ANIMAL WATCH - Volunteers at the Los Angeles Animal Services Department (LAAS) shelters are an essential part of the shelter services provided by the City. Volunteers provide tens of thousands of hours of free work to the Department in its six animal shelters, greatly improving the quality of life of the animals in the shelters. For dogs, volunteers take them for walks, provide training, bring dogs into play groups, assist with adoptions, clean kennels, do laundry, and wash dishes. Volunteers provide similar essential services for cats, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs and other animals in the shelters. Because of the chronic shortage of regular employees, the animals would receive very little of this care if it weren’t for the volunteers. In the absence of this socialization provided by volunteers, many of these dogs will psychologically deteriorate, go “kennel crazy” to the point where they will not be easily adoptable, and will be killed. Without the volunteers, it would cost the City millions of dollars more to run the animal shelters. There is general agreement that the shelters could not operate in a humane manner without the volunteers.
But we need more volunteers, a lot more. It’s heartbreaking to go to the shelter now. Every dog is crying and barking at us to take them out, and we know we can only take a few each day. The more stressed the dogs become from lack of exercise, the worse they present in their kennels for potential adopters, making it harder for them to get adopted. At the West Valley Shelter where I volunteer, there are dogs who haven’t been taken out of their kennels for several weeks; most dogs only get out once a week, and that is thanks to a very few very committed volunteers. (At the West Valley Shelter, as of May 30, there were 14 dogs who hadn’t been out of their kennel in over 4 weeks and 67 dogs who hadn’t been out in 7 to 21 days.) Similar conditions exist at the other shelters.
LAAS is not recruiting, on-boarding, and training enough new volunteers. A City document containing questions from the CAO (Chief Administrative Officer) to the Animal Services Department regarding the budget, contains the following question number 43: “Does the Department have data on the volunteer application increase? How does it compare to the proposed increase in training?” The following statistics were provided by LAAS in response:
Total for July to November 2022: 3,361
Applications processed and time to process:
July: 509 in eight weeks
August: 827 in eight to 10 weeks
September: 1,168 in six to eight weeks
October: 347 in four to six weeks
November: 98 in four weeks
Total for July to November 2022: 2,949
Number of volunteers accepted:
Total accepted for July to November 2022: 570
So, in a five-month period, only 19% of applicants who were processed were accepted. It is very hard to understand how 2,379 applicants, 81% of those applying, could have been rejected. These applicants are willing to do hard, dirty, and sometimes dangerous work for the City for free.
The rejection letters sent to applicants do not state the reason for the rejection. They merely state: “Unfortunately, we are not able to approve your application at this time.” The letters then go on to ask the rejected applicants to donate money.
Training of those few applicants who are accepted as volunteers is also a problem. It takes weeks or months before those volunteers can take out Level 1 dogs (those under 34 pounds), and much longer before they can take out Level 2 or Level 3 dogs (dogs over 35 pounds and those with behavior issues), which constitute the vast majority of every shelter’s dog population. Some volunteers become frustrated and quit because they can't receive training and perform any significant tasks.
Mistreatment of existing volunteers by LAAS has also been a long-standing problem. Volunteers have been harassed and terminated for exposing poor conditions at the shelters. In response to newspaper articles, condemnation by Neighborhood Councils, and threat of a lawsuit, LAAS has clarified its policy to state that volunteers can speak to the press and on social media as long as they do so in their individual capacity. Some of the terminated volunteers have been reinstated, but others have not. Please see: Animal Shelter Volunteers Win First Round In Fight For First Amendment Rights. Also, Budget Advocates Call for Investigation of Animal Services Department Volunteer Program.
LAAS claims that the volunteers who have not been reinstated were terminated for reasons other than exercising their First Amendment rights. I’m a retired attorney, a former Federal Prosecutor for the U.S. Justice Department. I think I have a pretty good understanding of when something is a pretext or excuse for violating First Amendment rights, and that has been my understanding all along in these cases of terminated volunteers.
A petition is circulating requesting that an investigation be conducted of the mistreatment and termination of shelter volunteers, as well as the lack of new volunteers: PETITION. To date, the petition has received over 4,500 signatures and hundreds of people have submitted comments. If you haven’t already done so and you agree with the petition, please sign it. And to our elected officials, please respond to the will of the voters who have signed the petition.
(Jeffrey Mausner (www.mausnerlaw.com/) is on the Executive Committee of the Valley Alliance of Neighborhood Councils (VANC) where he serves as the Liaison to the Los Angeles Animal Services Department; he is 2nd Vice President of the Tarzana Neighborhood Council and Chair of its Animal Welfare Committee; and is a Volunteer at the West Valley Animal Shelter. He was previously a Neighborhood Council Budget Advocate and is now a Budget Representative. He is a retired attorney and law school professor and was formerly a Federal Prosecutor for the U.S. Justice Department, where he received numerous awards from the Attorney General of the U.S. Jeff is a Featured Writer for CityWatch . His other articles can be found here. This article is written in his private individual capacity, not on behalf of the Animal Services Department.)