Abandoned chihuahuas play in their pen at the East Valley Animal Center in 2009. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
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Police officers and city officials swept into six Los Angeles animal shelters Thursday, confiscating guns and ammunition from employees as part of an expanding internal investigation into the animal services agency.

Plainclothes officers from the Los Angeles Police Departmentand managers with the animal services agency took about 120 weapons, including shotguns, rifles and .38-caliber handguns. The city's 75 animal control officers are issued firearms to kill wild animals that are too injured to transport to shelters.

Brenda Barnette, general manager of the animal services department, said investigators were trying to determine what guns the agency has and how they are being used.

"We suspect there are some missing guns," said Barnette, adding that she does not necessarily suspect that the weapons were stolen.

Maggie Whelan, general manager of the city's Personnel Department, which is assisting in the probe, said she believed that no more than three guns are actually missing.

"I can't say for sure because we're not certain," she said.

The sweep came two months after Barnette revealed that the department was looking into allegations that shelter workers stole animals and sold them for a profit. And it occurred less than a month after city officials confirmed that there is an investigation into time card fraud involving department employees. Five employees are on paid administrative leave pending the internal investigation's outcome.

At least eight personnel investigators are looking at the shelter agency. Meanwhile, City Controller Wendy Greuel is working on a wide-ranging audit, saying that the department is "out of control at a number of levels, from time card issues to having a handle on resources they have — including how many guns they have and how they're being used."

Animal services officials "did not have an appropriate inventory of all the guns that they had in their possession," Greuel said. "They felt it was such an urgent issue that they called the LAPD."

Lt. Troy Boswell, who works in the city's East Valley shelter, said police handed shelter workers a note from Barnette and then took .38-caliber handguns from the premises.

"We were given no explanation," he said.

Barnette said she was also looking into reports from her shelter managers that department employees used guns to euthanize critically injured or terminally ill small animals, including turtles, squirrels and birds. She said such a practice was dangerous because bullets could ricochet off pavement or another surface.

She said weapons should be used only to euthanize large animals that cannot be treated medically, such as a deer caught in a fence.

"If you've got something as small as a turtle or a squirrel or something like that, it just seems to us that the correct procedure would be bring it back to the shelter, so it can be taken to a wildlife rehabilitation center or it can be euthanized," she said.

LAPD officers have been providing expertise and assistance to animal services personnel during their audit. The department will safeguard the weapons that were seized, LAPD Cmdr. Andy Smith said.

"We are going to hold on to them until the audit is done and they want them back," Smith said.

He noted that no warrants were executed during the operation.

Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.