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Inside PetSpace: An animal shelter like no other

Inside PetSpace: An animal shelter like no other
A giant animatronic dog overlooks the entry at new PetSpace L.A. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Don't forget to look up as you enter the new Annenberg PetSpace: There's a ginormous motion-sensor sculpture of a wriggling pup, so happy to see you. Look to the right for its feline counterpoint: A curious kitty, poised to paw its prey.

It's safe to say you've never seen an animal shelter like this.

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The 30,000-square-foot center opened this summer on Bluff Creek Drive in trendy Silicon Beach, the result of a years-long campaign by noted philanthropist and animal lover Wallis Annenberg, creating a unique place that celebrates the indelible human-animal bond.

The most urgent mission is to help place dogs, cats and bunnies in loving homes: Each week, PetSpace brings in animals from Los Angeles County's most overburdened shelters in Baldwin Park, Carson and Downey, often selecting the animals that need the most medical attention and care -- care that the shelters just can't provide.

"They are really, literally, a life-saving resource for us," said Alison Cardona, deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control.

Animals that are older, have arthritis, are injured, "or can benefit from a higher level of care that we can't provide" are prime candidates to be taken from county shelters and placed at PetSpace, where a wide array of services and medical treatments are available such as aqua therapy, socialization training, dental care, surgical options and more.

It all helps to rehabilitate animals, increasing their chances of adoption.

"They are able to take animals that wouldn't have a second chance," Cardona said of the new PetSpace. "It's absolutely making a difference."

To date, about 140 animals have gone to PetSpace from the county shelters, and more than 50% have been adopted, she said.

The longer-term objectives at PetSpace are to foster human relationships with animals, such as teaching people to properly care for their pets, as well as the quality-of-life benefits that are said to come from having a pet, such as reduced anxiety and high blood pressure. The center is also serving as a venue and meeting space to encourage scientific research about the unique relationship between animals and humans: A leadership institute is bringing together research fellows from around the globe.

One of those fellows, Eric Strauss, a biology professor at Loyola Marymount University and executive director of the university's Center for Urban Resilience, is heading up efforts to produce a research paper on this relationship, which he said remains little understood and often underappreciated.

Human are so accustomed to living with and around animals that we can often take the relationship for granted, he said.

In fact, he said, humans owe a debt of gratitude to animals.

"I would argue that it has been our domestication of plants and animals that has really allowed us as a species to achieve all of the things that we've done," he said. "This process of domestication is the hallmark of what makes us human, and we really need to understand that better."

When you walk into PetSpace, there are no off-putting smells, no whining and barking of animals under stress, no harried workers with too much to do — realities at most animal shelters.

"That's why many people stay away from shelters. We wanted to flip that around," said PetSpace general manager Carol Laumen.

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By contrast, PetSpace has about 30 staff members and more than 100 volunteers. The well-ventilated space is squeaky clean, sunny and airy. Cats, dogs and rabbits seem relaxed and curious about passers-by. That is, the ones that aren't snoozing in a corner of their temperature-controlled runs, which all have TV monitors. (Dogs by and large seemed to ignore the TVs during a recent visit, while quite a few cats appeared to be captivated by the bird footage playing on a loop.)

Visitors are encouraged to come by, not just to pick out a new pet, but to watch, interact and learn. On a recent Friday, a clutch of moms and their pre-schoolers gathered for a presentation on bunny basics, with the chance to pet the fluffy, nose-twitching rabbit. Grooming, training and feeding demonstrations help demystify pet ownership for newbies, while helping experienced pet owners up their game.

The center is tricked out with technology at every turn -- touch screens help visitors learn more about particular breeds, or use social media to blast out pictures of their new best friend. "Touch and hold" screens allow visitors to ask questions of trainers and groomers as they go about their workday, behind glass in an exhibition room.

It's a place that invites you to come and stay, and come again, Strauss said. From his vantage point, that's where learning happens.

"When you walk in and look up, it really takes your breath away."

Wallis Annenberg PetSpace

Where: 12005 Bluff Creek Drive, Playa Vista

Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesdays through Sundays

Cost: Free to enter. Parking is $1 on Saturdays and Sundays, free to those who are adopting, and varies on other days.

Before you plan your trip: Check out the calendar of upcoming events. Behind the scenes tours take place at 2 p.m. on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Tours are free, but fill up quickly, so reserve spots online ahead of time.

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