Rx for a No Kill L.A.

Animals who enter Los Angeles Animal Services often don’t make it out alive. The number of animals dying in the kennels is high. The number of animals who simply disappear is high. And the number of animals who are killed is high and getting higher. Over the next year, internal projections by LAAS suggest that the killing may go up by as much as 50%.

Despite campaigning on a platform to reform animal services as a candidate, this tragic legacy defines the administration of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. And understanding why is the key to reverse this trend. Because rather than focus his attention on a top-down review and reform of the department when he was elected, Mayor Villaraigosa wanted to hire a new director and move on to other things. The Mayor, however, would not be afforded that desired luxury because the man he hired seemed to invite controversy wherever he went.

Ed Boks started his career in Maricopa County, Arizona, where he served as the director of the pound. Despite claiming that he had turned an agency with high rates of killing into a model animal control program very near No Kill, the reality was that he impacted the killing rate a paltry 10%, less than many communities were doing even without No Kill ambitions. By the time he left, Maricopa County shelters were still killing tens of thousands of animals every year and in fact, continue to do so to this very day. In addition, Boks and his team opened up a structural deficit in excess of half a million dollars a year, running the department into receivership.

Subsequent to Maricopa County, Boks was hired to run the pound in New York City. His results were less than spectacular despite promising the community that the City would be No Kill within five years. A few years into his contract, Boks’ Board of Directors unanimously voted not to retain him after a tenure marked by controversy and a department review which found serious gaps in animal care.

Mayor Villaraigosa hired him anyway. The results were predictable: Boks promised to make Los Angeles a No Kill city within five years and failed to deliver. In fact, prior to his arrival, LAAS had experienced a steady decline in killing every year for at least the last decade. But after gaining passage of a deadly mandatory spay/neuter law which gave his team more power to cite, impound, and kill animals not in compliance, that is exactly what they did and more animals were killed (there was also an increase in the number of animals dying in their kennels and simply disappearing). According to the department’s own statistics, during the last year of Boks’ tenure, the number of cats killed increased 25% with 3,000 more of them losing their lives. Dogs fared little better. More dogs were killed and more dogs died while in the department’s custody.

While Boks and other supporters of his deadly law tried to blame the economy, other communities which were harder hit by the recession and experienced greater rates of foreclosures and unemployment nonetheless saw their killing rates decline substantially. In fact, recently uncovered e-mails from Boks also show he knew the law actually reduced the number of animals being sterilized by low-income pet owners because private veterinarians increased their prices as a result.

The Villaraigosa-Boks Legacy

Although Boks resigned after the City Council gave him a vote of No Confidence, his tragic legacy continues. Killing rates continue to increase and officials at the shelter project killing to increase even more—as much as 50% over the next year—with cats the most at risk. One reason is because of the systematic killing of feral cats now occurring under court order in response to a lawsuit by Urban Wildlands that the City lost and chose not to appeal.

When Urban Wildlands and other bird advocacy organizations sued the City of Los Angeles over the department’s alleged Trap-Neuter-Return program for unsocialized free-living cats, the court should have thrown out the lawsuit. The basis for the lawsuit, fueled by hyperbolic propaganda masquerading as “science,” was the claim by Urban Wildlands that LAAS should have done an environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act to determine if the cats were killing birds before providing spay/neuter vouchers for feral cats, having information about TNR on their website, and releasing feral cats to nonprofit rescue groups if they request them. The problem is that none of these activities require CEQA review. The City was not doing TNR itself so there was nothing to review; even if the City had been, TNR reduces the number of cats in the community, so there is simply no basis to conclude that it results in more birds being killed as the lawsuit erroneously asserted. Finally, CEQA requires a lawsuit to be filed within 180 days of a City undertaking a “new” program. But the activities Urban Wildlands complained of have been ongoing since 1991 in some cases.

Under siege for many failures and many scandals, Boks and his enablers were in need of victories so they announced “new programs” which did not actually exist, announced initiatives which were never ratified or implemented, and pretended to make progress in reducing shelter killing through TNR by simply wrapping decades-old programs in new language, sparking the ire of Urban Wildlands. (In all fairness, Urban Wildlands would have sued even if Boks initiated a true TNR program in earnest. But that is not what occurred, and now cats are dying for what appears to have been media grandstanding. Moreover, the City has chosen not to appeal condemning cats to certain death.)

As a result, the court ordered LAAS to stop issuing spay/neuter vouchers for feral cats, which it had been doing since 1991; to stop transferring feral cats to rescue groups in violation of state law which the City has been forced to do since 1998; to remove any pro-TNR literature from the website or lobby of the shelter in violation of the First Amendment and other free speech protections; and to stop giving people information about TNR, also in violation of free speech. Right now, any cat classified as “feral” is summarily executed because those with the power to prevent this dangerous and deadly precedent refused to act. (Although the City did not appeal, the No Kill Advocacy Center and Stray Cat Alliance sought to intervene, were denied, but have appealed the ruling. Some groups do care. You can read the brief by clicking here.)

Avoiding The Roadmap to a No Kill L.A.

Los Angeles is now suffering the consequences for years of failure by shelter and city leadership to actually build the infrastructure necessary to save lives and move the city earnestly toward No Kill. But rather than take responsibility and do what the Mayor’s Office should have done from the beginning—a top-down review and remake of the department—a representative of the Mayor’s Office told a local activist and critic that any criticism of the department’s rate of killing is unfair because even I said it would take a number of years to right all the wrongs at Los Angeles City Animal Services. And the truth is I did say that, but within a very specific set of circumstances that are being conveniently ignored. More than that, I made the comment years ago and those years have come and gone. Had the Mayor’s office done what I suggested they do, Los Angeles would be No Kill right now. Instead, it is moving in the opposite direction.

But more specifically, my comments were directed to the internal problems of LAAS; they had nothing to do with population dynamics as the Mayor’s representative intimated in his defense of their handling of the department. Given the potential adopter base, funding, and a low per capita intake rate, a No Kill Los Angeles was and is theirs for the taking because the internal problems were—and sadly still are—a problem of the City’s own creation. If city leaders were working to overcome the internal obstacles preventing a better lifesaving rate, if those within LAAS working against No Kill were no longer there, if the programs and services which make No Kill possible were being implemented, the last years would have resulted in a steadily decreasing rate of killing every year until the deaths of healthy and treatable animals was zeroed out, as has happened in numerous other communities throughout the nation.

Instead, it has been business as usual in many ways, and in others, a deterioration of the safety net. As a result, the killing has been going up every year. But the Mayor’s Office wants the public to believe that, because of a comment made a number of years ago, we can still expect that somehow magically, it will all work out. What the animals need is not magic, but what the Mayor should have been doing and, more importantly, what he can still do now to achieve it: reform the shelter. And he does that, by doing the following:

  1. The City is now looking for a new General Manager to replace Boks. The Mayor should not repeat the mistake of hiring someone with a track record of failure.
  2. The Mayor’s Office needs to quit rubber stamping union contracts so that it can eliminate underperforming employees. The Mayor needs to take authority for negotiating the contract away from the City Attorney’s Office and give it to a new and progressive department general manager.
  3. The Mayor’s Office needs to then fire underperforming employees.
  4. The Mayor’s Office needs to turn supervisory positions into at-will civilian appointees who serve at the pleasure and discretion of the general manager. Union staff overseeing other union staff is tantamount to self-regulation by the union and a recipe for continued underperformance.
  5. The Mayor needs to do a top-down review of the department and see to it that needed policy changes are actually implemented.
  6. The department’s budget needs to be balanced in favor of animal care initiatives by scaling back the bloated bureaucracy within the department and the counterproductive emphasis on punitive enforcement with a mandate to round up and kill animals.
  7. The Mayor needs to ensure that the programs and services of the No Kill Equation are comprehensively implemented.
  8. The Mayor’s Office needs to stop speaking the dead language of blaming the “irresponsible public” as a Mayoral spokesperson continues to do in response to critics. Regurgitating disproven dogmas and the language of defeatism that has been rejected by progressive shelters nationwide since the 1990s is hardly evidence of a commitment to reform. While people surrender animals to shelters, it is the shelters that kill them and one does not follow or excuse the other.
  9. The Mayor needs to repeal his punitive laws and replace them with shelter reform legislation to remove the discretion that allows the department and its staff to avoid doing what is in the best interests of animals and kill them needlessly.

But so far, the Mayor has not done any of these things. That is why a cat entering the pound in Los Angeles today has a smaller chance of being saved than last year. And that is why that cat is expected to have an even smaller chance in 2011.

Right now, there are municipal shelters all across the U.S., some of which are in less affluent communities with lower per capita incomes and higher rates of unemployment, that are saving better than 90% of the animals: in Kansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Nevada, Utah, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado, Virginia, New York, and California. LAAS has a greater budget per capita than many of them. It has a lower intake rate per capita than many of them. And while these cities are reducing their death rates to a fraction of the Los Angeles rate, in Los Angeles the trend is to more killing every year.

Los Angeles calls itself the city of angels, the city of lights, the city of hope, and the city of dreams. But its animal shelters are none of those things. They should be. And they can be. But that requires a Mayor willing to do the hard work to make those things happen. And so far he is not shown the propensity to do so. The animals and animal lovers of Los Angeles certainly deserve better.