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Barking for Change

Photo by Debra DiPaolo

Hardly anyone ever notices that the fourth largest city in the nation’s most populous county is Torrance. This is probably because the larger cities — such as L.A. and Long Beach — are so much more interesting.

So are many smaller ones. Even Torrance’s motto, “A balanced city — commercial, residential, industrial,” is sheer anhedonia. Torrance is a piece of the surrounding South Bay architectural pasteboard jungle. Some call it soulless, some call it Borrance. Its major landmark is a 20-year-old office building that’s a sketchy imitation of an Iowa county courthouse. Not even a giant jelly doughnut or a hot dog.

I haven’t been to Torrance in decades. Umpteen years later, you imagine it’s much the same — the malls, the snack-loving, high school–educated Anglo homeowners, the burly cops packing .45s. But like all Southern California, Torrance is transforming, culturally and demographically — even if the changes aren’t yet obvious.

For one thing, over the past year or so, it’s had a popular upsurge of Torrantines organizing to get their own animal-control operation and drop the county contract. Most of the activists are young and diverse. The city establishment — including the City Council — is 50-ish plus and not very diverse. This contrast suggests where the city is heading.

The fate of pets and stray animals is a complex and highly emotional matter everywhere, and people who take animals seriously usually want animal services as close to home as possible. Although it has a volunteer arm (which the activists claim not to have been able to reach), the county agency seems impersonal to some. Like the Sheriff’s Department and county Fire Department — although much smaller — county Animal Control is a contract service, serving 51 county cities and vast unincorporated county areas. Torrance has contracted ever since the SPCA got out of the animal-patrol business seven years ago. The county’s nearest shelter is in Carson: It serves a huge area extending almost to West Hollywood.

But L.A. County Animal Care & Control, like other county departments, has had management problems. It’s been without a permanent general manager since last October, with no long-term replacement in sight (the department recently got retired manager Frank Andrews to return as temporary director). The weak-leadership situation has local parallels. The Carson shelter itself has had two managers since September.

Torrance animal lovers say this means declining service: Pets were being put to death before the owners had been notified; street patrolling had grown so haphazard that dog waste was an ever-present problem; dead animals were not being picked up; and many calls to the Carson shelter were not being answered or returned. Joni Gang, a Torrance resident, organized a group of around 50 people called Friends of Torrance Animals. FTA compiled a large list of grievances, as well as a meticulous brief for the creation of a city animal-control agency. They brought their complaints, plus a petition of 4,500 names in favor of this move, to the city.

The FTA people note that nearby cities — Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach and Lawndale — have their own animal-control departments. So do Long Beach, Pasadena and Santa Monica. El Segundo recently dropped the county and formed its own animal agency. “A lot of cities see it is a form of independence to have their own independent agencies,” says county Animal Control spokesman Bob Ballenger. But he says that the cost of El Segundo animal regulation went from $32,000 per year to over $190,000.

A city staff report, allowing that the price difference would be greater for Torrance, asserted that the city couldn’t afford to be independent. So the City Council last week voted 6-1 in favor of renewing the county contract, but for only one year instead of two, and with a one-month cancellation clause. The city will also closely review the county agency’s daily performance, and the control officers will maintain radio contact with local officials.

FTA’s Dean Case said he hoped this would improve matters. But he criticized the county’s past performance: “The numbers in question are . . . a return-to-owners rate for lost pets of less than 10 percent and a euthanasia rate of over 80 percent.” He was deeply disappointed with the council outcome.

Things could be changing in Torrance, though. Before the matter went to the City Council, it passed through the city’s Environmental Quality and Energy Conservation Commission, which concluded that Torrance deserved its own animal department.

This panel’s membership is contrastingly youthful — the youngest being 18 — and most of its members are non-Anglo. The members did their own research — each of them calling Animal Control and none of them being able to get through to a human on the first two or three tries. (Ballenger allows, “They did have a problem with that phone system.” It’s to be replaced.) This commission suggested a modest version of an independent agency that would be more affordable than the staff proposal. Interestingly, several council members said that if the financing could be arranged, they’d support such a department.

This was a glimpse of the Torrance government of the future, which wants the city to have its own animal-care agency; in a couple of elections, that could happen. Thus the old order of things in Torrance could change. Just because the city has had perhaps its first-ever populist groundswell on an issue close to the hearts of a wide spectrum of citizens. Things like this awaken a city to its soul.