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Citywide initiatives cause euthanasia numbers to plummet

From Animal Sheltering magazine July/August 2014

Found Animals Foundation’s Adopt & Shop stores in Lakewood and Culver City provide opportunities to interact with and inform would-be animal owners who might never think to go to a shelter.Free animal-care services and supplies are only part of what Downtown Dog Rescue provides South LA residents. It also encourages pet owners to become engaged citizens.Based at the Mission Hills shelter, Best Friends' feline nursery cares for more than 1,500 neonatal kittens each year.Pets for Life LA manager Alana Yañez (second from left) and volunteers hold community pets awaiting spay/neuter procedures as part of a World Spay Day event.

The story of Los Angeles isn’t a tale of two cities—it’s more like the story of 88.

That’s the number of individual cities within the enormous Los Angeles County. While many people imagine Los Angeles as a dreamy beachfront of Hollywood starlets and Beverly Hills boutiques, the greater LA area is incredibly diverse in terms of culture and income levels. Over 60 percent of residents speak a language other than English at home, and for all the glitz and glamour of some areas, 21 percent live below the poverty level.

And until recently, when some collaborative efforts and groundbreaking new approaches started creating real change, this city of dreams was often more like a nightmare for homeless pets. According to LA Animal Services, the municipal agency for the City of Los Angeles, in 2011, roughly 17,400 healthy, treatable dogs and cats were euthanized in LA shelters. That meant animals entering the shelters had about a one-in-four chance of leaving alive. When it came to animal welfare, it seemed the so-called City of Angels could use a few more of them.

Yet LA is a city bursting with goodwill toward shelter animals. From animal services and shelter workers, to volunteers with private rescues and organizations working to keep animals out of shelters in the first place, Good Samaritans have been working long and hard for LA’s pets. In November 2012, the LA City Council even approved an ordinance making it illegal to sell cats and dogs in pet stores unless they were rescued from city shelters. Yet—understandably in a city so vast and diverse—efforts in the past had largely been fragmented, and had failed to create a dramatic decline in euthanasia rates or get at some of the problems in underserved communities.

But over the past few years, major changes have helped pull advocates together, making a huge impact on shelter numbers and reaching pet owners who previously would never have been impacted.

The Perfect Storm

LA’s story has multiple plotlines, and the path toward happier endings has been a tough one. Behind LA’s troubling statistics loomed a series of challenges, not the least of which were the economic downturn and a virtual revolving door for leadership of the city’s Animal Services department. Between 2000 and 2010, no fewer than seven people filled the top spot at LA Animal Services. Some were virtually run out of town in a manner reminiscent of the Wild West. (Activists wrote “murderer” on the car of one animal services chief and set off a smoke bomb in the lobby of another’s apartment building.)

Time and again city officials were accused of deferring responsibility for the homeless animal problem. A new chief would be hired, rolling out goodwill and grand plans. Then the problems would start again. Officials complained about unfunded mandates, saying they were given inadequate financial resources to accomplish the gargantuan task of reducing euthanasia. Animal advocates from independent rescues and welfare organizations cried that little was getting done.

The result was “a lot of anger and negativity within the animal welfare community directed at the city, the general managers, you name it. It was a mess,” says Francis Battista, vice chair and co-founder of Best Friends Animal Society, which has operated in Los Angeles since the early 1990s.Superimpose this drama over LA’s geographic and demographic data and it’s easy to see why euthanasia rates have been so hard to get under control—Los Angeles is tough to get your arms around. The vast city boasts tremendous diversity, with not only geographic canyons, but chasms between cultures. And the robust economies of the west side are a far cry from the hard knocks of South and East LA, where neighborhoods including Compton, Watts and Boyle Heights lack basic resources for people, not to mention pets. “You name the challenge, Los Angeles kind of has it in spades,” says Battista.

At more than 10 million residents, LA County—of which the City of Los Angeles comprises almost 40 percent—is the highest populated in the nation. Those nearly four million people are served by just six city shelters—with a total of 2,029 kennels and cages—so private shelters, rescues and animal welfare organizations are critical to making any type of broad solution work.

One such organization is Found Animals Foundation, a privately funded nonprofit that bases its work on social entrepreneurship business models. The group is a keystone in LA’s animal welfare community, funding other groups’ initiatives even as it undertakes its own.

Aimee Gilbreath, Found Animals’ executive director, points out that on a per-capita basis, LA’s intake and euthanasia rates were actually fairly low. “Compared to other places where they were euthanizing 20 animals per thousand people in a given year, even when things weren’t great, we were euthanizing maybe eight, or four. … [But] across four million people, it’s still 55,000 animals a year.”

To turn the city’s B-movie into a Best Picture was going to require an ensemble cast with more of the actors reading from the same script.

Stand By Me

Best Friends Animal Society has played a major role in LA, expanding its presence as the city was busy renovating all of its shelters. In 2008, just as the city was completing the renovation of its large Mission Hills facility, the recession hit, and funding for staff to run the shelter disappeared. The facility was effectively mothballed.

In 2010, Brenda Barnette took the helm of LA Animal Services. When considering the position, Barnette consulted longtime colleague Rich Avanzino, her former boss at the San Francisco SPCA and currently the president of Maddie’s Fund, asking him, “Do you think it’s absolutely crazy for me to think about going to LA?” His advice was to go with a beginner’s mind, leaving behind any presuppositions about how things should be done, and to look to Best Friends as a resource.

When she arrived in LA, Barnette wanted to find a way to reopen the Mission Hills shelter. The city’s chief accounting officer told her they’d previously considered putting out a “request for information” to see if a local organization might have the desire and capacity to operate the shelter; Barnette was in favor of the idea. Best Friends submitted a proposal to operate the facility as an adoption center, and the lights finally came on in Mission Hills. The facility now serves as a major pet adoption outlet for the city’s shelters and operates a low-cost spay/neuter clinic and neonatal kitten nursery caring for upward of 1,500 kittens annually.

From animal services and shelter workers, to volunteers with private rescues and organizations working to keep animals out of shelters in the first place, Good Samaritans have been working long and hard for LA’s pets.

Meanwhile, Best Friends was developing a schematic for a vast coalition with the potential to transform Los Angeles into a city where no healthy or treatable animals were euthanized. With Barnette and Animal Services on board, in 2011 they pulled together a steering committee comprised of a handful of organizations representing spay/neuter and trap-neuter-return (Found Animals and FixNation), and the rescue group community (Downtown Dog Rescue, Karma Rescue, Stray Cat Alliance and Kitten Rescue). With input from these organizations and a hard look at shelter data, Best Friends set about creating No-Kill Los Angeles (NKLA)—a collaboration that’s brought an influx of attention (and funding) to the city’s animal welfare efforts.

Barnette acknowledges that the phrase “no-kill” is not without controversy, and says the group did spend some time debating whether to use it. “We decided that … there wasn’t another term that was so well known,” but they also realized they would have to be explicit in communicating to the public exactly what the phrase means to be clear that some animals would still have to be euthanized (specifically, those with illnesses or injuries so grave as to be deemed untreatable, and those with behavioral problems so severe they are considered to be dangerous).

The project leverages the resources of its more than 70 coalition partners—ranging from local breed rescues to larger groups—to coordinate efforts. While groups still have their own operations, they now also have the benefit of a huge network of partners.

“Providing that focus has been huge,” says Gilbreath. She notes that when the planners first sat down together, “we were across the table from each other with arms folded and eyes narrow. … And now … I would do anything for the members of that steering committee.”

NKLA also provides performance-based subsidies for coalition members, such as a subsidy of $150 per increased adoption. If a group performs 10 adoptions in its baseline year and 15 adoptions the next, it receives an additional $750 from NKLA. Coalition members are also eligible to receive spay/neuter subsidies and staffing grants. (This funding is in addition to benefits provided by the city’s longer-standing New Hope program, in which partner rescues and shelters receive benefits for pulling and placing animals from the city shelters.)

The initiative holds large-scale branded events, and runs the new, modern NKLA Pet Adoption Center in West Los Angeles. And it publicizes everything via pro bono assistance from design firm TBWA\CHIAT\DAY. The compelling ads and dynamic website are critical to grabbing the attention of potential adopters, funders and volunteers.Another unique adoption effort happening in LA is Found Animals’ Adopt & Shop program. Essentially, Found Animals takes over an empty retail location and populates it with animals from city shelters. “We’ve sort of created a pet store of the future,” Gilbreath explains. “We feel like because you’re in a mall location and you’ve got all that traffic, it’s a way to place more animals more quickly.”

Though the stores have paid staff, they rely heavily on volunteers and also sell products and animal care services to help defray costs. The shops operate on a traditional retail schedule, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. most days, which is far more convenient for people than the shorter hours at some shelters.

The first Adopt & Shop was a 1,000-square-foot storefront in Lakewood that opened three years ago. In spite of its modest size, it’s already adopted out more than 2,000 animals. In May, the project opened a second, much larger shop (9,300 square feet) in Culver City, on the west side of LA.

The Blind Side

While massive adoption events and fixed spay/neuter clinics are helping to address the animal issue in many parts of LA, for the city’s poorest neighborhoods, help has had to take another form. The majority of homeless animals entering the city’s shelters come from South and East LA, where resources range from scarce to nonexistent. In short, it’s complicated. (See “LA Consequential,” below, to read about what The HSUS’s Pets for Life campaign is doing on this front.)

When Barnette came to LA, one thing she found “shocking” was the strong sentiment many animal welfare groups seemed to have against lower-income residents owning pets. That demographic is “the very community of people that we need to work with to solve the challenges,” she says.

Both Best Friends and Found Animals fund work, including vital mobile clinics, in several of these neighborhoods. Gilbreath says Found Animals has a person who canvasses neighborhoods, telling people about upcoming mobile unit visits. It took about a year to get a solid foothold in the community, but “now we’re full. So it seems once you are established, there is definitely demand.”

Few people can attest to the depth of that demand in the way that Lori Weise can. Her group, Downtown Dog Rescue (DDR), started off in Skid Row nearly 18 years ago, working primarily with homeless people. “We love animals, but we really want to assist people that are living in poverty.” Weise and her team are the epitome of stand and deliver—their boots-on-the-ground approach provides whatever is necessary to keep pets out of the shelter system. PetSmart Charities, Best Friends, ASPCA and Found Animals have all given the organization funding to expand its work.

Weise says the DDR approach is really just asking people what they need to keep their animals. If they say, “Well, if I just had a crate, or I just had this, or I just had training,” Weise says, her organization can say “OK: done, done, done.”

From providing spay/neuter and vaccination services to installing fences and handing out pet food, DDR does a ton. The group even helped a man in his late 60s who had been living under a freeway overpass find an apartment, where he now lives with his elderly dog. And Wiese put a resident who had lost her dog because of a landlord dispute in touch with an attorney willing to help.

Barnette says DDR reaches some classically overlooked populations. “We have some amazing homeless people in LA who are very good companion animal caregivers. … When you give them the surround services and support they need to really be able to take care of the animals, it’s pretty amazing.”

The data show that Downtown Dog Rescue’s pet-by-pet interventions are making a real difference. Thanks to the infusion of funding from NKLA and other sources, from April 2013 to April 2014, DDR prevented 2,000 pets from entering the South LA shelter.

There’s more good news for South LA. In May 2014, the ASPCA announced a five-year, $25 million commitment in Los Angeles, much of which will be focused in underserved areas. The news coincided with the official opening of the ASPCA’s free spay/neuter clinic at the South LA animal shelter.

Must Love Cats

Another aspect of LA’s complicated animal story is the community cat scene. There are more than 1 million stray cats in the city, and in 2012, 6,336 unweaned kittens were euthanized. To complicate matters, an injunction in Los Angeles currently prohibits city agencies from supporting any component of trap-neuter-return (TNR). “So what this means is the city is unable to provide any information with regard to TNR to anybody who calls,” says Battista. (Because it’s operated under a city contract, the Mission Hills adoption center run by Best Friends falls under the injunction; groups that are not city-funded do not.)Thanks to LA’s mild weather year-round, female cats there typically breed at least four times per year. With each litter yielding roughly two to eight kittens, the problem has reached titanic proportions.

Gilbreath says despite the partners’ best efforts, they still struggle to get LA residents to bring cats for spay/neuter services. At the mobile units they sponsor, cats make up only 10 to 15 percent of animals treated.

Fortunately, up north in the San Fernando Valley, FixNation is having greater success with its efforts. With services dedicated entirely to homeless cats, FixNation bills itself as the first and only organization of its kind in the country, and has provided spay/neuter and vaccination services for more than 100,000 cats. The group relies heavily on internal volunteers, along with community partners, to whom it provides trapping materials and instructions for handling the cats.

The large-scale combination spay/neuter services, innovative adoption campaigns and unique programs to help impoverished residents keep and care for their pets are making a deep impact on the city. Since the launch of NKLA in 2012, the number of deaths at city shelters has decreased by almost 50 percent.LA Consequential

Building humane communities, one pet at a time

While much of the work in LA has focused on making sure that pets who enter shelters leave alive, The HSUS’s Pets for Life program is working to identify pets who never reach the shelter doors and people who don’t have access to the shelter as a resource.

“LA is just a really poor city,” says Alana Yañez, LA manager of Pets for Life (PFL), an HSUS initiative targeting people in underserved communities. PFL operates in resource-scarce Boyle Heights in East LA, where tens of thousands of people and pets live in poverty. In underserved communities, more than 85 percent of pet owners have never had contact with their local shelter or animal control agency, so PFL staff go door-to-door building relationships. They talk about their pets, ask if residents have what they need in terms of food and veterinary care and emphasize the importance of spay/neuter.

While nationwide statistics show roughly 80 percent of pets are spayed or neutered, in the nation’s poorest neighborhoods, statistics are nearly the reverse, with less than 15 percent of animals having been altered. Yañez says to get an accurate picture of animals in East LA, you have to understand where people are coming from. It’s not that they don’t love their pets or don’t want to take good care of them, but a majority of the children in elementary school are on the free lunch program, she says. “When you can’t afford to feed your kids, you can’t afford to fix your pets.” Poverty creates cultural and practical barriers that must be addressed; even when services are free, advocates must ensure that access is easy and that community engagement is positive.

Historically, East LA has been a service desert for people as well as animals. Even though the remodeled city shelter finally opened last year (the South LA shelter was the last to be renovated), for all but those who live closest to it, transportation is a problem. Many of PFL’s clients don’t have cars, and they can’t take their pets on public transportation unless they fit in a small carrier. It’s critical in these areas to bring services, information and resources not just near the people, but to their doorsteps.

That will now be a lot easier, thanks to PFL’s new facility, which had its grand opening at the end of March. Located in Boyle Heights, The HSUS Los Angeles Pets for Life Center offers free dog training and pet supplies, and serves as a hub for outreach on the streets and engagement with the community. Through partnerships with an animal hospital in Highland Park, Spay4LA’s mobile clinic and FixNation, PFL funds spay/neuter surgeries that are provided at no charge to the pet owner. And for residents who lack transportation, PFL even provides rides to the spay/neuter appointment.

From February 2012 through the end of 2013, PFL was responsible for 3,329 spay/neuters in East LA. Among those who initially decline to alter their pets, most eventually change their minds after talking to PFL staff for a while. With their resources expanding, Yañez and crew are confident that figure will continue to rise, leading to lasting change in the neighborhood.

Brenda Barnette, general manager at LA Animal Services, says PFL, with its bilingual dog trainer and a Spanish-speaking person doing outreach in a primarily Spanish-speaking neighborhood, is highly effective. PFL has “created some amazing, amazing caregivers through training and just working with them,” she adds. “… They have learned an awful lot about LA, [and] they’re doing a lot of things that I think should become models in different communities."

About the Author

Kelly Huegel is a former staff writer for the Humane Society of the United States.