L.A. City Council Sheds Crocodile Tears

I believe in spay/neuter. I encourage spay/neuter. I promote incentives for spay/neuter. It is a key component of the No Kill Equation. But I am against mandatory spay/neuter laws. That is not a contradiction. It is an understanding that if one is goal oriented, and if the goal is reducing shelter intakes and shelter deaths, one does not necessarily follow the other.

As my colleague Brent Toellner at indicated in an interview I did of him last year,

In 2006, Kansas City passed mandatory spay/neuter of all “Pit Bull”-type dogs. Since the ordinance was passed, Kansas City has seen an 80% increase in the number of “Pit Bulls” killed in their city shelter. Many of these dogs are getting confiscated from homes because they were not in compliance with the spay/neuter ordinance. Young puppies are being killed because they look too “Pit Bull” and are not altered by the time they reach eight weeks of age. They’re killed only because they have not been spayed or neutered.

Many other cities have seen similar results with their mandatory spay/neuter ordinances—of both “Pit Bulls” and of all types of dogs. Los Angeles passed their mandatory spay/neuter in February of 2008, and has seen their kill numbers go up 31% this year, after more than five years of steady decline in shelter killings.

Similarly, other cities have struggled with their mandatory spay/neuter ordinances. Problems range from decreased licensing (pushing these people underground and making them harder to reach with low cost services), significant increases in animal control costs, and an increase in shelter killing rates due to the ordinances. Simply put, mandatory spay/neuter ordinances have never led to No Kill success anywhere, ever.

Giving shelters the power to impound and kill even more animals is no way to lower the death rate. Giving animal control the power to divert resources from programs that do work so that agencies can hire yet more officers to write yet more tickets, to no avail, is no way to lower the death rate.

Time and time again, studies show that people who do not spay/neuter belong to those at near, at, and below the poverty line. And Los Angeles should know, it was on the vanguard of this understanding some three decades ago, and put in place a very effective response to overcome it. As I wrote in Redemption,

On February 17, 1971, it opened the first low-cost spay/neuter clinic in the country, with the City of Los Angeles paying for the veterinary staff. By 1973, two more clinics opened and the first was expanded. In 1979, a fourth clinic became operational. The program was so successful, that within the first decade of the program Los Angeles shelters were killing half the number of animals they had been prior to the clinics. Every dollar invested in the program was saving taxpayers ten dollars in animal control costs, due to the reduced numbers of animals these shelters were handling. And despite outcry from private veterinarians and their associations when the program first began, there was no discernible loss of business over time. With four clinics operating, private veterinarians were still performing 87 percent of all neutering within Los Angeles, because the clinics were being used by poor people who would not otherwise have had their pets altered. While national “leaders” were trying to appease private veterinarians, Los Angeles had begun the march to save the animals.

Unfortunately, the clinics were closed in a round of budget cuts, and Los Angeles began following the model of punitive legislation being advanced by those national leaders. Now, it is left scrambling to try to save a badly flawed, unworkable program. And that is why the latest furor over the elimination of subsidized spay/neuter vouchers sadly misses the point.

As I reported earlier,

Los Angeles Animal Services (LAAS) General Manager Ed Boks made headlines in his support last year of Assembly Bill 1634, California’s mandatory spay/neuter bill when he admitted that the legislation was more about expanding the bureaucratic power of animal control than saving animals. During a legislative hearing, a Senator asked Ed Boks, the General Manager of Los Angeles Animal Services (LAAS) and one of the bill’s chief proponents: “Mr. Boks, this bill doesn’t even pretend to be about saving animals, does it?” To which Boks responded: “No Senator, this is not about saving dogs and cats.”

Not content to wait for the state (which did not pass the measure), Boks convinced the City of Los Angeles to pass its own version. He also demanded more officers to enforce it. The end result was predictable. Almost immediately, LAAS officers threatened poor people with citations if they did not turn over the pets to be killed at LAAS, and that is exactly what occurred. For the first time in a decade, impounds and killing increased—dog deaths increased 24%, while cat deaths increased 35%. In the process, he also fed the backyard breeding market for more (unaltered) animals.

Now, Boks is adding another insult. As others have reported, he has abolished LAAS’ low-cost spay/neuter program, which allowed some poor people to comply with the new law. Despite increasing impounds, Boks has decided that subsidized spay/neuter is expendable.

In response City Council Member Tony Cardenas introduced a motion, with three co-sponsors, to reinstate the voucher program calling it “key in creating a No Kill city and saving money.” Cardenas, sponsor of the city’s mandatory spay/neuter ordinance, further stated that “When [that] ordinance was drafted, my focus was on drastically reducing the over 15,000 dogs and cats [killed] per year. Without assistance, lower-income families will be unfairly burdened and will be put at risk for non-compliance with the law. In these tough economic times, individuals should not be forced to choose between feeding their families and complying with the law.” The motion calls “for the continuation of the voucher program and a report on the success of the spay/neuter ordinance.” Both efforts are largely meaningless.

First, it is only by the sheerest self-delusion that he seeks a report on “the success” of the ordinance. Since the Cardenas pet killer bill was passed, Los Angeles City shelters have increased the rate of animal killing, the first such increase in better than a decade. And killing is not only up, it is skyrocketing with 35% more cats and 24% more dogs losing their lives. In effect, Cardenas is asking for something that is not possible to do—there is no “success” to report. Instead, the law has been an abysmal failure, something that was not hard to predict.

But Cardenas has his fall guy, in the form of Ed Boks, the director of animal services who, in an all-too-common moment of impolitic, eliminated a program that he once sold to the community as a key component of making the mandatory spay/neuter approach work. And so Cardenas and other Council Members get to ignore their own dubious role in the increased killing by taking pot shots at Boks, while grandstanding over a program that does very little for the animals of Los Angeles. Don’t get me wrong, I too have called for the program to continue. It is certainly better than the alternative, which if Boks has his way, is nothing. But for all of Cardenas self-serving rhetoric, the voucher program was not successful, because the paltry amount it offers does little to offset the cost of spay/neuter and therefore, the primary barrier which keeps low income people from sterilizing their animals in greater numbers.

Every year, Los Angeles issued roughly 40,000 of the vouchers, but the vast majority only covered $30 dollars of the full retail cost of the spay/neuter surgery at private veterinary hospitals, which can run upwards of hundreds of dollars. (The more “generous”–and less common–vouchers still only cover $70.) Some veterinarians even add pre-surgical blood work, vaccinations, and office visit fees, vastly increasing the cost of the already expensive procedure, and taking it further out of reach of those at the bottom 15% rung of the economic ladder. This is hardly a low-cost program, and—not surprisingly—it is one key to understanding why less than 5,000 vouchers are historically redeemed annually (although Los Angeles Animal Services claims roughly 12,000 of the 40,000 vouchers handed out are now redeemed). Using the American Veterinary Medical Association pet population index, there would be roughly 2,000,000 dogs and cats in Los Angeles, which means only 0.01% of animals are assisted by the city’s pet sterilization program if indeed redemption of vouchers jumped to 12,000—and, even then, they are only partially assisted. How does Cardenas expect lifesaving results with that feeble of an effort?

Where would Los Angeles be today if it continued its successful 1970s era spay/neuter program? A comparison to San Francisco is helpful. In 2008, the pound in San Francisco took in less than 6,000 dogs and cats. Adjusted for population, that would be the equivalent of the Los Angeles city pound taking in about 27,000 dogs and cats per year, or about half the current intake. That would wipe out all population control killing in Los Angeles and even allow Los Angeles to do what San Francisco does—impound thousands of dogs and cats from outside its jurisdiction to meet adoption demand. But Los Angeles did not continue its program, choosing to follow the the punitive road of sheltering promoted by the Humane Society of the United States.

Instead of reinstituting the mediocre program Cardenas falsely called a “key to No Kill,” the Los Angeles City Council should expand it based on their successful 1970s model. Indeed, LAAS has seven new shelters, complete with state-of-the-art spay/neuter clinics which are currently sitting largely unused, a betrayal to Los Angeles taxpayers who agreed on a $37-million bond measure to build them.

But Los Angeles Animal Services has been asked to cut its budget, so where would the money for a truly low cost, high volume program come from? For one, it should be viewed as an investment, not an expense.

Second, city taxpayers spend over $20 million per year on their shelters, about $5.50 per capita. It is one of the most generously funded systems in the nation. I am not arguing that this is too much, only that it is too much for what Los Angeles residents and animals receive in return. Many cities take in a higher per capita rate of animals than Los Angeles, but spend a fraction of the Los Angeles animal control budget, and they still save a higher percentage of animals. As a result, it should not be hard to find revenue from the roughly $400 Los Angeles taxpayers spend for each animal impounded into their shelters. Providing free spay/neuter would only cost a fraction of that.

Third, they could eliminate some of the unnecessary bureaucracy, starting with some of the “typists” who work for the department—49 in all, 11 of them “senior typists.” Or how about diverting to spay/neuter the nearly $350,000 on 11 canvassers Animal Contol wants to hire to enforce dog licensing? Since the pound re-started the licensing canvassing program in FY 2003-04, it notes that dog licensing rates actually declined. Or, how about using the $62,000 proposed to hire assistants for the “assistant” managers? Or how about using some of the $65,000 earmarked for a public relations specialist who, if history is any guide, will do little more than spin the truth anyway?

But that is not likely to happen, because Cardenas and his ilk are buffeted by a throng of activists who demand more laws to punish the public and who champion his cheap populist message, a fact he is only too willing to exploit as he sheds crocodile tears over the half-hearted voucher program and asks for a whitewash over the results of his pet killer law. In   Redemption, I wrote:

While some activists simply do not know better and mean well, others obstinately ignore facts, experience, and history and continue to push these types of laws. They will do what they have always done—facts, logic, and history be damned. They will continue to blame the public and they will continue to fight for more and tougher laws. They will argue that their community is different, that their situation is unique, that citizens in their community are particularly—or peculiarly—irresponsible. None of this is true, but they do not care.

While they claim to be motivated by saving lives, there is something much more powerful driving them: the desire to punish. An activist truly focused on lifesaving, who subsequently learns that punitive legislation is not only a dismal failure, but that it has the opposite results (more impounds, more killing), would end their support of such methods and begin to push for regime change at animal control or the programs and services of the No Kill Equation.

By contrast, those who are intent on punishing the public are being driven by other imperatives. In the end, they so want to punish the public for not taking care of their pets as much as they think they should, they are willing to ignore all the evidence about legislation’s true results or about how to truly save lives, and instead empower animal control to kill animals in the process. Unfortunately, animal control is generally more than willing to oblige and do just that. In the end, these activists become that which they claim to most despise—people whose actions result in the impound and killing of animals. They become the “irresponsible public.”

It is clear that these individuals are not truly motivated by saving animals because they spend no effort on shelter reform legislation, and don’t even stop to think about how horrible and abusive the pounds are that the animals get taken to because of their punitive laws. In fact, they stand side by side with the perpetrators—in speeches and legislative hearings. They are the champions of continued killing, the defenders of draconian animal shelters, and the purveyors of punishment through misguided legislative efforts such as pet limit laws, leash laws, feeding bans, and mandatory spay/neuter even when community after community has shown that animals are killed because of it.

The ones that, as another colleague described,

have heard—and repeated—the mantra of “irresponsible pet ownership” as the root of all evil in the animal world. This resonates with them doubly because they tend to dislike/distrust people, and are exposed to animals that are often the result of abandonment, neglect, ignorance, or at least believe this to be true which further reinforces their dislike for people as a whole. When a local Pit Bull advocate loudly proclaimed that Pit Bulls would be better off with a “humane death” than to be adopted to the “wrong family,” the last piece finally fell into place for me. So many animal welfare people have assumed a position of moral/ethical superiority over the “masses” by virtue of their work with the animals. Only they and an elite few can properly know and care for animals. Most animals in the hands of the unwashed masses, in their estimation, would be better off dead at the hands of “caring” professionals than to be subjected to the horror of the POSSIBILITY of being in the clutches of the dreaded “irresponsible pet owner.” Many of these people are truly distraught at the idea of drastically increasing adoptions, knowing that it will be bad for the animals. In their minds, shelters MUST kill animals to protect the animals.

When you’re exposed to ugliness or just thoughtlessness toward animals, it’s very easy to fall into the mindset I describe above. I think this is why getting animal welfare folks to truly embrace No Kill as a reality (rather than just a nice idea) can be such a hit-or-miss affair and I have not yet come up with a strategy to really “reach” the people who so desperately need the killing to continue. They’re not willing to embrace the No Kill Equation because it depends on the public being a key component to solving the problem…and they will simply not accept that the cause of the problem can in any way be the solution to the problem. Only by pummeling and imposing legislative controls on people : do they see the problem being solved. All the while, they sit atop the shining throne of the animal advocate and know they are “doing good.”

They aren’t motivated by saving lives, they are about setting themselves up as “better” because they are in opposition to everyone else, the uncaring masses. They are, as my colleague noted above, “atop the shining throne of the animal advocate,” whose rule is threatened by the emerging success of the No Kill movement which says, yes some people are irresponsible, but most people do care. Most people find killing abhorrent. Most people pass on their own needs during difficult economic times in order not to have to cut back on what their animals need. Most people would do the right thing if given the information they need to make good choices, if we can cut through the fog of deceit that HSUS has been peddling for fifty years. Most people are not only part of the solution; they are the key to it. And that, according to these Naysayers, can’t be allowed to happen. Because guess what? When everyone is special, no one is special. Not only are most people as committed to animals as they are masquerading to be, but they are more so, because they oppose killing, too. So they can’t accept that. And they block it out, because what else do they have? Who else are they? They lose their identity as “saviors”—these addicts of being special at the expense of the animals.

And so they will champion Cardenas. And they will line up at the podium to thank him. And he will get his lackluster voucher program. And he will get a report that says the mandatory spay/neuter law works but its success is being obscured by rising impounds and deaths due to the economy (ignoring the fact that other communities that have been harder hit by the recession are still increasing rates of lifesaving, despite these troubled economic times). And the activists will applaud their “good work” and go back to feeling special. Meanwhile, the animals will continue to be killed.