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‘Horrified’: L.A. City Council members call for action on overcrowded animal shelters

dog looks out of a cage
A dog waits to be adopted in a cage at the Chesterfield Square Animal Services Center in Los Angeles.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Two L.A. city councilmen called Friday for more resources for the city’s struggling animal shelters following a Times article about crowded kennels, shelter dogs that go for weeks without walks and staffing shortages.

“Angelenos deserve the services we pay for,” said City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, whose South L.A. district includes Chesterfield Square Animal Services Center. “We expect animals to be treated humanely and require the city to do better.”

Chesterfield Square is the most crowded of the city’s six animal shelters and houses some 300 dogs, some of whom face long confinement periods. The city relies on hundreds of unpaid volunteers to walk and exercise the dogs, but volunteers say that they can’t keep up with the influx of animals.

At the same time, staffing shortages are hurting the department. Animal Services lost more than 20% of its workforce through a program that encouraged older city employees to retire. It was launched in the first year of the pandemic in 2020 when it wasn’t clear that federal funding would be available.

L.A.'s animal services agency is understaffed and relies on volunteers. At one overcrowded shelter, dogs sit in kennels for weeks or months without being walked.

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Today, staff at Animal Services are frequently absent because of COVID-19-related issues, staff and volunteers told The Times.

Councilman Bob Blumenfield, who represents the west San Fernando Valley, said he was “horrified” to read about conditions at the shelters. “My heart breaks for the animals,” said Blumenfield, who said his family has both fostered and adopted shelter dogs.

Blumenfield questioned why more “red flags” weren’t raised about the shelter’s challenges.

Yet, members of the public regularly call into meetings of the Los Angeles Animal Services Commission, which is made up of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s appointees, to complain about conditions at the shelters, including the dogs’ long confinement.

And in May, an employee at the city’s San Pedro shelter emailed supervisors to alert them to overcrowding issues, including dogs that were being housed in shower stalls and in wildlife cages.

“We should be able to deal with this as a city,” Blumenfield said. “We have the resources and we have the know-how.”

He said the city shouldn’t be in a position where its dogs “are kept in shower stalls and not having walks.”

Blumenfield, who was critical at the time of the city’s retirement program because he feared a big loss in staff, also said the department needs more employees and better technology make it easier for the public to volunteer and adopt animals.

Animal Services’ interim general manager Annette Ramirez said in an interview last month that a new website will launch soon.

Harris-Dawson also said the neighborhood around the shelter “is filled with folks who love pets and are willing to give their time to turn the situation around. If Animal Services engages with the local community, they will show up.”

KTLA reported Thursday that Claudio Kusnier, a volunteer at the West Valley shelter, was suspended after he talked to the news outlet about conditions at the shelter.

Kusnier told KTLA that the shelters need to stay open past 5 p.m. so more people can volunteer. At one point — Kusnier was also interviewed after the suspension — he blamed department “mismanagement” for the loss of two key staff members who recently left. Both of those staffers are now working at other animal services agencies.

Jean Sarfaty, a former 911 city operator who volunteers at the West Valley shelter, told The Times that she was also suspended after talking to the media on Thursday. She said she was told she was suspended because she gave an interview without permission. She was wearing an Animal Services t-shirt at the time, too.

“I didn’t say anything negative,” Sarfaty said. “I said that the city employees work hard and that volunteers help to do the things that the city workers aren’t doing because they don’t have time.” The Times was not immediately able to get a comment from Animal Services about Sarfaty’s account.

Agnes Sibal, a spokesperson for Los Angeles Animal Services, said the department doesn’t comment on “staffing-related or personnel issues.”

Speaking generally about volunteer interviews, Sibal said volunteers need department approval prior to speaking to the media “when they are going to speak and represent the department [as a volunteer] to the media.”

Sibal also appeared on CBS2 this week and said that the dogs receive care, although some may not be walked for weeks.

“All the dogs in our shelters actually get daily enrichments,” Sibal told the news station. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that they get walked every day. However, they do get some form of exercise and interaction with volunteers or staff.”

Asked what exercise the dogs get every day, Sibal told The Times the animals get enrichment activities.

“Dogs receive exercise through canine enrichment by engaging them in activities designed to stimulate their mind while also keeping them active,” Sibal said.

“Enrichment activities happen daily and vary day by day and may be outdoors via playtime in the yards or walks, or in their kennels, when they get their daily treats from staff/volunteers; receive Kong toys with treats inside; or when they enjoy frozen treats during hot weather,” Sibal said.

Other activities include blowing bubbles for dogs to pop and chase and reading to the animals, Sibal said.

She also said that city staff’s enrichment activities may not be reflected in any logs.

Former Animal Services supervisor Thomas Kalinowski, one of the staff who recently left the department, said that he personally interacted with dogs that hadn’t been out of their kennels in weeks or months.

Mike Long, communications director for SEIU 721, which represents some Animal Services workers, said Friday that “more animals will continue to suffer” if the city doesn’t act.

“We have to face facts — we need more dollars for staff and facilities because clearly, relying on the good will of volunteers and on private, one-time donations from pet-loving celebrities alone just isn’t enough,” Long said.

City Councilman Paul Koretz, who chairs a committee overseeing animal issues, has scheduled an emergency committee meeting next week to discuss conditions at the shelters.


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