city’s neighborhood volunteers. Only ten of the 600 congress attendees showed up. Barnette, whose short tenure was already the target of numerous hostile critics, said her department was working to get animals out of the shelters through partnerships with nonprofit and volunteer animal rescue groups, to expand spay-neuter efforts, and to enforce laws requiring pet owners to license their dogs. “There are a record number of animals coming into the shelters,” she said.

Figures on the LAAS website show a steady increase as the recession hit and lingers. Total intake of dogs and cats in Los Angeles was 44,786 in 2006-2007, jumping to 50,911 when the recession struck the following year, plateauing at 54-55,000 over the next two years, and climbing again, to 57,498, for the 2010-2011 fiscal year, which ended in July.

“We could handle these numbers,” Barnette said, “if we could find one adopter in every 300 people.” Adoption is one end of the solution. Sterilization is the other. Animal Services, she said, is offering $70 vouchers for spay-neuters to low-income families. Low income is defined as below $29,900 for a single person; $42,700 for a family of four. Applicants need to establish their income with last year’s California tax return. The department is also sending spay-neuter vans to low-income communities.

“Licensing is key,” Barnette told the group. “It gets the animal their shots and neutering, and $7 of the $20 license fee goes to the spay-neuter fund.” The license fee is $20 for a neutered dog, but $100 for one that has not been neutered, and the owner of an unneutered dog has to claim to be a breeder.

“We need people to call their local shelter to report unneutered dogs, dogs running loose, and people doing breeding. We need citizen calls to tell us about violators.”

Animal Services is also working to promote adoptions. This is not only at the shelters, but through off-site adoption events at parks and malls. One currently pending is at the Westside Pavilion at Westwood Blvd. and Pico, a mall where a long-established pet store sells dogs from puppy mills despite many protests from animal rescue groups.

Barnette said they are also running a volunteer program at the city’s shelters, where volunteers try to persuade pet owners not to abandon their pets, whether it is because of some behavior problem that can be solved or because they can’t afford the spay-neuter or license fees. She asked the neighborhood councils to include spay-neuter ads in their newsletters and websites and information about the shelters in their areas.

Animal Services, like many other city departments, is suffering from staff cutbacks. Barnette called for volunteers to become Reserve Animal Control Officers. This is an unpaid position, similar to reserve police officers. Applicants go through a rigorous six-month training academy, then are issued the same badge and uniform of regular paid officers. They are empowered to enforce state laws and city ordinances dealing with the care, treatment, licensing, and impounding of animals. They  pick up sick, injured, stray, vicious, or unwanted animals and carry out investigations, issue citations, and make arrests.

Inevitably Brenda Barnette has become the target of hostile critics. Her plan to reach a 92 percent save rate in five years raised expectations, and when her first year ended with more executions than the year before there came a flood of criticism. The LA Daily News on July 30, 2011, claimed kills had increased by 10.7% in Barnette’s first year. This figure was repeated a few days later in the August 3, 2011, Los Angeles Examiner under the headline, “Kill Rate skyrockets at Los Angeles Animal Services.”

This is fairly dishonest reporting. They get the number by looking at total kills for 2009-2010 compared to 2010-2011. But there were almost 3,000 more dogs and cats left at the shelters in the later year. The skyrocket was from 37% of the intake to 39%, an increase of 2%. Nevertheless, the numbers mean there were 22,435 dead cats and dogs in the most recent year, a horrifying pile of corpses. But to put it in perspective, Los Angeles Animal Services euthanized 29,202 animals in fiscal year 2003-2004, which was almost half (49.4%) of the number of animals impounded. In 2000-2001 the kill rate was 68.7%. And back in 1971, the year that spay-neutering became a city policy, Los Angeles shelters killed an incredible 110,835 dogs and cats. The numbers both of kills and impounds trended downward from the early seventies, reaching 15,009 animals killed in 2007, just before the economy fell off the cliff and the trend reversed.

Barnette is pilloried for other faults, where her department is more obviously having problems. Animal Services has refused to collect the obligatory $500 fine from dog owners who don’t license their pets, saying the amount is prohibitive for poor families. Barnette has been reprimanded by the City Council for this. Some of her staff have illegally taken and sold 64 dogs, and are accused of falsifying their time cards.

A bigger scandal has blown up around Barnette’s decision to give the city’s Northeast Valley shelter in Mission Hills to a private nonprofit. A September 22, 2011, LA Weekly article excoriates Barnette, claiming “respected nonprofits were edged out when a locally unproven group nabbed a contract to run a city shelter — without competitive bidding.” The Northeast Valley shelter cost the city $19 million, and is being leased to the Best Friends Animal Society for $1 a year. Other animal welfare organizations have protested the no-bid, unadvertised transaction.

Frankly I am not disturbed by this one. The shelter was completed in 2008 but never opened, for lack of operating funds. The arrangement with Best Friends was not a backdoor deal with Animal Services but went before the LA City Council in August 2011, where it was approved by an 11-1 vote. Why Best Friends?  Because it would take a large and well-funded organization to reliably operate a major city shelter. Best Friends is one of the largest national animal rescue organizations, famous for its no-kill animal sanctuary in southwestern Utah, known nationally from the National Geographic television series Dog Town. Wikipedia describes Best Friends as “the flagship of the rapidly growing no-kill movement.” It runs its own no-kill shelters in several states and its personnel rescued some 6,000 animals in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Other complaints against Barnette concern LAAS’ website. Never very functional, the existing website was scrapped on Barnette’s orders and a new one mounted. I asked her at the panel why Animal Services is virtually the only major city service where a complaint or service request cannot be filed online. Instead visitors to the website are given the phone numbers of the various shelters, which often means long waits on hold or worse. Evidently not very computer literate, she replied that she thought people could file requests online, as she had seen documents on her desk that seemed to come from the Internet.

Complaints abound about the new site, most notably that if you are looking to adopt a pet you are presented the city’s entire stock and it is difficult and time consuming to find a way to see what animals are being held at the shelter nearest to you.

I took a good look at the site after the panel. If you think about what someone would want from the animal services website some choices seem primary: (1) to adopt a pet, where you would want to see the choices at your nearest shelter first; (2) to see if your lost pet has been impounded; (3) to report animal cruelty, illegal breeding, loose or unneutered dogs; (4) to get your dog(s) licensed; (5) to get information on spay-neuter.

These options are to a degree visible in a small plain text menu down the left side, but generally buried deep within the far more prominent official looking top menu system. At the top:

1. Adoption choices are citywide, may be from shelters too far away to consider, and too numerous to browse more than a small fraction, giving the animals lower in the arbitrary list of shelters little chance to be seen.

2. “Lost Pet” is choice number 7 under General Information, after such headings as “Happy Tails” and “Household Hazards.” If you click on Lost Pet it tells you to phone your local shelter, with no offered phone numbers. If you are bolixed by that advice you can read further down the page, where you will find a text link that says “Click here to search for your lost pet.” This goes to a list of shelters, and from there to the one (well hidden) place in the website where you can search a particular shelter, with check boxes for dog age, size, color, and sex.

3. Street Services, Building and Safety, and other agencies have online service request forms that give several choices for their different services. Animal Services does not have any kind of online service request. It does have a link to report animal cruelty, but the link does not mention any of the issues that Brenda Barnette urged citizens to report, such as unneutered dogs, dog fighting, illegal breeders, etc. And even to find the animal cruelty link you have to start with a heading called Laws and Policies, then go to a page explaining animal cruelty, which then links to a page with a phone number, which then links to a page with each city shelter, explaining that no one may answer the animal cruelty phone. The shelter page has all the shelters in the city, with links that take you to a page where you can get — a phone number.

4. Spay-neuter is fairly well handled but you need to click down into the application form before it explains whether you qualify.

5. How to get a dog license is choice 6 under Laws and Policies. More hide and seek.

Brenda Barnette’s major positive action has been to promote the previously existing “New Hope Placements” partnership with some 150 local animal rescue organizations. While individual adoptions from shelters were down 1,106 for her first year, New Hope adoptions by rescue groups were up 1,299, with 6,980 animals saved by such groups.

Yet Barnette seemed to come in for a drubbing even for having kept these thousands of dogs and cats from getting a lethal injection. According to the August 1, 2011, Daily News, City Councilmember Dennis Zine “said that he went to the West Valley Animal Shelter over the weekend hoping to adopt a Labrador for his girlfriend. ‘I was told there were plenty of varieties there, but when I was there, it seemed there were only pit bulls and Chihuahuas,’ Zine said. ‘Both are fine breeds, but not what I was looking for. I was told that all the family friendly breeds had been taken by rescue organizations.'”

Excuse me for being incredulous. Councilman Zine seems to be saying that the shelters should have kept the Labs there on the off chance he might show up to take one (and then kill them if he didn’t).

I would leave it that we are in hard times and these are affecting pet owners and city animal services both. I thought a fair summary of Barnette’s tenure came from well-known animal rescue activist Mary Cummins in her February 14, 2011, blog, halfway through Brenda Barnette’s first year:

“I believe some of the increase in adult cat/dog intake and euth is caused by our horrible economy i.e., job losses, foreclosures, people being forced to move from homes into smaller rentals that don’t allow pets, people doubling up in homes and people who can’t afford to spay or neuter their pets. Obviously Barnette did not cause our horrible economy. Still, it’s a challenge she must face.

“I think she’s done a great job increasing New Hope adoptions. I don’t know if she recruited more New Hope partners or just found a way to get them to take more animals. Whatever the cause, whoever deserves credit, kudos. Kudos to the actual New Hope partners as well. That’s the only real improvement by the numbers. Without that improvement, things would be much worse. “


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