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The city's suffering stray animals desperately need help

The ban on store sales of pets from breeders is a small step, but bigger issues, such as the delay in opening a user-friendly South L.A. shelter, see little action.

Sandy Banks

4:40 PM PDT, October 26, 2012

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Los Angeles took a baby step this week toward enabling the "no-kill" policy we're trying to promote in our giant animal shelter system. The City Council's vote to forbid pet shops from selling dogs and cats from commercial breeders may mean a stay of execution for many shelter animals.

But forcing pet shops to peddle stray dogs and cats solves only the easiest part of a problem. On the harder stuff, the city just keeps stumbling.

A new $9-million shelter was supposed to open Thursday in South Los Angeles to house the hundreds of stressed-out animals now stuck in crowded kennels in the city's outdated shelter near Jefferson and Crenshaw boulevards. It's the last shelter in the city to get relief from a bond issue voters passed to improve animal facilities 12 years ago.

But sudden "construction problems" have emerged abruptly to keep it closed.

Shelter employees and volunteers have been looking forward to the move for months. They even put animals on sale last Saturday, to try to pare their inventory of cats and dogs so they wouldn't have to move so many.

Two days later, the move was canceled.

The new animal shelter has been hailed as an architectural marvel, primed to lure pet shoppers with a layout like a high-end mall. It's designed with creature comforts in mind — outdoor kennels with retractable roofs, misters for hot days and heated floors for cold nights.

What it doesn't have, apparently, are proper door handles on its dog runs and sufficient lighting outside.

That's the explanation I received from Brenda Barnette, who heads the city's Animal Services Department and should have been monitoring its construction.

She said it probably won't open until next year. "We are waiting to get some details from vendors regarding time to order materials and labor to install," she wrote me in an email that seemed both predictably bureaucratic and oddly cavalier.

There is no urgency, it seems, when it comes to relieving the misery of suffering animals.

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I spent Wednesday morning at the South Los Angeles shelter, walking the rows of kennels, making friends with dogs I know will die before they find a home:

The pit bulls with weary eyes and wagging tails, crammed three and four to a cage. The scruffy, frisky little guys, whose owners turned them in because they yap too much. The skinny dogs struggling to stand, with blue dots signifying illness attached to cards on their cages.

I fell in love more than once: First, with a lively little pit bull, vibrating with energy. And then with an 8-week old shepherd mix, asleep in a ball with his littermates. He bounded over when I walked by, stuck a tiny paw through his bars and stared with curious eyes.

Then there were the dogs I didn't see, like the lovely shepherd being treated for ugly neck wounds from an attack by kennel-mates, a scenario that is becoming all too common as shelter crowding rises.

I met Hillary Rosen, who runs a dog nanny service that caters to families in Hollywood, Studio City and Beverly Hills. She's been a regular visitor to the shelter since last summer and has bailed out 20 dogs, finding homes for all but one.

That would be Annie, a gentle shepherd mix that Rosen couldn't give up after nursing her through pneumonia. Best dog ever, she said. And if Rosen hadn't scooped her up, she probably would be dead.

"I know it's depressing, it's overwhelming. It's not for everybody. But if you haven't been to an animal shelter," she said, "you really ought to visit."

Because we can't solve the problem unless we are willing to see it.

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Animal services head Barnette has been a lightning rod for criticism by animal activists who believe she wants to hand the operation of public shelters over to handpicked private rescue groups.

She was appointed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to push the "no-kill" policy that burnishes the city's progressive image and the mayor's animal-loving credentials.

But the "no-kill" policy is a joke. Last year, nearly 23,000 animals were put to death in city shelters. The needle has barely budged under Barnette's tenure.

She hasn't even made basic changes, like bringing the shelter's clunky website into the modern age. It is vastly easier to find a dog on Craigslist than to navigate the online system that should let people know what dogs are available in their local shelters.

But the problem is bigger than Barnette, and it can't be solved by empty promises not to euthanize or finger-wagging at pet shops.

We need cuts in the animal population through spay and neuter campaigns. And we need more adoptions from animal shelters, which means making them user-friendly places where people and animals can bond.

That's why the lost time in opening a world-class shelter sets us back so much.

And why it's disheartening to hear Barnette defend the delays as much ado about nothing.

"The concerns are larger than the problem," she told volunteers in an email this week about the move that wasn't. "The animals in South LA have never had it better."

If she saw what I saw this week, she'd know that "better" isn't nearly enough.

sandy.banks@latimes.com