December may turn out to be the first month that the shelter system run by the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services did not euthanize any treatable or healthy animals in its care. That is an extraordinary landmark in the world of animal welfare. Achieving "no-kill" status is the moral ambition of any animal shelter obligated to accept whatever is surrendered at its door or picked up off the streets. Although no-kill almost never means every animal taken in gets out alive — the hopelessly ill and dangerously aggressive are put down — it demonstrates genuine commitment in a nation where 3 million to 4 million dogs and cats are euthanized in shelters each year.
Will L.A. now earn the distinction of being the largest U.S. city to have a no-kill shelter system for an entire year? Probably not in 2013. It required a Herculean effort and the combined work of public and private entities to produce December's results.
Though all those forces may not combine again, the Department of Animal Services is part of a coalition that includes more than 50 private organizations determined to end euthanasia of healthy animals. Launched by Best Friends Animal Society in April, "No Kill LA" aims to create a no-kill system within five years, lowering the number of animals killed each year. Even before this month, they were off to a good start. According to the department's statistics, this year by the end of November, the shelters had euthanized 18,171 cats and dogs after taking in, alive, 50,808. That it is 3,500 less than the number killed last year by the end of November.
Much of this is the result of private welfare groups taking animals out of the shelters and adopting them out through their own venues. Also, Best Friends is underwriting $500,000 in subsidized spay and neuter services targeting lower-income areas.
All this is testament to dedication and cooperation, but there is still hard work ahead. In a time of cutbacks, the city shelter system must make do with less staff and still help adopters. Animal Services General Manager Brenda Barnette wants to start a pilot program to train staff to assess the personalities and quirks of animals in order to pair them with prospective owners.
As the success of this month's efforts indicate, it takes sustained effort to move animals out of city shelters. But if welfare advocates can get more spay and neuter services directly to pet owners in need, and if the shelter system and private partners can get more pets into homes, more animals will be saved. With that progress, the goal of a truly humane society will draw ever closer.