You can hear the barking a block away, desperate cries of every pitch, hundreds of dogs calling out for help. Even though she's been to the shelter countless times, Whitney Smith has never gotten used to it. Her mouth goes dry when she pulls into the parking lot. She can feel the animals trembling, alone and abandoned, their days numbered.
Smith is a "rescuer," part of an almost messianic subculture devoted to saving every animal that roams the streets. Week after week, she stalks the halls of shelters, feeds feral cats at 1 a.m. and sends flurries of emails with subject lines like "URGENT ... GOLDEN RETRIEVER A544665 AT DEVORE!!! ... NEGLECTED, BADLY ABUSED, EMACIATED!! MUST EXIT TODAY!! ... RESCUE ONLY!! PLEASE HELP HIM" and "They killed DOLLY PARTON — DOWNEY SHELTER."
"It's very brutal to be in the rescue milieu," she says. "You're constantly looking at the peril of these animals that deserve a home. You discuss death every day."
The Los Angeles Animal Services department has a budget of about $20 million and just over 300 employees, and runs six animal shelters, which take in more than 50,000 dogs and cats a year. Of those, more 20,000 are killed — or, as many say, euthanized or put to sleep.
One might think that, with such grim figures (it's worse at L.A. County shelters), the city would take all the help it can get. But Animal Services, under the leadership of general manager Brenda Barnette, hired two years ago from Seattle Humane Society, has managed to alienate a number of volunteers and rescuers.
"From the beginning, the people engaged in animal issues were deeply divided on Brenda," says Ron Kaye, former editor of the Los Angeles Daily News, who as a blogger at ronkayela.com has kept a watch on Animal Services. "She won over some segments — the classier segments."
It didn't help that she had some experience breeding dogs for show as a hobby, which many rescuers equate to, at best, being a Nazi sympathizer. Also, many activists found her cold and dismissive.
"She doesn't exactly warm you up and make you want to spend time with her," says Laura Beth Heisen, former commissioner of the board of L.A. Animal Services . "She's driven volunteers away."
Official "volunteers" work with specific shelters, and are generally calmer than "rescuers," who tend to be older, single white women with boundless energy — and often uneasy relations with paid staff.
"I think she's doing the best she can," says Cheri Shankar, a donor and activist, who argues, with plenty of facts behind her, that zealous rescuers have hated every general manager the department's ever had, from Dan Knapp to Jerry Greenwalt to Ed Boks. "If St. Francis of Assisi came to Los Angeles to run the shelter, rescuers would complain about him."
Barnette, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and a few city councilmen would like L.A. to go "no-kill," an impossible-sounding goal like "zero waste" and other dreams of the often poorly managed city government.
No-kill means killing 15 percent or so of animals. But Los Angeles euthanizes nearly 40 percent of the strays and lost pets at its shelters, which is up a few percentage points from fiscal year 2009-10. Low-kill San Francisco and Seattle destroy only 20 percent of impounded dogs and cats.
Until lately, shelters had one staffer dedicated to "volunteer outreach" and another to "rescuer outreach," under its program New Hope. Today, there's just one volunteer coordinator for all six shelters. Rescuer outreach was added to duties performed by each shelter supervisor.
"We're at a time where we really need bodies taking care of our animals, and we just don't have staff," Barnette says.
Hundreds of dogs sit in unheated cages near their own feces, with not enough staff members to hose down the cells more than once or twice a day, much less walk the animals. Other dogs sit shivering — it can take a while for the limited staff or volunteers to distribute blankets.
Which makes Barnette's latest dual proposal — designed by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and set for a December vote by the political appointees on the city's Board of Animal Services Commissioners — puzzling.
One plan, called SAFER, would have city employees conduct a six-minute videotaped screen test — the city calls it a "behavioral assessment" — in an attempt to determine which dogs have "the probability of future aggression," according to the ASPCA's website. Does the dog guard his food? Attack other animals? Bite a hand that comes from behind?
Critics call this "temperament testing" — a way to kill dogs right off the bat, and a possible way to juke the city's worsening euthanasia stats by marking the dogs that fail their screen test as "unadoptable" and removing them from the pool, making it seem as if Animal Services is killing fewer dogs that deserve a chance.
Barnette denies this. "It's not a tool used to determine what dog is put down," she says. "It's a tool to help place a dog better."
Riverside County Animal Control, whose three shelters receive about 50,000 animals a year, used SAFER tests for a time.
"In a municipal shelter like ours, it identifies which animals are dangerous," says Jackie Schart, an animal behaviorist at Riverside. But, as is obvious to most, "It's not pass or fail. There's a whole category of modifiable behavior."
Schart says overly aggressive animals are put down — and would be anyway. Dogs showing signs of aggression were designated for rescuers only, who could train them before trying to get them adopted.
Unfortunately, it took 10 full-time Riverside County employees to rate the dogs, and nine were reassigned or cut due to budget deficits. Schart is the only one left.
The second program proposed by ASPCA and Barnette, Meet Your Match, gives dogs and cats more detailed personality tests, resulting in labels like "Go-Getter" for a hyperactive dog, and "Private Investigator" for cats that do little more than stare at you. Riverside County implemented Meet Your Match only for cats, which Schart says was successful at matching cats and owners. It was dropped due to budget cuts.
The question Los Angeles volunteers are asking now is, if Animal Services had to severely cut back the staff for New Hope, how will it pay the city workers to conduct the SAFER screen test and the personality-profiling Meet Your Match?
Dr. Emily Wells, who developed both programs, says ASPCA is only proposing a pilot program, at one L.A. shelter, and plans to pay for one staff position to run it.
But Heisen says dismissively, "It's simply out of place in a crowded, high-volume shelter. If they don't get adopted soon, they're dead anyway. It is complete pseudo-science."
Weiss says the programs have been found to increase adoptions and decrease return rates at humane societies in Wichita, Kan., and Portland, Maine. But "There's so much passion and energy around saving lives," she says. "We almost need a behavior assessment for all those folks working in L.A., so we can come together and collaborate more."
Even if the dual program were somehow implemented and helped boost adoptions, it's unlikely to make much more than a dent in the population of doomed Los Angeles cats and dogs put to death — by lethal injection.
"People say to me, 'They kill puppies?'" says rescuer Smith. "All day long. Every day. It's, like, the biggest kept secret. We are efficient killers. Do you think SAFER's gonna change the numbers?"
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To reduce the killing, L.A. would have to persuade city residents to spay and neuter to prevent litters of animals. That means Animal Services — and by extension the City Council and Villaraigosa, who have cut its budget — would have to pay to better publicize and enforce a mandatory city spay-and-neuter law that's widely ignored.
"You can't adopt your way out of the problem," says Shawn Simons, who runs Kitty Bungalow Charm School for Wayward Cats, a nonprofit that "socializes" feral cats.
By failing to neuter their favorite animals, L.A. residents have created an astonishing surplus of Chihuahuas and pit bulls, the latter of which are bred in some neighborhoods for illegal dog-fighting.
"For me, Animal Services is symbolic of the city's inability to find the political will to solve problems," Ron Kaye says. "It's just symptomatic of the fundamental breakdown in how we enforce laws."