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Sun, Sep

LA Animal Services' Plan for ‘Finders’ to Keep Lost Pets OK'd by Council - Scheme or Scam?

ANIMAL WATCH-Under the "finders, keepers" plan of LA Animal Services General Manager Brenda Barnette, recently approved by the City Council, the city's costly animal shelters may soon become merely havens for wayward Pit Bulls -- the dogs least likely to be picked up as strays and taken home by Good Samaritans. 

However, your cuddly Poodle or wandering Beagle may not get to the shelter where you can find him or her, because Barnette is pursuing a policy that allows anyone who finds a lost animal in Los Angeles to keep it. 

Barnette, who makes $232,000 a year to safeguard LA's lost, unwanted and abandoned animals, claims enabling finders of lost pets -- dogs, cats and possibly rabbits -- to participate in an elaborate scheme which would legally make them "fosters" or agents of the City, authorized to keep your lost pet at their home, and in 30 days obtain legal ownership through LA Animal Services, is the answer to overcrowded shelters. 

LA CITY SHELTERS WAREHOUSING PIT BULLS 

Does LAAS have an overpopulation problem, or a Pit Bull warehousing problem? Barnette claims the shelters don't have room to take in stray animals; but that is exactly what the law requires and is the reason for her $42 million budget. 

The millions of dollars being spent on discounted and free spay/neuter have obviously impacted the number of unwanted pets and puppies and kittens being born to owned dogs and cats in LA. Barnette reports that most all dogs, other than Pit Bulls and cats (other than ferals), are adopted. 

But, the number of Pit Bulls in City shelters is staggering, and, in the absence of any LA laws to curtail breeding, it will undoubtedly continue. A review of the first four pages of the LAAS website yesterday showed that 26 of the first 40 male dogs are Pit Bull/Staffordshire Terrier breeds, with the following holding-periods:  

10-year-old Pit Bull held since 12/10/17

8-year-old Pit Bull came in on 11/4/17

4-year-old Pit Bull held since 9/12/17 (That's one year!)

5-year-old Pit Bull impounded on 11/19/17

4-year-old Pit Bull held since 12/3/17 

There is a reason why certain animals are not adopted from shelters, which is why the law allows them to be humanely euthanized to make space for the lost pets. However, even with adequate space at the shelters, pets will be deprived from the fastest way to be returned to their owners under the proposed "finders, keepers" scheme. 

Reuniting pets and owners is not an opportunity for Barnette, Councilman Paul Koretz and Mayor Eric Garcetti to manipulate animal welfare for political purposes, but an obligation under State law. 

WHAT NATIONAL HUMANE LEADERS SAY 

On the Best Friends Blog (Jan. 19, 2016), Francis Battista co-founder & Board chair, wrote that, according to the Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control Commission (MADACC), which serves 19 municipalities in the county, “...74 percent of dogs and 52 percent of cats reclaimed at MADACC in 2014 went home in the first two days of their stray hold.”  

The CA Hayden Law states, "The Legislature finds and declares that it is better to have public and private shelters pick up or take in animals than private citizens. The Legislature further finds that the taking in of animals is important for public health and safety, to aid in the return of the animal to its owner and to prevent inhumane conditions for lost or free-roaming animals."  

American Humane recommends, “Take pets with no ID to an animal shelter. If the animal has no ID tag or microchip, its best chance of being reunited with its owner is generally at an animal shelter. The shelter is the one obvious place where owners are likely to look for lost pets. 

Numerous legal experts have agreed that there is nothing in the CA State Code which allows for transfer of title to an animal automatically in 30 days.If the shelter abides by the state's laws, title then transfers to the agency, but this does not apply to a private person holding an animal in their home and merely posting photos and flyers.  

OTHER SHELTERS NAMED DO NOT HAVE A ‘SIMILAR’ PLAN 

Although Barnette states other shelters across the country have adopted a similar plan. However,  an examination those provided by the Legislative Analyst's Office  (Animal Care & Control Team, ACCT Philly , Austin Animal Shelter, Washington DC Animal Care And Control Facility, Humane Rescue Alliance, Oakland Animal Services -- which does offer adoption after 30 days) indicates that they merely record that the person has the animal, ask for photos in some cases  and agree to post the information for the public on their website and/or other lost-and-found board. They then place the finder in touch with any prospective owner. 

NONE of the above imposed the type of duties that Barnette suggests. 

NO CA STATE LAW AUTHORIZES INDIVIDUALS TO HOLD STRAY DOGS 

Although, undoubtedly, some people finding lost animals just keep them, that is not what is being considered here. No provision of State law allows for a private individual to take in a lost pet for 30 days and then be able to adopt it automatically. The minimum 72-hour holding period in the shelter (where the animal can be seen by the owner) allows the transfer of title to the government agency or humane society, which may then sell/adopt the pet to a new owner. 

CA Fd. & Ag. Code Sec. 31101 - 31108  (Chapter 5 enacted by Stats. 1967, Ch. 15 - Rev. 2012) allows for entering into contracts with humane societies or other organizations/associations, but NOT with private individuals to hold stray dogs.


BARNETTE'S PLAN WOULD MAKE FINDERS ‘FOSTERS/AGENTS’ FOR THE CITY
 

Under LA Municipal Code, the finder of a dog without ID must report to the shelter that they have the dog within two to four hours, and the Department may demand that they bring it in or may pick it up and transport it to the shelter. Following are the provisions that GM Brenda Barnette wants to add (see entire Council File here.): 

The current legal hold period for an animal without a license or microchip is 72 hours. Placing it in the possession of a finder for 30 days merely extends the City's liability. Why doesn't Barnette just take in the pet at the shelter for three days?  

The reality of Brenda Barnette's elaborate scheme ignores that the City -- by imposing the following provisions and authorizing possession -- is legally taking responsibility for not only the animal but also for the actions of the unvetted finder, with all liability resting on the taxpayers. The owner of the dog may also retain liability under CA law, according to some opinions. Barnette seeks to place all responsibility with the finder -- which she cannot make true by designation -- but have the City retain rights to the animal. 

It also does not consider that, if the finder knows who owns the animal, the City could be a party to -- and complicit in -- theft. 

ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS 

Tristan Noack of the Chief Legislative Analysts' Office (in emails obtained through a CA Public Records Act request) asked Brenda Barnette several times whether her plan would have a financial impact, which she denied. Yet, she consistently blames failures on a shortage of staff and this elaborate record-keeping scheme is labor-intensive. It also involves taking financial responsibility for every person authorized by the City to "shelter at home." 

She is unusually insistent on expediting this, stating: 

"This program is going on all over the City in addition to many progressive shelter [sic] nationally. Unfortunately, we can [supposed to be "can't"?]protect the owners until we have an official program with guidelines so I'm glad it is only a 30-day report back." 

How will the Department of Animal Services "protect the owners" by giving finders the right to keep their pets? And, if it is "going on all over the City" and owners need to be protected, all LAAS needs to do is demand that the found animals be brought to the shelter. 

Thus far, Barnette has testified that she has seen flyers in the Laurel Canyon and Santa Clarita areas (Santa Clarita is not in the city of Los Angeles.) Certainly, some smaller homogeneous communities may successfully return a few lost pets to local residents, but this is NOT an excuse or reason to change the laws of an entire 469 square mile city with 4,000,000 diverse residents and animals that may wander or be taken many miles from home.  

HERE IS BARNETTE'S PLAN 

The Department of Animal Services is proposing to allow private citizens to provide home care for a dog or cat on the loose who is not wearing a license tag under certain guidelines. 

A new Ordinance would be required to effectuate the following conditions that a community member must agree to before providing temporary home care for a found dog or cat (Barnette later suggested adding rabbits because they might be microchipped.) 

  1. To notify the closest City animal shelter after finding an animal within four hours or within two hours thereafter if the animal is attached or hitched to a vehicle, that they have such animal in their possession, and provide a description of the animal including weight, where they found and where they have confined the animal. 
  1. To provide a picture (2 poses preferred) of the animal to the shelter for posting within 4 hours. The picture will be posted on the DAS website with the description and will indicate that the pet is being temporarily sheltered in a home waiting to find the owner and to call the shelter if you believe this is your pet to arrange a meeting at a shelter to see the pet. 
  1. To go to a veterinarian or one of the six City animal shelters and have the animal weighed and scanned for a microchip within four hours. 
  1. To be willing to be a Good Samaritan and make sure that any medical needs are taken care of at their own expense understanding that a refund can be requested from the owner if the owner is located. 
  1. To make and distribute posters with the pet's picture and their contact information in the area where the animal was found within four hours of finding the pet. 

Author's NOTE:  LAMC Section 28.04 HANDBILLS, SIGNS states: 

 (a) No person shall paint, mark or write on, or post or otherwise affix, any hand-bill or sign to or upon any sidewalk, crosswalk, curb, curbstone, street lamp post, hydrant, tree, shrub, tree stake or guard, railroad trestle, electric light or power or telephone or telegraph or trolley wire pole, or wire appurtenant thereof or upon any fixture of the fire alarm or police telegraph system or upon any lighting system, public bridge, drinking fountain, life buoy, life preserver, life boat, or other life-saving equipment, street sign or traffic sign.) 

  1. After 30 days, the person providing home care must either decide to keep the animal and get it vaccinated, altered and licensed (dog) OR they must surrender the animal to one of six LA City animal shelters. The finder must agree to keep the animal at the location provided for the full 30 days and any changes must be filed with DAS City shelter. 
  1. The finder must agree to keep the animal at the location provided for the full 30 days and any changes must be filed with DAS City shelter. 
  1. If the animal is lost or stolen, it must be reported to the DAS immediately. 
  1. If requested to do so by the Department, the finder shall surrender such animal to the General Manager or their duly authorized representative upon demand. 
  1. If the found animal has any medical needs, the finder must obtain veterinary care at their own expense, and a record verifying that an injured animal received treatment immediately by a licensed veterinarian must be submitted to the LAAS Chief Veterinarian within 24 hours at the shelter, along with the diagnosis, type of treatment, and prognosis by the vet. If the owner is located, the owner can be expected to reimburse the finder for any medical expenses incurred on behalf of the animal. 
  1. After 30 days but before 32 days, they either decide to keep the animal and get it vaccinated, altered and licensed or they surrender the animal to one of the six City animal shelters. If the finder returns animal to owner in their neighborhood, they must immediately notify the DAS and provide the name and address of the owner. 
  1. Additionally, the finder assumes liability of the animal during the 30-day period that he or she is providing care for the animal. This includes medical issues faced by the animal, injuries or harm caused by the animal, and damage caused by the animal should it escape. 

If the animal is pregnant, the DAS will determine whether the finder can provide a suitable whelping environment for the offspring, which will become property of the Department. The finder may not provide home care for an animal if doing so would cause the finder to be in violation of the three dog and three cat Los Angeles City limit. 

LEGAL EXPERTS ON LIABILITY FOR THE FOUND ANIMAL 

California has strict liability laws for dog bites, holding the owner (and, in some instances the keeper) of the dog liable for any damages that occur in a public area or on private property where the damaged party was specifically allowed. The City is assuming responsibility for the dog being held by a "keeper." Some experts say this means assuming liability for both. 

COUNCILMAN PAUL KORETZ' ADDS HIS WISDOM 

At the PAW Committee meeting on June 20, Koretz expounded upon his one experience as being justification for approval of Barnette's plan. Koretz -- who lives in West LA -- stated that he and his wife had found two loose dogs and taken them in and posted signs. He said that the owners finally responded and said they had "probably passed the signs a hundred times but thought they had been up too long to be their dogs." He boasted about keeping the dogs out of the shelter. He did not say how many times the owners had gone to the WLA shelter to look for their pets, nor how many sleepless nights they had not knowing their whereabouts or fate. 

THE REAL SOURCE OF LIFESAVING 

Is this plan a scam in itself -- an attempt by Barnette to make her "lifesaving" and impound stats appear better than they are. When she recently filled the highly paid position of Assistant General Manager, she hired an outsider from NY to be in charge of "lifesaving," rather than someone familiar with and experienced in field operations and law enforcement. 

Is Barnette trying to hide the fact that she is neglecting enforcement of animal-welfare and protection laws by not maintaining robust field operations? Keeping animals out of shelters successfully starts with strong officer presence in communities and continued emphasis on licensing, abandonment and care provisions of the law. 

BRENDA BARNETTE'S SCHEME WELL-MEANING OR SELF-SERVING? 

Why should the taxpayers be given the added expense and risk of a stranger holding a lost animal for 30 days? The animal can be immediately held, title transfer after 72 hours, and the animal made available for adoption to the person who found it and requested “first rights.” 

Will all finder’s keep the animals, or will Barnette allow rescuers to take possession of strays from finders? This then creates another new “business model,” not a “public service.”  

Will owners feel obligated to pay -- or will finders want a "reward?" Can the finder process a credit card? Should the owner carry cash?  

What if the finder does not want to return the pet to someone they deem an unsuitable owner? This potential for conflict could prove costly to the City, which is potentially responsible for any injury that might occur – to people or the animal -- as well as the costs of resulting litigation. 

Should the City be involved in a plan where there could be scams perpetrated on dog owners attempting to retrieve their animals? 

Is this a good idea or merely a self-serving scheme to improve Brenda Barnette's stats and make more room for Pit Bulls to be warehoused in LA city shelters? Why is she so bent on avoiding the responsibility for the welfare of lost and unwanted pets, which is the heart of the role of the Department she chose to manage?

 

(Phyllis M. Daugherty is a former City of LA employee and a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.