County grapples with overhaul of animal shelters

L.A. County's animal shelters are crumbling, but plans for an overhaul remain unclear

The stocky Chihuahua mix strained at his collar, unhinged by the cacophony of yelps coming from the Downey animal shelter's kennels. The young man at the other end of the leash was equally unsettled. Clearly he had misgivings about leaving Charlie in this shabby place, where his pet would have about a 1 in 3 chance of getting out alive.

Charlie was entering a system in flux.

Last month, an assessment of the whole shelter system by the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control cited kennels with no cooling systems in the summer, bad roofs and plumbing, and cramped medical facilities. At one shelter, a freezer used to store dead animals leaked.

Officials, including two county supervisors, are pushing to overhaul the shelter system. They want to tear down and replace two facilities, including the Downey shelter, and renovate others.

But the improvements are still at the brainstorming stage, and there is no consensus these days on what it means to offer proper care to the dogs, cats and other creatures that play important roles in so many human lives.

Laws governing how animals are treated have evolved since most of America's shelters were built, and the supervisors' reform effort will be under political pressures and a level of moral scrutiny that didn't exist before the creation of groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, whose website disdains the term "strays" in favor of "companion animal homelessness."

When the first Los Angeles County shelter opened in Downey in 1946, it was a typical pound of its era, a spare row of kennels.

"When these things were built, it was just rabies control, get stray dogs off the streets. And if no one came and got them, they were euthanized," said Pat Claerbout, manager of the Baldwin Park shelter — which, like the one in Downey, is among the county's oldest and most decrepit; it too is potentially scheduled for replacement.

Since then, most shelters have created adoption programs and spay and neuter clinics, and many bring in volunteers to groom and walk the dogs.

Yet many Californians still consider the conditions at most shelters deplorable and see the killing of hundreds of thousands of dogs and cats each year as being out of sync with the values that recently won chickens the right to bigger cages and inspired a ban on — and subsequent legal battle over — the force feeding of geese for foie gras.

"The notion of having a companion animal isn't new, but the concept of us — especially in the United States — thinking of our animals as members of our family is relatively new," said Joan Schaffner, a professor at George Washington University's law school who specializes in animal issues. "The law follows society."

California was among the first states to adopt laws requiring shelters to turn over animals that would otherwise be killed to nonprofit rescue groups, prohibiting the immediate killing of those given up by their owners, and require that if animals are killed, it be done by lethal injection rather than gas chambers.

But laws alone don't necessarily change results. Neither do new buildings.

A decade ago, San Jose spent $20 million building a state-of-the-art animal shelter. The new facility was cleaner, less crowded and more home-like. But it didn't result in more animals' lives being saved. Over the next five years, about half of the thousands of dogs and cats brought in as strays or surrendered by their owners continued to be euthanized each year.

It was only after the city shelter system launched a series of programs in 2010 — including partnering with rescue groups to transport animals to homes outside California and an initiative to neuter and release feral cats — that the balance began to tilt away from euthanasia, city animal services Director Jon Cicirelli said. By 2013, the "save rate" had risen to 74%.

"The physical and structural stuff is very important," he said. "But without a doubt, the policies and procedures are more important."

Cicirelli was among a group of advocates, including the Humane Society and shelter directors and representatives of rescue groups, who signed on to an ill-fated "white paper" last year with a series of recommended changes in policy for animal shelters. Some of that report's suggestions became part of a bill that that quickly died amid heated arguments among activists who agreed that shelter animals need help but had different ideas of what that would entail.

Among the paper's recommendations: Make it more cumbersome for people to give up their pets to shelters; offer more resources to help people keep their animals; don't admit healthy stray cats if they are likely to be killed as a result; eliminate the waiting period before certain animals can be put up for adoption or turned over to rescue groups, and turn over animals even to groups that aren't tax exempt, a designation that opponents said was meant to screen out for-profit companies with suspect motives, like puppy mills.

Many shelter directors — including Marcia Mayeda, head of Los Angeles County's Department of Animal Care and Control — pushed back, arguing that some of the policies proposed would constitute illegally giving away people's lost pets or abandoning animals that shelters are legally obligated to help.

"Refusing to admit these animals will result in more abandoned or neglected animals on the streets, jeopardizing public health and safety as well as native wildlife and habitat," she and a coalition of opponents of the white paper said in a written response.

Close to 50% of the 72,000 animals brought to the six Los Angeles County shelters were killed by lethal injection last year. That's down from 62% a few years ago and about on par with the national average, but it's still higher than the city of Los Angeles, which had a 26% euthanasia rate last year, or Orange County, where it was 28%. The number of cats killed is particularly high — about 70% of felines brought into the Los Angeles County system were euthanized last year. The rate for dogs was down to 30%.

An increasing number of agencies, including those in San Jose and Orange County, have begun to implement programs to neuter and release feral cats instead of holding and then euthanizing them.

Los Angeles County plans to begin a limited version of this "community cat" neutering program at the Baldwin Park shelter. Such programs could be helpful in some circumstances, Mayeda said, but aren't appropriate in places where the neutered feral cats are likely to massacre wild birds or spread disease to children or other vulnerable people.

Mayeda credits the declining kill rate in large part to the department's partnership with rescue groups, including those that transport adoptable animals out of state to areas with less crowded shelters and better chances of adoption — although that also has its critics, who say there's little accountability for what happens to the animals once they leave.

The county also has begun a partnership with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, in which the society's staff intervene with people coming in to surrender animals and try to direct them to resources that could help them keep their pets.

"We'll never have zero percent euthanasia because of being an open-door shelter," Mayeda said. "But I think we should always work toward the day when no adoptable animal is euthanized."

For Charlie the Chihuahua, the situation looked bleak. As he approached the Downey shelter, Bernice Osorto of the ASPCA stepped forward to see if his owner might have a change of heart.

A family dispute had forced him to move, the owner said, and his new apartment didn't allow dogs. He had talked to friends and posted an ad on Craigslist in hopes of finding Charlie a new home. Nothing panned out.

Could he just keep the dog a little longer, Osorto asked?

Glumly, the owner said: "No."

And so Charlie entered the system. Staff examined him, took a picture, entered his description into the county's computer tracking system and put him in a small run with another Chihuahua.

Fortunately for Charlie, however, one of the processes in place to save pets worked in his favor.

Because Los Angeles-area shelters are flooded with Chihuahuas and pit bulls, rescuers believe that they have a better chance of adoption elsewhere. Within a couple of days, Osorto and a shelter volunteer managed to get Charlie a ride on one of the vans that haul shelter animals out of state — in this case to Oregon.

"When we can help cats, pit bulls and Chihuahuas, that's the highlight of my day," Osorto said.

Future generations of Charlies might arrive at a cleaner and more inviting version of the pound. But Rich Avanzino, widely known as the father of the "no-kill" movement for reforms he led in San Francisco's animal welfare system in the 1990s, said that will only be half the battle.

"Really what saves animal lives is not bricks and mortar but people and programs," he said.

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