I've been thinking a lot about the situation in Los Angeles since receiving your e-mail. The resignation of Ed Boks offers the Mayor an opportunity to move in a new direction, as the single biggest factor for lifesaving success or failure is who runs the shelters in any given community. Despite taking in over three times the number of animals per capita than the , Washoe County NV is now saving 90% of dogs and 86% of all cats. This followed the hiring of new directors passionate about saving lives and committed to implementing the programs and services which make it possible. In fact, a new director at Washoe CountyRegional Animal Services has heralded an unprecedented level of cooperation in the No Kill initiative and is working with community stakeholders to increase their already impressive 60% redemption rate for and 7% for stray cats.
For that level of success to come to Los Angeles, the job description must be as inclusive as possible. Rather than prior experience running a shelter, the job description should list skills which can be transferred to the shelter environment. Too often, prior experience running a shelter means a history of killing.
Second, the job announcement/description must put saving lives on at least equal footing with public health. If Los Angeles wants a new General Manager who is compassionate, dedicated to improving animal care, and committed to reducing killing, it must demand those characteristics in its recruitment.
Third, the Mayor must remember that while he is the elected steward, the shelters do not belong to him. Municipal shelters are doing what they are doing in our name: they are doing it with our taxes, with our donations, as agencies representing us, and they are even blaming us (and our neighbors) for doing it by claiming they have no choice because of the public’s irresponsibility. In short, they belong to the people. It is therefore incumbent on the Mayor to convene a committee of animal welfare advocates in the city to interview and help select the next candidate. The Committee must include a broad—not hand-picked by the Mayor—cross section of the animal protection community to interview candidates and recommend the next General Manager. When I was hired in Tompkins County, I was not just interviewed by those in power. I was also interviewed by volunteers, by , by critics of the shelter. And that is what Los Angeles requires as well.
Fourth, although we are picking up the tab and these shelters are supposed to (but often fail) to reflect our values, we are not paying the ultimate price. That is being paid by the animals who are unfortunate enough to enter U.S. shelters and lose their lives as a result. And so any job description must include a commitment to the No Kill philosophy and a commitment to implementing the programs and services which make it possible.
Fifth, the Mayor must give the General Manager the authority to renegotiate a union contract that makes it incredibly difficult to fire those who harm animals and consistently underperform. No longer should the City Attorney have sole authority to negotiate (read: rubber stamp) union contracts for animal services, which are deemed less important than for those of other city services.
Finally, I’ve said this before but it bears repeating until someone in the community champions it. In order to achieve and sustain No Kill, we must move past a system where the lives of animals are subject to the discretion and whims of shelter leaders or government bureaucrats. Currently, No Kill is succeeding in those communities with individual shelter leaders who are committed to achieving it and to running shelters consistent with the programs and services which make it possible. Unfortunately, such leaders are still few and far between. And when that leader leaves, the vision can quickly be doomed.
For No Kill success to be widespread and long lasting, we must move past the personalities and focus on institutionalizing No Kill by giving shelter animals the rights and protections afforded by law. Every successful social movement results in legal protections that codify expected conduct and provide protection against future conduct that violates normative values. We need to regulate shelters in the same way we regulate hospitals and other agencies which hold the power over life and death. The answer lies in passing and enforcing shelter reform legislation which mandates how a shelter must operate.
Otherwise, activists in Los Angeles will be back to square one if the candidate the Mayor chooses is not progressive, but even if he or she is, if they then later choose to leave for other opportunities in the not-too-distant future.