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Urgent Staffing Needs in LA County Animal Shelters According to L.A. Times Investigation

ANIMAL WATCH

ANIMAL WATCH - From the number of reports and amount of research the L.A. Times admits requesting and receiving from Los Angeles County Animal Control, for its December 3, 2023, article, “Times Investigation: ‘It’s hard to stomach’: These shelters are euthanizing more dogs despite promises to save them,” apparently it hoped to find violations of “No Kill” mandates to punish management, but, they found no “smoking gun” that showed mismanagement by Director Marcia Mayeda.

What was revealed is a tragically understaffed agency attempting to provide services for the myriad needs of pets, stray, lost and injured animals throughout 3,400 square miles of L.A. County on a 24-hour basis.

The Times had to settle for admitting the nation’s largest public animal-sheltering system—like any other organization—experiences human error and “burn out,” but no intentional violations of care for thousands of animals that enter its seven shelters annually.

L.A. County Animal Control Director Marcia Mayeda did not adopt a “No Kill” program when pressured to meet the Best Friends Animal Society goal, which she knew could not be accomplished. She announced, instead, that the County shelters would strive for a “Socially Conscious” system which placed the welfare of the animals in its care above the need to meet a statistical mark that would mandate continued delay of “humane” and necessary euthanasia.

See: LA County Adopts 'Socially Conscious Animal Sheltering Featuring “Humane” Care.

In fact, last year most shelters in the U.S. struggled and failed to meet the Best Friends Animal Society “No Kill” goal, which involves overcrowding and resultant disease outbreaks, in addition to numerous animals crowded in cages/kennels where they deteriorate and/or fight and meet a much more painful end of life. Best Friends, itself, has had to admit that its “No Kill” experiment has failed.

Still, an intense pressure is placed on all shelters to ignore overcrowding and “save” all impounded animals, which is not only unrealistic but humanely impossible.

A MAIN CAUSE OF OVERCROWDED SHELTERS

Related problems have developed from people believing this is possible and engaging in increased breeding and abandonment of pets, based on the promise that in a “No Kill” shelter they would all be adopted into “forever” homes.

This ignores the problems the current owner already finds unacceptable, including aggression; and, especially the adopting out of Pit Bulls and other large-breed dogs that have already exhibited aggressive behavior, as well as dogs that need ever more expensive medical care.

See: ‘No Kill’ Has Failed. ‘Best Friends’ Leaves LA City Animal Services Shelter.

COUNTY SHELTERING PROBLEMS NOT NEW 

Los Angeles County provides animal control services to 3,400 square miles with only a total of 89 animal control officers, and Director Marcia Mayeda states it also lost 57 unfilled staff positions during COVID cutbacks by the Board of Supervisors—positions which have not been reinstated.

The Los Angeles Times apparently intended to uncover a gross malfunction of the system, based primarily from complaints by “rescuers.”

The investigative documents were primarily two North County shelters in Palmdale and Lancaster, where there are vast expanses of undeveloped desert land, rife with Pit Bull breeding and dogfighting and plenty of open spaces where any unwanted animal can be dumped and could starve to death before being able to reach a developed area. Animal control officers respond to these and any other reports and drive long distances on almost every call.

The report states, “The Times analyzed documents obtained through public records requests on more than 14,600 dogs euthanized since 2018 in the seven shelters operated by the County—which has contracts with 45 cities to provide animal care and control services.”

The Department’s website shows that it provides service to a total area of 3,400 square miles and millions of residents on a 24-hour basis, including cruelty and welfare investigations, licensing, inspections and permits.

The officers in the field also provide assistance, and advise in correcting any situation such as an animal being able to escape a yard, or lack of funds to provide care. (Its Animal Care Foundation funding offers vouchers to assist with veterinary care, repair of fences and other needs to encourage and enable owners to keep their pets.)

L.A. TIMES FOUND NO “SMOKING GUN”

It appears that out of the reports of dogs euthanized from 2018 – 2023 the finding revealed no gross misconduct, but only a few incidents of individual error over that time span. The results of the investigation into the case of Bowie that the Times mentioned has not yet been made public, so it would be inappropriate to speculate on it.

Director Mayeda states that appropriate, corrective action is being taken.

While it cannot be an excuse, errors can only be understood by someone who has worked, or is working, in a shelter where the unwanted, aggressive and critically neglected animals pour in the door faster than the kennels can be cleaned by a minimal staff that has done this painful job so long that details have become a blur in trying to cope with their natural emotions. The emotional and physical toll leads to absenteeism which compounds the shortage of staff and increases the toll on the staff.

I was personally at the Castaic shelter one morning when 40 people—some with multiple dogs in pickup trucks, and others with leashed or carrier-confined pets—were already waiting to turn in their animals when the door opened. Some of the dogs appeared to have spent their lives on a chain, others were obviously untrained/problematic animals, but most were just unwanted pets.

Employees in a shelter have almost all been attracted to the job by a desire to help animals and have to block their own emotions when they ask the required question, “Why are you bringing in this animal?”

The eyes of the clerks too often show only the blank look of buried pain and resolution that has built up to cloud what is called, “compassion fatigue.”

“RESCUERS” HELP, BUT ARE NOT THE ANSWER

It is important to realize that there are no special credentials, background check or training required to open a 501(c)(3) animal rescue—it only requires registration of a corporate name with the State of California and non-profit status. There are also no requirements for the facility in which “rescued” animals are kept, nor for conditions.

“Rescuers” and adoption partners can help, but they cannot absorb a constant flow without becoming overcrowded themselves, because most operate out of their homes. Far too many “rescuers” end up as hoarders.

A rescuer quoted in the Times article stated that people ask her where to turn in their animal and she recommends certain County shelters over others. She (as a rescuer or an individual) could take these animals and relieve the shelter overcrowding—it is legal to relinquish, or transfer ownership of, an owned animal to another person.

But, “rescuers” also benefit financially from the fact that the shelter will provide medical care, vaccinations and behavior evaluation and HAS TO accept the animal. Whereas, the “rescuer” can say “No.” (While some argue that there is no statutory requirement for the municipal shelters to take in owned pets, not taking them in is likely to result in picking them up as a stray later—possibly when it has been injured or become ill, making euthanasia necessary to end suffering.)

MARCIA MAYEDA, DIRECTOR, HAS ASKED FOR HELP

Marcia Mayeda understands these issues because she worked her way up in this industry and acknowledges the stress on employees especially when shelters are overwhelmed with “large dogs.”

She said that Pit Bulls make up approximately 30 percent of the shelter population now, but there is also an increasing influx of Huskies, Belgian Malinois and German Shepherds.

This places increased dangers and stress on employees and requires that more dogs be kept alone in kennels, reducing the number that can be safely housed.

On June 20, 2023, she submitted her third report to the Board of Supervisors in response to their inquiry on how euthanasia at shelters could be reduced.

LA County Animal Control’s budget for the current fiscal year – FY 2023-24 – is $62,235,000. She stated that, “The Five-Year Analysis includes the addition of 379 positions, for a total increase of $44.5-million annually,” adding that, “Our operations are funded with Net County Cost and revenues generated primarily from charges for service fees, animal -licensing fees, fees for service and fees charged to our contract cities.”

Thus, it was not as if the Supervisors had not been made aware of the understaffing and the toll it was/is taking on employees.”

 

HUMANE EUTHANASIA IS NECESSARY

Too often in the current shelters’ overcrowded condition, the decision to euthanize an aggressive dog is based on the choice between “humane” euthanasia for an animal that has little-to-no-chance of being adopted, or allowing two or more dogs kenneled together to kill each other. When facing this decision daily, the staff can only try to minimize tragic outcomes for the dogs and dangers to employees and volunteers, as well as the public.

The L.A. Times and the public do not have to face these decisions on a minute-by-minute basis (nor at any other time). According to an example they used in their report, they also do not realize that a dog that may be nervous and reserved during its initial behavioral assessment can demonstrate aggression once it does not have to submit to strangers and/or has established its interpretation of “territory.”

Regardless of the species, breed or size of the animal, the County is liable for any damage to a human that is incurred from any animal that was known to be aggressive—regardless of what point in the impoundment that knowledge became known.

It is also almost impossible to realize how vicious a pack of small dogs can become—often ganging up on one of many forced to be placed together due to limited space.

The sounds of fights in kennels that can (and do) end in serious injury or death of an animal is a common cause of alarm in all shelters and place staff in a constant state of stress, personal danger, sadness and a feeling of failure to the animals.

This is a factor that the public and the Board of Supervisors do not face in their idealism of how wonderful each animal could be—if only it is placed in a single-dog family with no cats or other pets and no children, plus a large yard with high fencing and a dutiful owner that has time to take it on long walks or runs it daily in a place where it will not encounter any animal or human that might trigger aggression.

(Phyllis M. Daugherty is a former Los Angeles City employee, an animal activist and a contributor to CityWatch.)