Animal Government

After Mayor Hahn appointed Guerdon Stuckey to head the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services late last year, the former Rockville, Md., city planning official took up residence in a political hot zone. Conditions at L.A.'s six city shelters, which euthanized 29,624 of the 59,055 animals taken in during 2004, are a contentious issue in the upcoming mayoral election, and activists were disturbed by the absence of animal experience on Stuckey’s resume. But Stuckey, who has a master’s in public administration from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and oversees a staff of nearly 300 and a $15-million annual budget, is out to prove them wrong with a dose of can-do managerial thinking.

You may or may not have a job if there’s a new mayor after the election. Does that possibility concern you?

That can happen right now if Mayor Hahn decides that I’m not performing. There are no guarantees for me. My focus is on saving animals’ lives. There’s nothing else. I’m not looking ahead.

James Hahn has said he wants L.A. to become a “no-kill” city for adoptable animals by 2008. Is this goal realistic?


We have the opportunity to achieve it. Here’s a city that provides a $15-million commitment in general fund money to animal care and the no-kill effort. By no-kill we mean adoptable, treatable animals. I was brought here to [implement] the vision of a no-kill city.

Much has been made of your lack of an animal-services background. Should this matter?

Only if you want what Einstein described as insanity -- doing the same thing over and over looking for a [different] result. To the mayor’s credit, he said we’re going to do something different. What I bring is this notion of personal accountability, standards of excellence, in an environment that is dialogue-driven, creativity-driven, but demanding.

What is the department’s biggest problem?


We must reduce euthanasia rates and manage animal overpopulation. Those are the two critical variables. If I had a wish list, it’d be multiple vans doing free spaying and neutering. We have one spay/neuter mobile, which is very effective--about 3,800 spay/neuters last year. The van was donated. The city provides about $500,000 to help support it.

Do Angelenos grasp the scope of the problem?

No. So many of what I call throwaway animals, strays, on the street reflect a city that hasn’t embraced this issue. Animal overpopulation isn’t a Department of Animal Services issue, but a city issue.

How do you get the message out?


We have six shelter areas. Within those communities are different ethnic groups, cultures, behaviors. It’s incumbent upon us to identify effective strategies in South Los Angeles as well as West Los Angeles. It’s grass-roots driven, bottom-up rather than top-down.

San Francisco has a no-kill policy. Can L.A. learn from it?

The San Francisco model, if I’m not mistaken, is based more on the SPCA there. The SPCA can pick and choose their animals. We can’t refuse any animal; we take them if they’re blind, disabled, if they have medical conditions. That’s why overpopulation is drop-dead critical for us, as well as outreach.

Do you go into shelters unannounced?


Often. During the week, Christmas Day, weekends, all the time. I often blend in; they don’t know I’m there. I often call to ask questions.

What about the euthanasia rooms?

I have only seen them. I have not witnessed euthanasia. I know what that is like and what that is. Death is death is death.

How do you respond to those who call the shelters killing facilities?


We’re killing animals because we don’t have a place for them to go. So I’d ask everyone in the city that wants to help us to come and get one. We want to be honest about what may happen to the animal if you leave it here. People respond to the truth.

Some activists claim the 2000 bond issue of $150 million to build two shelters and refurbish five of the current shelters encourages foot-dragging on a no-kill policy.

I’m laser-focused on saving animals’ lives. I’m going to spend this money to save them.

Activists who painted shelters with red paint were accused of terrorism by Mayor Hahn. Is that analogy extreme?


I don’t think [the analogy is] extreme when you--as individuals did at our chief veterinarian’s home--throw bricks through the window. Or when you write profanity on our director of public operations’ home on Christmas Eve. When you have websites that target staff with bull’s-eyes. People are afraid to work here. That’s very real for this department.

Why are animal services such a political hot potato in L.A. now?

It’s not just L.A., it’s around the world. It’s the growth experience of recognizing the importance of animals within the human context. It’s a cultural shift we’ve experienced in police enforcement, in child care. My job is to help the city see options.

What is a culture’s duty to animal care?


I think our culture’s duty is to respect life. People who mistreat their animals would mistreat their children, their wife, their husband. I think there’s a connection.

Do you like your job?

Love it. Not like it, love it. Once we achieve these milestones we’ll help change animal services around the world. Los Angeles is that kind of city. The end is so clear in my mind. I’ve never put in the research and effort for any job as for this job. And I’ve been working for a long time.