L.A. mayor picks new animal services chief

Brenda Barnette, chief executive of the Seattle Humane Society, has been chosen to lead Los Angeles’ Department of Animal Services, which has had no permanent head for a year.

To a background chorus of dogs barking from their kennel runs at the North Central shelter, the newly appointed general manager, in her first public appearance, promised to meet with animal welfare advocates, rescuers and community leaders before laying out plans for increasing adoptions and decreasing euthanasia.

“It would be really arrogant for me to tell you this is what we have to do. I have to talk to the stakeholders and see what we can do together,” she said.

Barnette, who was introduced at the news conference by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, inherits one of the most difficult stewardships in city government. Provided that she is confirmed by the City Council — which is expected to hold hearings next month — she will run a municipal animal shelter system teeming with cast-off pets and strays while dealing with vocal animal welfare advocates insisting on more adoptions and fewer killings.

Her embattled predecessor, Ed Boks, stepped down from the post a year ago amid criticism on all fronts.

To introduce his new department head, the mayor put on a full court press, with appearances by dog whisperer Cesar Millan (who was part of an informal group that brainstormed with the mayor about the position); City Councilman Paul Koretz, who also advised the mayor; and several of the city’s Animal Services commissioners.

As the group toured the shelter, the mayor and his new general manager stooped to pet furry heads and lament one dog’s fly-bitten ears.

“We’ve got a dog,” Villaraigosa said. “And we have a cat. Lu’s had the cat for years.” He was referring to his girlfriend, TV reporter Lu Parker, who he noted volunteers at a shelter.

“Let me ask you,” Villaraigosa said to Millan as the mayor peered at a quiet Siberian husky resting his head on the ground. “This one is mellow, right?”

“He’s hot,” corrected Millan. “He’s panting.”

Millan wanted to see the new general manager in action. “I want to see who’s leading the pack,” he said. “And if I can help with my knowledge, I want to make a difference in the world.”

Villaraigosa said he expected Barnette to bring the city “a big step closer to euthanizing no animals.”

For her part, Barnette seemed well aware of the fractious world she is entering. She said she refuses to use terms like “no-kill” to designate a shelter that doesn’t practice euthanasia except for health reasons. Using the term often sparks arguments about how severe an animal’s health has to be — or how bad its behavior — to justify killing it. “I would like to take out that little bit of animosity,” she said.

Filling Barnette’s post has been no easy task. The city hired a search firm that spent months combing resumes for a candidate who could master city politics, win the trust of animal advocates, and persuade the public to spay and neuter its dogs and cats. (The latter is, after all, a city law.) A panel of 16, including animal welfare advocates, interviewed eight finalists and sent five recommendations to the mayor.

“Except for the police, I’ve never been this extensive,” said Villaraigosa, referring to his recent search for a new LAPD Los Angeles Police Department chief. “I interviewed everyone.”

As chief executive of the privately funded nonprofit Humane Society for Seattle/King County, Barnette oversaw various programs, including a shelter that last year took in 6,937 dogs and cats and euthanized only 923 of them — for health reasons. In 368 of those cases, owners had requested the euthanasia. “She achieved a life-saving rate of 90%,” Villaraigosa said in his remarks.

Running a big-city shelter system is much more complicated. Los Angeles shelters took in 54,129 cats and dogs last year. Asked how she would handle the much bigger population, she noted that L.A. had a bigger human population as well. “In King County, Wash., there are only 1.8 million people to solve the problem,” she said. “Here in Los Angeles there are more than 4 million people to help solve the problems.”

She and the mayor posed with 2-month-old brindle-coated pit bull mix puppies (which some of those 4 million people could adopt next week through the private Much Love Animal Rescue).

Even before Barnette was introduced, she had provoked criticism from some animal welfare advocates because of her ties to the American Kennel Club — which often takes stands that animal welfare groups oppose.

“New GM is a breeder,” one animal advocate wrote in an e-mail.

Barnette, 62, says she owns a Portuguese water dog that lives with her 30-year-old daughter. She also has two toy poodles and a Chihuahua mix.

“I’m a member of the Seattle Kennel Club,” she said, explaining the extent of her job as legislative liaison for the club. “Every now and then I get a press release from the AKC saying ‘This is the legislation,’ and I hit forward and send it to all the other members.... I have shown dogs, and you may see me at a show.”

She said she has bred the water dog but not in a long time.

“To think I’m a breeder is a little bit of a stretch.”