Ed Boks resigns as L.A.'s animal services chief
Being L.A. top dog catcher has turned into City Hall’s most difficult -- and politically charged -- job.
Just ask Ed Boks, who on Friday resigned as the general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services effective June 30, 3 1/2 years after he got the position.
Almost from the moment he took over, he was criticized for the way he ran the shelter system. Animal advocates accused him of manipulating the department’s statistics on euthanasia, decried as hokey some of his attempts at publicity (the most infamous was a canceled fundraiser involving the Hooters restaurant chain) and lambasted him for not doing more to find homes for unwanted animals languishing in shelters.
He was the subject of rumors and blog tirades.
When he was appointed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Boks was the fourth person in four years to hold the position of manager of the department. His predecessor, Guerdon Stuckey, who was fired by the mayor, stayed on the job 13 months, and during his tenure the lobby of his apartment building was smoke-bombed by a radical animal rights group.
In a city that is home to both passionate animal welfare advocates and careless or incapacitated pet owners whose animals end up euthanized in shelters, overseeing the shelter system is one of the most highly politicized tightropes.
“What other city department has tens of thousands of volunteers?” asked animal welfare advocate Scott Sorrentino, a sometime critic of Boks, referring to the legions of volunteers, rescuers and advocates who take up the cause of animals in the city. “They all see themselves as stakeholders.”
Then there is the inherent contradiction at the heart of the job: being dedicated to animal welfare while killing thousands of stray pets a year for which homes can’t be found.
“In many ways, it’s a thankless job,” said Matt Szabo, press secretary for the mayor. “The general manager is under tremendous pressure from a multitude of interests every single day. That said, Ed Boks is to be commended for making tremendous progress in reducing the number of euthanized animals over the past 3 1/2 years.”
To be sure, Boks’ tenure was marked by accomplishments as well as setbacks. Until his last year, department statistics for cats and dogs show the numbers euthanized in city shelters went down; throughout his term, adoptions increased. That’s no small feat in a city that took in 54,814 cats and dogs in the year ending in March, up from 46,412 the year before.
And the city approved a mandatory spay-neuter ordinance during his time in the job, which many see as a key element in lowering the number of unwanted pets in the shelters.
But he came under fire recently when he suspended a program that gave certificates for free spay-neuter services to low-income residents.
He said he did it as a last resort as he struggled to make department budget cuts. His action caused such an uproar among advocates and members of the L.A. City Council that he reinstated the certificates. After that, he got a public tongue-lashing from a livid Councilman Dennis Zine, who suggested that he resign. And another councilman, Richard Alarcon, suggested that the City Council, which did not have the power to fire him, discuss whether to take a no-confidence vote on him.
Boks also came under attack at public meetings and on various animal-related websites and in e-mail blasts saying L.A. was overcrowding its shelters, mismanaging the department and being dismissive of outside ideas. Last year, more than half of L.A. Animal Services’ employees signed a petition demanding that he be dismissed.
Boks signed his letters and e-mails with the department motto, “We create happiness by bringing pets and people together.” But there was little togetherness for him and the city’s animal welfare community. Pointedly, he said in his resignation letter which he released publicly, “I would like to leave L.A. residents with a call to action that unifies rather than divides.”
Boks, who in public has a gentle, friendly manner, seemed to alienate various city factions that have passionate feelings about how to treat unwanted pets.
“It’s more than a simple management job,” said Laura Beth Heisen, a longtime animal welfare advocate.
“It’s a job of managing not just the department but the community as well,” she said. “There’s the humane community -- you’re under a microscope with them. You have to be a lifelong animal enthusiast because you have to relate to the people who feel that way. If they see you as just a manager and you do things that way, they will find things wrong with what you’re doing.”
Heisen, who has made it no secret that she’d like to replace Boks, noted that it’s also a job that involves getting along with the people in the community who do not like animals. And there’s more: “It’s getting along with employees, it’s getting along with city government.”
The goal of most municipal shelters is to get to a place where no healthy, adoptable animal is euthanized for lack of space. That goal is generally called “no-kill,” but even the terminology is politically charged and subject to interpretation.
Some cities seem to have achieved a level of harmony. For instance, San Francisco’s Department of Animal Care and Control refuses to call itself “no-kill” or even “low-kill,” even though that is exactly what it has accomplished.
“We want to be as transparent as we can be, and by using those terms it’s hard for us to do that,” said the interim director, Rebecca Katz. Instead, personnel talk about their “live release rate” -- the percentage of animals that get out of the shelter alive -- which is 84%. The national average is far below that.
Katz credits the department’s good relationship with the animal welfare community to that transparency as well as to a willingness to meet with advocates and sometimes implement their ideas.
But San Francisco is a smaller city with a lower animal intake rate. L.A. has far more animals and legions of volunteers and rescuers passionately working to save them. L.A.'s department is also facing budget cuts.
Sorrentino said that as the mayor’s office looks for a new general manager, the rescuers and volunteers need to be included in the search process.
The city, he said, “expects their volunteer support but doesn’t give them any representation in the decision-making. When these stakeholders have a meaningful voice in the decision-making . . . the community will be able to take some collective ownership in solving these problems.”