Animal Nature

The asking price was $1,200 a pup -- high for what could have been giveaway mongrels. But these critters‘ grandfather was Bane, the nefarious attack dog -- bred by prison inmates -- who mauled and killed a young San Francisco soccer coach last spring. Thus the ad’s sales pitch: “Bad to the bone.” It might as well have read: “Guaranteed killer pooches.”

The reporters of an August 4 Times story (following an earlier Daily Breeze report) on the dogs talked to the vendor, Lennox resident Carolyn Murphy, and to victim Diane Whipple‘s domestic partner, who raged at the injustice. They talked to the prosecutor in San Francisco. Everyone but Murphy sounded appalled.

What the piece missed, though, was the fact that county officialdom had, before the piece appeared, already dropped on Murphy’s operation like a ton of bricks. That‘s because Marcia Mayeda, the new head of the county’s controversy-plagued animal agency, got on the case.

Acting on a tip, the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control (DACC) served Murphy a garland of citations: operating an illegal kennel; selling dogs without a permit; and failing to get the pups vaccinations and licenses. For these, Murphy must appear in court on September 18. She was also ordered to reduce her hound population to the legal maximum of three animals and to tell of anyone with whom her dogs were placed.

In an official letter, Mayeda noted that there‘s no law against owning Presa Canario dogs, and, while using the Bay Area tragedy as a sales pitch showed “questionable judgment, it is not illegal.” But she took issue with the rest of the operation. “As soon as we found out about it, we went to her home,” Mayeda told me.

The next week, Mayeda had officers in the field checking reports of pets being dropped into Compton Creek. There, on the evening news, were animal-control agents, going into neighborhoods, interviewing residents, trying to get to the bottom of this nasty scuttlebutt. They found and treated one injured dog. When was the last time you saw this occasionally lackluster county agency springing into motion? I could not recall. And this happened twice in 10 days, once without news coverage, once with. So what has happened to county animal control?

It turns out that Marcia Mayeda has. She’s got some real ideas of her own, and is already looking like she won‘t be your average bureaucratic overdogcatcher.

Partly, I suspect, that’s because she is not a product of the bureaucracy of the Los Angeles County department, where, until she took the job, the permanent director‘s position lay vacant for the better part of the year. Recently, two major city clients dropped their contracts with the county agency after deciding that they were willing to pay to do the job better themselves.

Mayeda is from a different background and a different region. She was director of animal services at the Humane Society of Santa Clara Valley. At 37, though, she says she’s been working with animals nearly since she can recall.

“I‘ve loved animals all my life,” the Illinois native said in an interview at her agency’s spectacularly unpretentious Downey headquarters, which are more like a recycled elementary school than the seat of a county department. “I dog-sat for my neighbors when I was a child, and was their dog walker when I grew older.”

Most of us care about animals somewhat. To a strong and vocal minority, critters are a cause. Under such citizens‘ pressure, the city councils of El Segundo and Hawthorne recently voted to fire the county agency and create their own animal-control offices; Torrance, after a similar wide-based effort, voted for a limited contract with tighter controls. Obviously, there’s been a rising political discontent with DACC.

Mayeda doesn‘t want to discuss such politics right now. She’s too busy, she says, learning the ground, finding out just what‘s what in her 280-employee agency, which serves an area extending from Antelope Valley to Long Beach. “There are many things that I need to learn about our county . . . But my goal,” she said, “is to prove that quality animal service is a public good.”

This means, she said, that she’ll be carefully tracking departmental response times and “set performance expectations for the staff.” These are the areas in which, local animal activists contend, major problems have existed. She‘s going to determine whether, and where, her department needs more people. Considering how much cheaper the county service is than individual city-run programs -- Torrance and El Segundo officials estimated their own agencies would cost an extra $200,000 per year -- Mayeda said she might also consider offering upgrades for increased service fees.

But she has a wait-and-see attitude toward a major reform obtained by Los Angeles city’s own animal-control agency, now helmed by the highly regarded Dan Knapp: This is charging extremely high license fees of $100 for unneutered dogs compared to $10 for neutered animals. It‘s her experience that such charges simply reduce the number of licensed dogs. “Until I see it succeed in practice, I wouldn’t try it,” she said.

Her main intent is to reduce the population of stray animals, via larger neutering and adoption programs. Accordingly, she appeared last weekend at a Westwood public gathering, with Knapp, to push for pet birth control and adoption. In her previous job, she was able to reduce the number of strays euthanized by 25 percent -- from 40,000 per year to 30,000. L.A. County‘s animal-control area has nearly triple the stray-dog and -cat numbers of Santa Clara Valley, but Mayeda would like to see a similar improvement, via better management, more neutering and adoptions. She is also considering training and recruiting more volunteers, like those upon whom her previous agency relied.

Meanwhile, even demanding critics say she’s already made a difference.

One of those is Hawthorne City Councilman Mark Schoenfeld, who recently engineered his city‘s rejection of county animal control. “We had numerous complaints from residents that no one would show up for days after a call,” Schoenfeld said. The incident that finally sparked that decision, he said, was when he went to reclaim a senior citizen’s dog from the county-run Carson shelter and found out that it had been “accidentally euthanized” -- or killed. The staffers offered another dog to replace the animal, and Schoenfeld decided his city had had enough. Hawthorne now uses SPCA shelters and hires its own animal-control officers.

But Schoenfeld says that he is “very impressed by” Mayeda, whom he met last weekend. “That one thing she did about the dogs in Lennox was so exceptional. She‘s off to a good start.”

Playa Points

My old friend Marcia Hanscom wrote a couple of weeks ago, criticizing me for saying that most of those attending Alex Padilla’s City Council--presidency victory were lobbyists. I “couldn‘t have been further from the reality,” Hanscom said, adding that many of those present were, like her, “environmentalists.” In fact, however, neither of us seems to have done a lobbyist head count that day.

But had I done one, I would certainly have counted Hanscom. For nearly five years, her constant lobbying against Playa Vista has made her one of the most recognizable visitors to the City Council. And since she appears to be employed by the organization she represents -- now calling itself the Wetlands Action Network -- she is probably as much of a lobbyist (and as good a one, I might add) as the better-celebrated Steve Afriat. Or Neil Papiano.

The only difference is, according to the City Ethics Commission, that unlike Papiano and Afriat, Hanscom’s neglected to register as a lobbyist. It‘s an oversight I’m sure she will soon rectify.

More recently, young L.A. Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff waded into the Playa swamp with his own attack on architect Frank Gehry, who has contracted to replace some old industrial buildings on the site with something more sightly. Admonishes Ouroussoff: “[Gehry] can pray that an educated public doesn‘t take his association with Playa Vista as a ringing endorsement of the controversial housing development going up next door, let alone of the destruction of the fragile wetlands underneath it.”

Not to worry. That “educated public” probably knows that there will be more than 340 acres of wetlands and other restored areas when the current phase of Playa is finished, as opposed to the 190 that were there when the project began: none of them to be “underneath” anything but blue sky. This according to all the pertinent site plans and agreements on file. Which suggests that, whatever kind of architecture critic Ouroussoff is, he needs a journalism refresher course.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >