Activists Focus Their Rage on Animal Services Chief

Times Staff Writer

Over the last five months, animal rights activists have shown no mercy in their campaign to oust Los Angeles' general manager of animal services. They have showered Jerry Greenwalt's neighborhood with leaflets describing his alleged crimes and picketed outside his living room window.

They portray the quiet bureaucrat as a killer, whose inept management is responsible for the needless deaths of tens of thousands of dogs and cats in the city's overcrowded animal shelters. They say they won't rest until he's gone.

Someone has gone so far as to vandalize his home and spray-paint "murderer" on Greenwalt's car.

In some ways, animal rights protests are as routine as neighborhood barking dogs. The specter of kittens and puppies being injected with poison has long had the power to rouse strong emotions, and anger at animal services departments is common across the country.

In recent months, residents have protested high animal death rates in Atlanta. In Florida and Pennsylvania, fights have raged over what to do about feral cats, according to Merritt Clifton, editor of Animal People, which tracks animal departments nationally.

But many locals say the battle here is unusually personal and nasty. And it is showing no signs of resolution.

On one side is the city's overburdened Animal Services Department. Already grappling with the 60,000 dogs, cats, opossums, skunks, rabbits and lizards that come through their doors each year, many of the agency's 255 employees are now afraid of activists stampeding on the sidewalks in front of their houses. They feel sufficiently intimidated that Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski has introduced a motion to study safety and security for employees.

Morale is suffering, to say the least. But that seems to be the extent of the response to the protests. Greenwalt said the critics have made no really helpful suggestions and contends that the department is doing an excellent job of improving animal welfare, boosting adoptions and spaying and neutering services and lowering kill rates. The department has also pledged to stop euthanizing adoptable animals within the next five years.

On the other side are scores of well-organized, furious activists who say that Greenwalt, who has been in his job for two years, makes up those cheerful statistics and that he has made no real commitment to stop the killing.

They accuse the department of mismanaging its money, driving away volunteers and smearing the character of critics instead of trying to work with them. But they say their biggest complaint is that the department is not doing enough to save the animals in its care. They want the city to appoint a director who shares their views.

Chief among the activists is Pamelyn Ferdin, a slight, brown-haired woman whose bright eyes burn with a passion to save every single animal suffering in city kennels, which she calls "death camps." Her high voice is instantly familiar from her childhood role as the television voice of the Peanuts character Lucy. As an adult, Ferdin has dedicated her voice to the animals. She has served jail time for taking an elephant hook to an anti-circus demonstration and flown to England to protest animal abuses there. But since June, much of her energy has been directed at the city's animal shelters.

In the last few months, the Los Angeles chapter of the Animal Defense League, which Ferdin founded with her husband, trauma surgeon Jerry Vlasak, in 1997, has published the home addresses of Greenwalt and Mayor James K. Hahn on its Web site, protested at City Hall and outside Greenwalt's house, and distributed "Wanted" posters with Greenwalt's picture to his neighbors. Members deny taking part in vandalism at Greenwalt's home.

In response, the LAPD has boosted security for some city officials.

"We're not going to tolerate this kind of harassment and terrorism of city employees," Hahn said, adding that he believes Greenwalt is doing "a great job."

But the Animal Defense League is by no means the only critic of Greenwalt and his department, though other groups disavow its tactics.

Madeline Bernstein, president of the Los Angeles Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said "some of the things the activists are doing are inappropriate."

She added, however: "My general feeling about the whole thing is, there is definitely a lot of room for improvement in the city animal control department."

The shelters are overcrowded, and animals do not always get the medical care they need, she said.

Michael Bell, coordinator of the Coalition for a Humane Los Angeles, agreed -- although in harsher terms.

Greenwalt, said Bell, is "basically a liar." The voice artist for "Rugrats" was one of about 40 animal activists who crowded into a City Council meeting late last month to demand that elected officials investigate their concerns.

After hearing their testimony, Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa told the protesters he would look into their complaints that the Animal Services Department is the worst it has been in 30 years.

Greenwalt, on the other hand, maintains that the agency is actually making great strides.

Sitting in his office as his e-mail inbox filled up with outraged missives from as far away as Atlanta, he voiced anger and confusion at the protesters. "They haven't offered one substantive suggestion on how to improve adoptions or how to decrease euthanasia," he said. "Not one."

The manager has spent his career in the city bureaucracy, working in the chief administrative office, at the L.A. Zoo and at the Department of Animal Services. He said he knew this job was controversial but took it because he believes in making things better for animals. He and his family have pets adopted from city shelters, he said.

While thousands of dogs and cats are still put to death every month at the city's six shelters, Greenwalt said euthanasia statistics are declining in Los Angeles, from 57,000 in 1998 to 42,800 three years ago and to 34,000 this last year. He credits increased spaying and neutering of pets and more adoptions.

Activists dispute Greenwalt's statistics, saying his numbers keep changing without explanation.

Three months after the league began its campaign against the department, the mayor held a news conference to announce that Los Angeles would stop killing all "adoptable" animals by 2008.

Hahn said Los Angeles would join cities such as San Francisco and San Diego, which have embraced the "no kill" movement.

Central to the new policy, officials said, would be stepped-up efforts to spay and neuter pets and construction of additional shelters so dogs and cats won't have to be killed to make way for a new batch. Bond money is available to build the kennels, but the rest of the plan is still be worked out.

But if officials thought that would pacify the activists, they were wrong. Many dismissed it as mere rhetoric, saying the city actually has no firm plan in place to accomplish such a goal.

"It's very personal now," said department spokeswoman Jackie David. "I am under a lot of stress as a result. It does affect my work. It affects my whole life."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World