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No kill: LA’s tale of cats and dogs

Out for a spin in L.A. with the family dog. (Photo: Oneinpunch, Shutterstock)

Los Angeles is close to becoming the largest U.S. city to achieve a “no kill” policy for healthy animals placed in municipal shelters.

The No Kill LA initiative aims to limit the city’s cat and dog euthanizations through the partnership of L.A. Animal Services and over 120 animal welfare organizations.

The most common meaning of a “no kill” zone —  and the one the city of Los Angeles has adopted — is when a community reaches a cat and dog save rate of at least 90 percent.

“I think working with people and involving the entire community from volunteers to doctors, to foster families, to small non-profits who have unique missions, all those things have come together to get us where we are today,” said Brenda Barnette, general manager of L.A. Animal Services.

When the trial program launched in 2012, the “save rate” — a measurement that reflects the percentage of cats and dogs not euthanized — at L.A. city shelters was 57.7 percent.

Through the first quarter of 2017, the save rate rose to 89.4 percent.

There is no official certification of what constitutes a “no kill” policy.

However, the most common meaning of a “no kill” zone —  and the one the city of Los Angeles has adopted — is when a community reaches a cat and dog save rate of at least 90 percent. The 10 percent of cats and dogs that are euthanized are typically in the advanced stages of a terminal illness or have aggressive behavioral issues.

The city of Los Angeles is about six-tenths of a percent shy of hitting the 90 percent threshold.

Barnette set out to reach the 90 percent rate in Los Angeles by building a partnership with a non-profit animal organization.

Barnette, who has also served as CEO of the Seattle Humane Society and the Bay Area’s Animal Rescue Foundation, said L.A.’s vast size and the diverse population that comes with it is part of what makes saving the city’s animals a unique challenge.

Michelle Sathe, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Best Friends Animal Society, said achieving “no kill” status ensures that healthy animals are not being put down solely because a municipal shelter lacks space.

Barnette set out to reach the 90 percent rate in Los Angeles by building a partnership with a non-profit animal organization, one that could both increase pet adoptions and improve access to affordable spay and neuter procedures.

In 2011 she asked Best Friends Animal Society, a non-profit that led a statewide no kill movement in Utah as well as pet adoption centers in Atlanta and New York, to lead the initiative. She said the organization had the animal-care experience that many large animal-rights groups lack.

“The fact that Best Friends has hands on animal care experience makes them a little unique.” Barnette said, “A lot of the big animal groups do different things: they might lobby, they might do education… but Best Friends has actually been operating for many years a large animal care facility.”

“As a group, we’ve understood that you have about 50,000 animals coming into city shelters (per year).” Marc Peralta.

The partnership put Best Friends in charge of a newly constructed animal care and adoption center in LA’s Mission Hills community, which the city’s Animal Services could no longer run because they lacked funding. In 2013, the non-profit also opened a second adoption center in Santa Monica.

The Mission Hills center holds around 120 cats and dogs at a given time, most of whom were previously held in city municipal shelters. The animals are transferred to the care centers when they have stayed too long at the city municipal, or if they need treatment for injuries or illnesses, Sathe said.

Marc Peralta, executive director of Best Friends Los Angeles, said caring for the city shelters’ many animals also has required working with smaller local animal organizations. He said these coalition partners offer the specialized care that municipal shelters may not have the financial resources to provide.

“As a group we’ve understood that you have about 50,000 animals coming into city shelters (per year)” Peralta said. “If one group or two groups took this initiative on, we knew that would never work.”

Sathe said prioritizing low-cost spay and neuter clinics was another critical component of the NKLA initiative because it helps keep animal populations down. Best Friends provides discounted procedures to pet owners earning less than $40,000 and some coalition partners, like FixNation, Stray Cat Alliance and Spay-4-LA offer free procedures.

“When you start to crowd your shelter and take in more than you can actually (care for) you start to see diseases and behaviors come up.” — Jennifer Scarlett

Dr. Jennifer Scarlett, the president of the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), said increasing access to the procedure also helped San Francisco achieve a higher save rate in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

The city, now called the birthplace of the modern “no kill” movement, had a 93 percent cat and dog live release rate in 2015, which, according to the SF SPCA website, was the highest of any major American city that year.

“High volume spay and neutering is really the cornerstone (of no-kill initiatives)” Scarlett said. “Anytime you can lower the number of homeless animals, then you get to spend more time and effort getting the ones that do come in out.”

Scarlett added that limiting the number of animals in a shelter can also lead to a higher save rate because it can prevent the spread of diseases. When a shelter becomes overcrowded, cats and dogs tend to contract respiratory diseases, such as Kennel Cough. She said that caring for these sick animals slows down the adoption process, causing yet more overcrowding in the shelter.

“When you start to crowd your shelter and take in more than you can actually (care for) you start to see diseases and behaviors come up,” Scarlett said. “It’s counterintuitive but actually not  increasing the (shelter’s) space, but instead increasing the capacity to care for animals gets them into a home faster.”

Ed’s Note: Daniel Maraccini is a Capitol Weekly intern from UCLA.


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