County Puts Pet Shelters on Short Leash

Times Staff Writer

Veteran animal control Officer Dennis Smith pulled his truck up to the cages at the Los Angeles County Animal Care and Control Center. He walked to the side of the truck, gently opened the door to a small holding cell and slid a rope around the neck of a pit bull he had found wandering in Arcadia.

With a tug of the rope, the dog wearily jumped out, its tail drooping between its legs, and followed Smith to one of a dozen stacked metal cages. Smith wrapped his arms around the dog and lifted it into the cage. In another compartment of the truck, a second stray pit bull waited.

Smith's duties haven't changed much in the 22 years he's been on patrol. But inside the largest county-run shelter, security and the enforcement of regulations have been tightened because of a county audit spurred by complaints from animal rights groups.

County auditors reported in September that during March more than 200 animals were missing or unaccounted for at shelters in Baldwin Park and Lancaster. At the Baldwin Park shelter, 145 of the nearly 1,480 animals reportedly put to sleep in March were not completely accounted for, according to the audit.

Animal rights groups were upset with the findings, and the Board of Supervisors last week created a citizens advisory committee to oversee changes.

Baldwin Park shelter supervisor Jaime Meraz blamed inaccurate paper work for the discrepancy. However, he admitted that a few of the animals could have escaped or been stolen.

Meraz said that some dogs can push off the unlocked heavy metal lids on carts in which they are sometimes held. Other animals can jump over the 6-foot metal gates enclosing the pens.

"That's why a lot of dogs are out here--because they jumped over somebody's fence," Meraz said.

Part of the problem, he added, may have been that animals were stolen.

Humans can easily scale the chain-link fence surrounding the buildings where animals are housed and climb the gates of the pens to steal animals, Meraz said.

"Most county shelters were built with the assumption that the public is honest," he said. "But that (assumption) is not true."

Animals Counted Daily

As a result, Meraz said, gates once kept open for trucks are now closed and locked. An inventory of animals, previously taken only once a month, is now taken daily. Officials hope to get funding for new locks on all the pens and cages.

Changes have also been made in the use of euthanol, the drug used to kill animals. Employees have been warned to lock up the controlled drug and to keep proper records of its use, two measures that officials suspect have been neglected, Meraz said.

The two pit bulls brought in by Smith joined thousands of other animals at the shelter, including dogs, cats, chickens, cows, goats, horses, opossums, raccoons and snakes, from 11 cities and several unincorporated areas of the San Gabriel Valley. Sometimes more than 150 dogs a day are brought in by residents or captured by the shelter's 21 officers.

The probable fate of the pit bulls is bleak. Animals are kept for at least 7 days. Some are returned to their owners. Two or three a month are sold to hospitals for research, Meraz said.

90% Put to Death

Only the healthier, attractive animals are kept in hopes that they will be sold, Meraz said, though he noted that there are no restrictions on how long an animal can be kept if not sold. He said employees grow attached to certain animals and don't want them destroyed.

However, Meraz estimated that more than 90% of the animals brought to the center are put to sleep.

From June, 1987, to July, 1988, about 12,000 dogs and 12,600 cats were killed, according to department records.

The pit bulls will eventually be moved to one of five single-story buildings lined with pens enclosed by metal gates. The dogs here bark constantly. A stale odor wafts throughout the buildings, though workers regularly hose the floors of the pens. In one building, cats lie lazily on ledges and the floor of their pens.

Corrals for Livestock

On the west side of the shelter are four corrals for horses, goats and chickens. Coops on the north end can house more than 150 gamecocks.

Many owners bring in their own pets that are sick, old or injured to be put to sleep.

Dead animals are put into big metal barrels, stored in a freezer and picked up by a rendering company that uses them for fertilizer by-products.

A clinic in a large mobile home at the clinic performs about 20 spaying and neutering operations a day. Without this service, many unwanted puppies and kittens would eventually end up at the shelter and have to be destroyed, Meraz said.

He sees the shelter as performing a valuable mission. "We seem to be the department that everyone dislikes until they need us."

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