The Fur is Flying at LA’s Animal Services

MAILANDER MUSINGS - The Mayor of Los Angeles oversees the business of four million souls.  But the city department known as Los Angeles Animal Services is commissioned to oversee the lives of literally hundreds of millions of critters who happen to nest, graze, stalk, gallop, spawn and burrow within the City of Los Angeles's city limits.

Not many of our city apparatchiks are natural born animal service experts.  Typically there is a big-hearted but far from expert multi-millionaire or even a billionaire donor who sets the Mayor's agenda on animal services for him.  In recent years, Dr. Gary Michelson, the billionaire orthopedic surgeon who has patented hundreds of surgical instruments, has had the Mayor's ear, as has the Mayor's own best girlfriend forever, Lu Parker, on most top animal rights matters.

But now there are profound rumblings throughout LA's animal activist community that LAAS General Manager Brenda Barnette--which is to say, the Mayor--which is to say, the billionaires who own the Mayor--want to privatize the city's most life-affirming department, perchance at the expense of some of the city’s top animal rescue organizations.

Passionate and occasionally overzealous animal rights advocate Daniel Guss is calling Barnette a "liar" after he and Barnette appeared on KCRW's Which Way LA.  And one local rescue organizer is even going so far as to suggest that adoption rates among various rescue agencies are being manipulated to pave the way for a privatization effort that will vastly favor one rescue organization above some others.

Best Friends and the New Hope program are two animal rescue I have learned that New Hope is not quite a full-fledged organization, but more of a program.  New Hope has recently suffered the loss of their rescue Coordinators' position within the city.  Best Friends has been attacked by activists since securing a three-year contract to run a new shelter in Councilmember Richard Alarcon's district (over the protests of Alarcon himself) beginning last year--an arrangement seen as a privatization incubator.  

The Mayor and the General Manager have meanwhile cut dozens of city Animal Services jobs and proposed to cut many more this past April.

In this Spartan economic environment, the gaming of statistics has, in the eyes of some activists, tipped the Mayor's hand.

"The adoptions from the Best Friends shelter have been less than stellar … and I think that is because the agreement only allows them to take the 'leftovers' … meaning animals that are not adopted by the public or taken by rescue groups…so that means they are left with a whole lot of pit bulls, Chihuahuas and tabby cats … making it more difficult for rescues to get animals out of the shelter would leave more 'desirable' animals to go to Best Friends and thus improve their adoption numbers to justify a private group taking more responsibility by doing better," a key source tells me.

Some local animal rights activists agree with that appraisal entirely and think that a privatization contract will favor New Hope.  Others think that the second half of the statement only speaks of rescue agencies that aren't performing optimally.

"Rescuers should 'rescue.'  They should take animals that the public wouldn't want instantly that would be put to sleep. Take an ill, injured dog or one that needs grooming or a little training. That dog will die without rescue," another high profile activist told me.

But whatever their position on the lies, damned lies, and other numbers also known as statistics, most local activists are convinced that Barnette herself has serious flaws as an administrator that don't jibe well with a majority of the local rescue community organizations, which makes for a less-than-optimal rescue environment--and that the Mayor's team has remained indifferent to for too long.

"My feeling is that she is not a very good communicator, and that hinders the progress of any kind of partnership and progress in project management," animal activist and animal education proponent Paul Darrigo told me.  Darrigo spearheads a group that has provided education to Reserve Animal Control Officers (RACOs) whose vision has been to provide LAAS with fifty reserve, fully-empowered Animal Service officials, the way the Sheriff’s Department and the Police Department staff reserve officers.  But unlike earlier General Managers, Barnette has taken administrative actions that diminish the presence of RACOs within the city and many speculate that the only reason to do so is to pave the way for a single private controlling organization.

More criticism comes Barnette’s way for her fumbling of the Heigl Foundation's generous spay and neuter behest to the city.  Actress Kathy Heigl and her mother organized a high profile foundation that gave a spay and neuter grant to LAAS.  

But as the LA Weekly reported last September, Heigl’s organization informed LAAS last summer that “Despite our continued and tireless efforts to work cooperatively with the department in providing financial and strategic planning support to various programs, LA Animal Services has been unable to reciprocate the same spirit of partnership and working collaboratively to address the challenges we face in our efforts to better the lives of animals in our cities."

Spay-neuter issues are critical to most members of LA’s animal rights community.  General Manager Barnette has in the past said that mandatory spay-neuter laws discriminate against breeders—breeders, who are an anathema to the most passionate animal rights activists.  

Barnette in the eyes of many of these has yet to distance herself from previous comments adequately; she even appeared at a breeder event as recently as January 2011.  “It’s your chance to get to know her and let her know your feelings about the mandatory spay-neuter law” the invitation of the California Federation of Dog Clubs blared.

The troubles with Villaraigosa Animal Services appointees are many and storied.  Activists were initially outraged at the fact that LAAS commissioner Marie Atake was strong-armed out of her position by the Mayor’s onetime Chief of Staff Jimmy Blackman in 2007.  Atake spoke out against the machinations of former General Manager Ed Boks, who resigned in 2009.  Blackman himself resigned from the Mayor’s team in 2010.

But privatization in favor of a single favored organization above all other local orgs appears to be a bone of contention that could make an already angry opposition boil over with rage.

"Not having a New Hope coordinator won't get in the way of me pulling my breed from any city shelter…but not every rescue person is me," one local noted rescuer told me.  The work will indeed continue, but the way LAAS shows favor to certain organizations is likely to have far reaching effects on animal rescue organizations throughout the city.

(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of The Plasma of Terror. Mailander blogs at

Tags: Joseph Mailander, Mailander Musings, LAAS, Los Angeles Animal Services, animals, dogs, cats, Ed Boks, Brenda Barnette

Vol 10 Issue 36
Pub: May 4, 2012