L.A. begins a robust search for an animal services manager

Wanted: a general manager who can run Los Angeles’ municipal animal shelter system.

The successful candidate must be compassionate but business-minded, able to inspire the army of staffers who care for the city’s abandoned animals and lost pets; to survive interrogation by the L.A. City Council; and to appease the legions of devoted volunteers, rescuers and advocates in the city’s humane community.

The new steward of the city’s Department of Animal Services should be steeled for the fact that one of the “services” the agency offers is euthanizing animals. But the new manager must also be ready to devise a plan to transform the shelter system into a “no-kill” program that will pledge to euthanize no healthy animal for lack of space.

Warning: The man who last held the job tried hard but satisfied no constituency. He endured criticism from animal welfare advocates, a public upbraiding from a city councilman and near-mutiny by department staffers before he quit last June. His predecessor, who lasted only 13 months, was fired by the mayor and targeted by animal rights activists who smoke-bombed the lobby of his apartment building.

“Francis of Assisi would have trouble in this town,” said Bill Dyer, a veteran animal welfare advocate who invoked the patron saint of animals more than once when speaking of the general manager’s job.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa made a point during his first campaign of telling animal welfare advocates he would take their concerns seriously. But the department’s last general manager, Ed Boks, who left the job June 30, endured criticism from the moment he started in early 2006.

This time Villaraigosa has initiated an elaborate search process.

The city hired a search firm, sent an e-mail survey to 450 so-called stakeholders in the animal welfare system and set up a focus group. In what one source called “a brainstorming session,” the mayor met with a small group of animal welfare experts -- including “dog whisperer” Cesar Millan and Francis Battista, one of the founders of Best Friends Animal Society, a national animal-protection nonprofit that runs its own sanctuary.

The city put out an official bulletin last week requesting applicants and listing more than a dozen sought-after qualities. (“Be confident and courageous in the face of criticism.”)

There is general agreement that the goal is to stop euthanizing animals. But that may require a thorough rethinking of the agency, said Battista, who wouldn’t reveal the details of his meeting with the mayor.

“The animal shelter system is an outgrowth of rabies control, and it’s been nibbled at from the bottom by rescue groups,” Battista said. While still protecting the public from dangerous animals, it needs to “change to being proactive. It needs to own the idea of being a compassionate humane organization.”

Battista doesn’t think the new general manager necessarily needs to come from the world of animal sheltering. (Some believe that the new agency head absolutely should not come out of municipal sheltering.)

Scott Sorrentino, who heads the Rescue and Humane Alliance, a coalition of animal welfare groups, echoed Battista. “The idea of adoptions and all this work that the humane community does is fairly new in the mission of the department,” said Sorrentino.

“First and foremost, a new general manager needs to believe that no-kill is possible,” he said. “If you come into this job and on an elemental level do not believe no-kill is possible, you’re just setting a course for failure.”

Carl Friedman ran San Francisco’s Department of Animal Care and Control for 21 years, from 1988 until his retirement last year. During that time, his shelter system went from killing about half its impounded animals to euthanizing 15% -- none for lack of space. Still, he refuses to use the term “no-kill.” Instead, he said simply, “You have to save as many animals as possible.”

Friedman, now a consultant to the beleaguered San Francisco Zoo, is not interested in the L.A. job. He attributes much of San Francisco’s success to partnerships with rescue groups and the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which help find people to adopt stray animals.

Also, he said, “you need an aggressive spay-neuter program and you need an education program: Don’t breed them.”

He recalled a woman years ago going into a shelter saying she wanted to adopt a dog but not get it spayed until the dog produced a litter of puppies. “She said she wanted to show her kids the miracle of birth. I said, ‘After that, bring them down here and I’ll show them the miracle of death.’ ”

San Francisco is a smaller city than L.A. Last year, according to Friedman, it took in about 12,000 animals.

L.A., by contrast, impounded 54,129 dogs and cats in 2009. Almost a quarter of the dogs and more than half the cats taken to the city’s six shelters were put down -- for untreatable illness, intractable behavior or dearth of space. A staggering 4,930 were neonatal animals that could not be kept alive without bottle feeding or a nursing mother. Most of those were kittens.

And that is despite the city’s success last year at increasing the number of foster volunteers, performing free sterilizations (800 at six special community events), opening another spay-neuter clinic and completing about 26,500 adoptions of canines and felines, according to interim general manager Kathy Davis. A total of 31,000 dogs and cats did make it out of the shelters alive last year.

“Truly it takes a village to make sure animals get treated and handled the way our community wants,” said Davis, who is quick to make clear that she does not want the job on a permanent basis.

“Are we ready for a new general manager? We’ve been through a pretty bad break-up,” she said. “Like any relationship, there are trust factors. A lot of things went on. My question is, are we ready? Are we ready to let go of the baggage and embrace a new leader?”