L.A. Can Be a No-Kill City for Strays

New shelters and new attitudes could bring about the end of euthanizing unwanted pets.

By Ed Boks

WHEN IT COMES to dealing with stray animals, can Los Angeles become the first major "no-kill" city in the United States? A generation of skeptics, accustomed to a system that for decades has killed more than 50,000 homeless animals a year, would say no. But the Department of Animal Services, backed by the mayor and the City Council, is intent on making humane history.

More than just a policy or statistical objective, no-kill is a principle: that the city should apply the same criteria for deciding an animal's fate as would a loving pet owner or conscientious veterinarian. Healthy and treatable animals shouldn't be killed simply because of lack of room or resources. Killing strays may be the quick and, at least from afar, easy thing to do. But I have never, in nearly 25 years in this field, heard anyone argue that it is the right thing to do.

People who seek to excuse such killing often say we have to be "realistic." But such realism would be better directed at the main source of the problem — human irresponsibility.

It is humans, not animals, who engage in the cruelty that brings so many cases to the Animal Services Department's doors. More than 30% of the 45,000-plus animals the city takes in each year are relinquished — turned in — after years of living with a family, just like old furniture donated to Goodwill.

A third of the animals killed are orphaned, neonate puppies and kittens from parents that humans neglected to spay or neuter. The general attitude is, "Let someone else deal with the problem." Thousands of times a year, someone else does — with a lethal injection.

Compounding such human failure is a breakdown in social responsibility. On the government's balance sheet, saving animals can seem like a lowly or trivial concern compared to overcrowded prisons, underfunded police and the nation's worst homeless problem.

That's an easy position to take as long as you don't have to be there when the problem gets "solved." If public officials who brush off animal welfare as trivial had to see the results of their priorities carried out — to witness for themselves how trusting the dogs are even when being led to their deaths, how they lick the hands and face of the person with the needle — I suspect they would see matters in a very different light.

Yet things are looking up in Los Angeles. Between now and early 2007, the city will open six new state-of-the-art animal shelters, paid for through Proposition F. The new centers will provide four times our current shelter space, enough to accommodate the 150 lost, sick, injured, neglected or abused animals entrusted to the Animal Services Department every day. The centers will have wide aisles, solar and radiant heating, cooling misters, veterinary and spay/neuter clinics, park benches for visitors, fountains and lush landscaping — a world away from the grim conditions of older shelters, where animals can become so agitated or depressed that they seem unadoptable.

By transforming our animal shelters, chances are we can dramatically increase adoption rates.We already have been moving steadily in this direction. Over the last five years, our dog euthanasia rate has decreased 62%, our cat euthanasia rate 19%. In the last 12 months, just under 19,500 animals were killed — the fewest over a one-year period since the department began keeping records in the early 1970s, and fewer than in the much smaller city of Bakersfield. But that's still nearly 20,000 creatures who had love and devotion to offer and never got their chance.

As L.A.'s new animal care centers begin to open, the Animal Services Department offers this pledge, and it asks for your help in making good on it: No animal who comes through those doors should be killed out of convenience or lack of space. For every one of them, there is a kind and loving person or family, and it is our mission to bring them together.

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