Siri is small and blond with big brown eyes. Her online profile describes her as fun, affectionate and physically active. She lives on the Westside but she’s looking for a new home — and she’s ready for a long-term commitment.
Siri, a 5-month-old, 7-pound mixed-breed puppy, is one of several dozen pets up for adoption at the Wallis Annenberg PetSpace, a sleek new animal shelter meets community center and research institute in Playa Vista. If her profile makes her sound more like a candidate for Tinder than an adoption site, it’s not entirely by accident. PetSpace, which opens with a kickoff party and all-day tours on Saturday, June 24, seeks to revolutionize the process of placing pets in foster homes by streamlining it with the aid of digital technology.
“Is Siri good with kids? Has Siri been house-trained?” says Carol Laumen, the center’s general manager, listing any number of questions her potential new owners might have about her. Most of the answers can be found in a mobile app called PetSpace as well as on PetBooks (think of it as Facebook but for pets). The on-site digital directory displays Siri’s photos, statistics and history on a massive interactive flatscreen next to her 120-square-foot glass suite, which, with its minimalist design and pops of color, looks like something West Elm could’ve designed. PetBooks also offers training techniques, safety tips and the option to share Siri’s data with friends (similar to how Instagram users might privately share a post with one another), or add her page to a list of their favorites as if it were an Airbnb rental.
The nods to Silicon Valley — or more aptly, Silicon Beach, given the center’s proximity to the offices of YouTube, Google and Yahoo — don’t end there: Siri is one of several puppies including Mac and Mouse, each just 2 months old and weighing less than 2 pounds, that are named after tech products or companies. The downside? “Every time we say [Siri’s] name, our phones go off,” says JJ Rawlins, the center’s in-house veterinarian and animal care manager.
The Annenberg PetSpace is permitted for up to 40 cats, 40 dogs and 100 bunnies at a time, all of which come from L.A. County’s Department of Animal Care and Control. The department operates seven shelters throughout the county, but most of the animals at the Annenberg PetSpace come from its higher-intake locations in Downey and Carson. The new partnership is a boon to the county, which came under fire in 2015 after an animal-welfare group issued a report alleging inhumane treatment at its Downey center and others, including animals squeezed into tight kennels and covered in feces and maggots. The county determined that most of the allegations were unsupported but admitted that its facilities were significantly dated as well as severely understaffed.
“As you can imagine, with the county we’re publicly funded, so an organization that’s privately funded like the Annenberg PetSpace, they have resources that are beyond what we have at our care centers,” says Allison Cardona, deputy director for the county’s Department of Animal Care and Control. “They’ve been very open about looking at dogs and cats that have medical issues that we wouldn't be able to treat but that they would, [and] dogs or cats that need more socialization or training.”
The animals admitted to Annenberg PetSpace all go through medical evaluations and treatment, which are made visible to the public from a glass window through which visitors can watch veterinary exams in progress and view animals’ X-rays and other educational data. There’s also an exercise and training room where animals have access to an underwater treadmill, intended for dogs with orthopedic needs, obesity issues or too much energy to burn. Spectators who want to watch a surgery take place simply have to press a button that illuminates a glass window and enables a microphone so they can ask the veterinarian questions with every incision.
“We really want to be transparent about everything we do behind the scenes,” Rawlins says. That transparency in the operating room also extends to the adoption process. If a pet does have a medical diagnosis, for example, it’s displayed prominently on the PetBooks profile so the animal’s potential new owners know what they’re signing up for. Adoptions are a flat $80 fee for each animal, and the space takes an open adoption approach based on the emerging philosophy that there’s no perfect pet owner and that most homes — no matter how small, urban or unconventional — are better for the animal than living in a small enclosure in a shelter.
“Doing home checks and landlord checks and all these things don’t increase [pet] retention,” Rawlins says of recent research, despite long-held practices to the contrary. “We ask you a lot of open-ended questions,” she says of the adoption process, which can be completed within a matter of minutes on an iPad, sans paperwork.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Animal Sciences found that pet owners who opt for conversation-based adoptions are just as likely to be bonded to their animals and provide the same level of care as those who get their pets through policy-based adoptions. Meanwhile, the ASPCA-funded study found, policy-based adoptions can shrink the pool of potential adopters and slow down the overall process.
That can mean the difference between life and death in a city where some 5,700 cats and dogs were euthanized in roughly the last year — which is still a vast improvement from two years prior, when the number of dogs and cats euthanized was more than double that, according to the city’s statistics. (The city credits the reduction to its No Kill L.A. initiative, which has a goal of saving 90 percent or more of its cats and dogs by the end of this year.) But those figures don’t take into account the L.A. County shelters, which have an overall adoption rate of just 50 percent (or roughly 20,100 animals) and a euthanasia rate of 37 percent (or some 14,700 animals), according to its most recent annual report.
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The Wallis Annenberg PetSpace is named for the billionaire philanthropist and longtime pet lover at its helm. Her family’s eponymous charitable foundation has invested millions into animal causes over the last three decades, Laumen estimates, from its founding of the site explore.org — which features live webcams of animals in natural habitats around the world — to its funding of nonprofits like the Emma Zen Foundation, which develops oxygen masks for pets trapped in fires.
But PetSpace is easily its most ambitious animal-focused effort, aimed not just at making pet adoptions more accessible to Angelenos but also at funding research to better understand the bond between humans and their pets. It’s a field of inquiry that Loyola University biology professor Eric Strauss, who is heading the newly created Wallis Annenberg PetSpace Leadership Institute, says has seldom been explored. It’s the reason he enlisted 16 academics — from scientists and ethicists to animal physiologists — from all over the world to study domestication and the link between pets and human wellness.
“It is in fact our relationship to animals that makes us truly human,” Strauss says. “We’re moving into a world where so much is virtual. A pet is real. A relationship to a pet might be the closest [a person] gets to nature.”
That’s true even when that pet happens to have its own online profile on PetBook.