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A Billionaire’s Bark 

Surgeon-inventor is behind shakeup of L.A.’s animal services

Thursday, Dec 22 2005
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Ed Boks was already in L.A. and on the job this week, touring animal shelters and meeting with humane activists and city employees, even though his tenure as the new leader of Los Angeles’ Department of Animal Services — he’ll be the fourth general manager at the troubled agency in as many years — does not begin until January. “This is how I’m spending my break between jobs,” said Boks (which rhymes with “coax”) cheerfully between meetings. “Certainly my door is going to be open, my phone number and e-mail available, so I can pull together the community as best I can.”Much is riding on Boks, 54, whom Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa this month hired to replace the embattled but defiant Guerdon Stuckey. Stuckey took the job just over a year ago when he was appointed by former mayor James Hahn, and he won the support of many department employees, especially after he was targeted with a smoke bomb and other harassment. But he was roundly despised by vocal and behind-the-scenes animal-welfare activists for his lack of experience in animal issues and his failure, in the activists’ view, to sufficiently reduce the number of unadopted cats, dogs, rabbits and other animals killed in city shelters. The new GM, whose contract at the counterpart agency in New York was not renewed, said he intends to move Los Angeles toward a “no-kill” model of animal care with stepped-up spaying and neutering to control the number of unwanted pets.That approach has in fact been part of the department’s mission statement for years, but problems with — depending on whom you ask — contracting, funding, publicity, competence or just the sheer number of cats and dogs in the city have prevented the program from saving animals.If that is about to change, as animal advocates hope, it will be not only because of Boks and Villaraigosa, but because of a third man who is donating his genius and opening his rather substantial pocketbook in an effort to make spaying, neutering, microchipping and (for dogs) licensing practically universal in Los Angeles.That man — spinal surgeon and billionaire inventor Gary Karlin Michelson — said he has thought through L.A.’s animal problem and has established a foundation that is prepared to pay to have every pet in the city fixed and tracked. A series of serendipitous events that began just months ago put Michelson in touch with Boks and then Villaraigosa, helped lead to Boks’ hiring here and made Michelson a key player in the latest effort to overhaul the way the city handles wanted and unwanted pets.“What we’re going to do is going to be just amazing,” Michelson told the Weekly. “We are going to succeed. We are going to succeed spectacularly.” Michelson was successful spinal surgeon at Centinela Medical Center in Inglewood when he entered into a licensing agreement in 1993 with a company that wanted to manufacture and market the surgeon’s inventions. Medtronic Inc. was interested in devices that were an integral part of Michelson’s revolutionary spinal treatment that made surgery and recovery faster and easier for patients. Although he was best known for the spinal devices, Michelson was a genius at invention, and won patents for items as complex as surgical procedures and as mundane as a new type of paper clip.The relationship went well at first, but in 2001, the company — now Medtronic Sofamor Danek — sued Michelson, claiming he was marketing his inventions to others. Bad move. Michelson countersued for breach of contract and patent infringement. Last year, after a three-and-a-half-month trial and a month of deliberations, a federal jury ruled for Michelson and awarded him $540 million.But that was just the beginning. Medtronic appealed. Negotiations between the company and the inventor led to a settlement, concluded in April of this year, that had Michelson and his own firm, Karlin Technology Inc., transfer more than 100 spine-related patents to Medtronic — for a payment of a staggering $1.35 billion.The settlement made the 56-year-old Michelson one of the richest men in Los Angeles and put him at No. 258 in this year’s Forbes list of the nation’s wealthiest people.There was nothing to do with that much money, the surgeon-inventor said, but give it away. Usefully.He set up the Medical Research Foundation Trust. And then — at just about the time the Los Angeles mayoral campaign between Villaraigosa and Hahn was nearing its conclusion, and as activists began to put stock in Villaraigosa’s vow to fire Stuckey — he started to focus his attention on animal issues. “I got interested in this idea of converting ‘animal control’ to ‘animal care,’” he said. A spinal surgeon became absorbed in animal welfare? Michelson insisted he was not “one of those bleeding-heart-type animal people,” but he spoke passionately of the “two best cats” he ever had, both of which were rescued feral animals.At first he was looking for a nationwide approach, but soon narrowed his focus on Los Angeles.“I originally approached Ed Boks two or three months ago to do something for me,” Michelson said. “I wanted to find out if it was possible to use my money to be a catalyst for change. The question I was posing was, does it really cost more to be more humane, to trap, neuter and release feral cats, than it does to execute them?”It’s noteworthy that Michelson uses the word “execute” rather than “euthanize.”“In Los Angeles, there were no less than 50,000 feral cats executed last year,” he said. “And the year before that. And the year before that.”He said his research showed that if the same animals are neutered and released, the population stabilizes, and it becomes unnecessary to kill animals in pounds, even if they can’t all be adopted.Boks, who already was being studied by Villaraigosa’s people, was one of five or six people in the nation who Michelson said had the approach, skills and experience to handle the job. Several came out of San Francisco, where the no-kill approach has had its best success. One was Nathan Winograd, a lawyer who has become to many the guru of the no-kill movement. But Michelson said Winograd rejected an offer from Villaraigosa, now mayor, to take the animal services job here (Winograd did not return calls). Most of the others turned down the job as well. Michelson kept after Boks, as did Villaraigosa. “Then one day Boks said to me, ‘The things you want to do on the national scene the mayor of Los Angeles wants to do. There could be a tremendous synergy. It occurred to me that maybe I should put the two of you together.’” Boks said it was he who said to Michelson, and Michelson said it was he who said to Boks, “Come on down and talk to the mayor.” The point is, the three men got together a little less than three months ago to talk about reshaping Animal Services in Los Angeles. They agreed in essence that a no-kill approach could work best here if it went forward simultaneously from the inside — with Boks — and from the outside — with Michelson.The surgeon’s role would be through a foundation that is prepared to raise and donate $10 million to get dogs and cats sterilized and microchipped. He said he dreamed up the name of the foundation with the hymn “Amazing Grace” in mind. “I once was lost,” the famous lyrics go, “but now I’m found” — in the sense that to be “found” is to be saved. Gary Michelson, who wants to save the animals with microchipping and neutering, is naming his organization the Found Animals Foundation.“The Gap can track jeans better than we can track our animals,” Michelson said. “It costs you $55 to chip your animal. I’ll do it for free. And if I get these dogs into the system and tag them” — issue city dog licenses — “the city will collect $10 a year over the life of the dog.”He expects to make it work with the help of animal activists, whom he calls “an asset, not a problem.” And with Boks. And with Villaraigosa.“When I met with the mayor the first time and we were talking about a problem, one of his staff started to tell him the ‘expedient’ thing to do,” Michelson recalled. “The mayor looked up and said, ‘We’re not going to do that. We’re going to do the right thing. We’re going to do the best for the animals.’ That’s what won me over.”With passion and enthusiasm, Michelson can walk a listener through the details of how his program would shut down illegal breeders, make the city money instead of costing it any, please all but the most extreme animal-rights activists, make department employees happy, and become a model for the nation.The problem, of course, is that similar plans have been floated in L.A. before, including by people involved in local animal-care issues. Hahn promised to make L.A. “low-kill” within five years. Now it’s Villaraigosa’s turn to pledge low-kill, or even no-kill. Villaraigosa’s personal style, including his penchant for making promises that he doesn’t need to make — and so far finding a way to, in good time, keep them — is at the heart of whether changes in the Animal Services Department ever actually take hold. The latest episode of the long-running departmental drama began on a rainy weekend in January in the midst of the mayoral campaign, when a coalition of passionate but mostly moderate humane community leaders hosted a candidates’ forum at a North Hollywood hotel. Hahn did not participate. Activists generally dismissed Bernard Parks and Richard Alarcon as tone-deaf to their concerns. But they listened intently as Bob Hertzberg, Walter Moore and Villaraigosa outlined their positions. Moore won over a plurality of the crowd with his pantomime of what he would do on his first day in office. He lifted up an imaginary phone and told the imaginary department manager, in essence: This is the mayor. Stop the killing today.Pragmatists were more interested in what Villaraigosa had to say, but he was loudly booed when explaining why, as a councilman, he voted to confirm Stuckey (he said he knew he was going to get confirmed anyway, and he would have to work with him). Then, turning boos to cheers, he made a statement that activists began repeating over and over, in e-mails and news releases, and over megaphones at protests after he took office:“When I am mayor of the city of Los Angeles, Gerald [sic] Stuckey will not be the head of Animal Services.”A month after Villaraigosa took office, the Animal Defense League–Los Angeles (ADL-L.A.) issued an ultimatum: fire Stuckey by October 1, or the protests begin.In September, Stuckey’s building was smoke-bombed. Credit was claimed by the underground Animal Liberation Front, which is listed by the Justice Department as a domestic terrorist group.Mid-October began a period of intense activity. Villaraigosa was in contact with Boks and with Michelson, but further antagonized many activists when he removed Commissioner Erika Brunson just after she distributed a letter highly critical of department management. He was close to removing two other popular commissioners — Debbie Knaan and Tariq Khero, apparently to put his own stamp on the panel and not as part of any disciplinary matter — but relented at the request of activists who supported both members.On October 21, the mayor met with ADL-L.A. members, including Pamelyn Ferdin and Jerry Vlasak, and — he said later — told them he would not act to remove Stuckey as long as illegal actions like the ALF’s smoke-bombing continued. The activists said they planned to continue their legal protests, but they canceled a planned demonstration at the mayor’s Mount Washington home slated for the following day (Villaraigosa was in the process of moving into the Getty House, the official mayor’s residence in Windsor Square).In the following weeks, Villaraigosa met with other members of the humane community and expressed concern about a “spaymobile” contract that Stuckey had made. It was at that meeting, according to several who attended, that the mayor appeared for the first time to grasp the depth of the problems at the department.“He really seemed to be somewhat flummoxed,” said humane activist Michael Bell. “Until that meeting, I feel that the moderate members of the humane community did not have as much weight with him as the ADL-L.A., with their constant badgering.”But on November 2, Villaraigosa stood with Stuckey at the unveiling of an animal-cruelty task force and suggested that his general manager would stay on as long as he followed the mayor’s agenda. On November 8, in a story by Daily News reporter Rick Orlov, the mayor was quoted as acknowledging his promise to fire Stuckey, but added, “I never said when I would do that.”On December 1, members of ADL-L.A. — joined by other activists — demonstrated outside the Omni Hotel in downtown Los Angeles as Villaraigosa attended a fund-raising dinner inside. The mayor, moving on what aides said was his own schedule, asked for Stuckey’s resignation the following week. Meanwhile, Boks was told that his contract in New York would not be renewed. Stuckey vowed to stay on in L.A., and was fired several days later. Villaraigosa announced his hiring of Boks.“It sucks,” complained Julie Butcher, leader of Service Employees International Union Local 347, which represents most Animal Services department employees. “It’s bargaining with terrorists. You can’t create a situation where the general managers are ‘wussified.’ You need general managers to lead.”Over the past year, department workers have told the City Council and other officials that they work in fear of attacks by extremist animal-rights activists. Butcher noted that protesters have called out to several employees and their families, “We know where you sleep at night.”Half the department employees signed a letter expressing outrage at Stuckey’s firing.Boks, a former nondenominational minister, has been making the rounds this week trying to close the already wide rift between the city employees and the animal activists. He has his work cut out for him.Dan Guss, who runs a foundation that cares for abused and neglected dogs, said he hoped Boks would take a good look at the approximately 300 workers in the department’s administration and six shelters.“In addition to developing a culture of kindness to animals,” Guss said, “Boks must rid the shelters of passionless employees who plague it at all levels. Those who lack passion for animals should seek employment elsewhere.”Mary Cummins, who participated in one of the meetings with Villaraigosa, said the department has some great workers. “But some people have to go,” she said.The ADL-L.A. has taken a cautious stance, releasing a statement that members would wait and see what Boks accomplishes. But many moderate humane activists agree with Bell that the more vocal activists had put the issue on the map.Felice Catena, an Encino grandmother who runs an executive-search business, showed up at the Omni protest and carried a sign. She did not take the megaphone, as the ADL-L.A.’s Pamelyn Ferdin did, but said she was pleased to be marching with her.“I’m just sick of seeing animals die,” Catena said. “I’ll be in solidarity with Pam, because I think she’s a powerful woman.”

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