Photo by Jennifer Leigh/Flicker
Los Angeles kills more animals in its shelters than any other metropolitan area in the United States. For that to change, we will have to figure out what to do with the pets none of us want
By Jesse Katz
Los Angeles Magazine, May 2006
His name is Roy. At least for now. Whatever it was before, whatever it might be again, he will live or die as he is known here. The staff of the South Los Angeles shelter came up with it, turned him into Roy, to help improve his odds—of winning someone’s heart, of leaving on a leash. Without a name, he would be just A774623, which has been written on surgical tape and fastened to a chain around his neck. He looks like a Roy. He is old and skinny, the color of faded cinnamon. He has a wrinkled brow and flabby jowls, a face that is weary but earnest. Whenever a stranger enters the kennel, Roy springs to his hind legs, pawing at the metal grate that covers his cinder-block cell. He wriggles his snout between the gaps, sniffing and snorting, his tongue a gush of sloppy kisses. He turns himself sideways, scratching his bony hide against the bars, inviting human fingers to join in. His tail wags. His eyes beg.
But nobody comes for Roy. Not an owner, if he ever had one. Not the people who found him on the street and called the city for help. Not even the rescue groups that scour the shelters for overlooked mutts, fostering them until they can be placed in a permanent home. Roy is not anyone’s idea of a pet. He is not cute. He is not fluffy. He is not tiny. He is not exotic. He is an eight-year-old pit bull, a mastiff-and-Staffordshire mix, whose singular misfortune is to belong to a breed for which supply exceeds demand. Roy is surplus. In our system of animal control—a system few of us have seen, a system most of us will never encounter—dogs like Roy are doomed from the start.
Los Angeles fusses over its pets. We primp them and we perfume them, we drive with them in our laps and we sleep with them in our beds, we deck them out in jogging suits and we doll them up in diamond collars, we soothe them with massages and sedatives and psychotherapy. We also kill them—or rather, we do it by proxy, leaving the job to our government. The animal control agencies of L.A., including those of the city, the county, and two dozen smaller municipalities, put to death 104,841 animals last year, more than any other metropolitan area in the United States. About 35,000 of them were dogs, 55,000 were cats, and the rest a miscellany of rabbits, roosters, snakes, and guinea pigs. That is the good news. For decades the number has been so outlandish—250,000 a year in the 1970s, 150,000 a year in the ’80s, 125,000 in the ’90s—that even a decline this monumental somehow feels hollow. In 35 years Los Angeles has exterminated more than 5 million animals. The toll is at once appalling and abstract. “I call it every community’s dirty little secret,” says Ed Boks, the new chief of the city’s animal shelters. As the notion of animals possessing rights has moved into the mainstream, the secret has gotten out. The institution of the dog pound is being assailed everywhere in the country but nowhere more so than L.A., where a cadre of activists—led by a former child actress, the voice of Lucy in the old Peanuts cartoon specials—has thrust the city to the forefront. The city changed the name of its department a few years ago, from Animal Regulation to Animal Services. It later added a slogan, “Saving Animals’ Lives.” Earlier this year Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa hired Boks, a former minister who comes touted as a champion of the “no-kill” philosophy. He is the seventh general manager in the past decade. But the battle over image and semantics only underscores the great contradiction of this business—that the protectors of unwanted animals, the people who pluck them from danger, who clean them and feed them and heal them, who give them names and buy them time, are also their executioners.
The shelters call it euthanasia, the Greek term for a merciful death, and that is, at times, the service they perform. Nobody should underestimate the damage done animals at the hands of uncaring owners, the filth, the sores, the parasites, the starvation, the dogs maimed in fights, burned by acid, left to strangle on their own collars. Like county hospitals, the shelters must take them all, the worst cases, no matter how poor the chances of recovery. A lethal injection, if it puts an end to the misery, requires little justification. Some animals die before they can even be killed. More frequently, though, L.A.’s shelters preside over another kind of death, one dictated by time and space. If nobody is coming for Roy, how long should the city hold him? What is its financial obligation, its moral obligation, to maintain a dog nobody cared for in the first place? These are called euthanasias, too, but it is harder to think of them as merciful. They are deaths of convenience, a way to rid the world of expendable pets. To the most combative of the activists, the practice is evil, the canine equivalent of ethnic cleansing. They have aimed their outrage at the managers of Los Angeles Animal Services—or in their rhetoric, the Los Angeles Auschwitz Squad—whose callousness and ineptitude, as they see it, are to blame for the slaughter. The department sees itself as the victim, forced to sweep up the mess of a throwaway society. Everyone benefits when stray and distressed animals are removed from the streets, but few consider the thankless burden that falls on those who do the dirty work of disposal. “It’s really such a brutal system, absolutely brutal,” says Robin Jampol, the founder of Westside German Shepherd Rescue of Los Angeles, which adopts dogs from the city’s shelters. “The people involved—your whole life gets sucked out.”
Few city agencies have been as historically underfunded as animal control, the stepchild of public safety. The department’s workforce is largely blue collar and, by necessity, desensitized. They are trained to move animals through the system, not to ponder the ambiguities of their mission. What this lumbering bureaucracy is being called on to do, though, is just that—to stop the machinery of the shelters, to consider the sanctity of each life inside. Such a radical turn would require a rethinking of ethical questions, of emotions, of biases, of habits, that we are rarely consistent about ourselves. Most of us recognize the wisdom of Gandhi’s proverb, that a nation can be judged by its treatment of animals. We do not, as a rule, condone their suffering. Still, we make exceptions all the time, for food, for entertainment, for clothing, for science, for tradition. Few of us have the zeal to lead purely vegan lives, rejecting every product that relies on the sacrifices of a nonhuman species. When it comes to the animals that serve as our pets—our best friends, our surrogate children—we profess a special affection. But we do not apply it equally. We romanticize some breeds and write off others, often on the most superficial of grounds. If the animals being killed in our shelters were shih tzus, the practice would have already come to a halt. But they are not. They are Roys.
The South Los Angeles Animal Care and Control Center is one of six shelters in the city system. The county system, which serves unincorporated L.A. and 50 contract cities, has six of its own. There are smaller municipal shelters, as well as humane organizations, from Long Beach to Santa Monica to Pomona. Even then, South L.A. stands out as the wildest and the grimmest, the MASH unit of dog pounds. Half of the dogs euthanized by Los Angeles Animal Services are killed inside this one building.
Nothing about the facility, which is tucked on a side street, across from a dairy, in what is otherwise a residential corner of Jefferson Park, appears as forbidding as its reputation. The newest of the city’s shelters, it has a playful, modernist facade, with sharp angles and bright colors, and a banal, waiting-room quality to the interior. The P.A. system is usually tuned to the “smooth jazz” of 94.7 The Wave. A tiny Garfield figurine is taped to the receiving desk. Every so often a time-release canister of deodorizing mist sweetens the corridors with mango or cherry. The community it serves, though, sandwiched between the 10 and 105 freeways, is mostly poor and immigrant and besieged by gangs, an environment in which the struggles of people often trump the needs of pets. These are the unspoken variables of animal control—class and culture—the conditions that fuel L.A.’s kill rate. As urban as South-Central is, much of its population shares an agrarian past, Latinos having come largely from farming societies and African Americans primarily from the South. With that comes a view of animals that tends to be utilitarian and unsentimental. Dogs here are more likely to be kept outside, less likely to be spayed or neutered. If affluent L.A. is inclined to pamper its dogs, inner-city L.A. is inclined to toughen them. A dog in the hood is a source of empowerment, a symbol of sexual dominance even; Snoop Dogg has made a career of tapping this imagery, reminding us that promiscuous males act like canines—and that their female equivalents are, technically speaking, bitches.
On the streets the dog of choice is the pit bull, a term that encompasses several muscular breeds, most of which were developed for the blood sports of Elizabethan England. No animal is more maligned in the world today, the source of so many irrational fears. Most shelters in the United States refuse to offer them for adoption, killing them as soon as they are impounded. Some cities have outlawed them altogether. There is no question that pits, with their pink-rimmed eyes and saber-toothed chops, can look scary. They have committed a disproportionate number of the most-publicized attacks on humans. But not unlike their owners, they can also be the victims of profiling, presumed vicious, even though all but a few are sweethearts; the Staffordshire, according to the American Kennel Club’s guidelines, has “affection for its friends, and children in particular.” Because of pit bulls, the South L.A. shelter kills 54 percent of the dogs that come through its doors. If the West L.A. shelter were being overrun by big, bad dogs, it would do the same. Instead, it kills 19 percent. At a certain point the question of compassion becomes one of demographics: If the dogs of South-Central are dying, how much should the rest of the city care?
Of the 13,000 dogs and cats that enter South L.A.’s doors every year, 9,000 are brought in by animal control officers, or ACOs, the cops of the shelter system. Their job is rooted in the belief that stray animals pose a threat to health and safety, and that it is a civil society’s duty to round them up. Because their relationship to dogs—and sometimes the public—can be antagonistic, they follow the protocols of a paramilitary organization. They address one another by last name and rank, speaking in acronyms over their radios. They wear tan-and-olive uniforms, like sheriff’s deputies, with creases and badges and thick leather Sam Browne belts. The formality, though, is mostly illusion. It conceals the nakedness of the job, that the city is patrolled by officers equipped with little more than the tools of a rodeo hand. They have rope and they have gloves; the gloves, the joke goes, are not for keeping teeth out but for holding blood in. They can also reach for a Ketch-All pole, a stick with a noose that has been around for half a century. They do not carry tranquilizers or nets. The city issues them firearms but not for self-defense, only to euthanize an animal already close to death. The best officers have keen intuition, a gift for reading growls and defusing barks, a flair for playing the alpha. The rest burn out. If they all show up, South L.A. is supposed to have six in the field on any given day. Often there are just two. “We’re in a line of work that’s really touchy,” says animal control officer Jose Gonzalez, who has been stationed at the shelter for five years. “People and animals. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
Before pulling out of the shelter, Gonzalez wipes down the interior of his white kennel truck with a disinfecting towelette, slides a Thomas Guide onto the dash, and radios in to his dispatcher. Every call is given a ranking, coded on a scale of 1 to 18, with injured or dying animals at the top. What officers find at the scene, though, does not always correspond to the original complaint. Often callers will embellish the circumstances, making a dog sound sicker or more vicious than it is, or pretending that it is a stray rather than their own worn-out pet. In some neighborhoods, the concept of pet ownership itself is vague; dogs seem to float in and out of yards, cared for as long as they remain a novelty, discarded as soon as they require a vet. A report of two “stray, aggressive” dogs sends Gonzalez to East 61st Street, where he pulls up to a brick bungalow covered with Mexican soccer flags. There are dogs wandering on the patio, dogs sleeping on the curb.
“Señora?” Gonzalez calls to a lady behind the wrought-iron screen.
“These dogs won’t leave,” she shouts back. “Will you take them away?”
It takes several minutes for Gonzalez to realize what is going on, that the woman he is talking to, the one who called for help, is not the one being menaced. She is the source of the problem, a collector of strays—and now that they are causing trouble with her neighbors, she wants them removed. “That’s not how it’s supposed to work,” Gonzalez tells her. The city normally charges $20 to pick up an unwanted pet. He agrees to impound one dog from her property, a brown shepherd mix that may or may not have tried to bite a girl a few houses away. He lassos a couple more in the street, swinging his lariat like a charro on the heels of a calf. Hoisting them onto his truck, he is approached by several neighbors, presumably relieved to see the dogs go. “Can you take our dog, too?” they ask.
“Goodness,” Gonzalez mutters. “I feel like the garbageman.”
When his truck is full, he heads back to the shelter, where he will need the better part of an hour to unload. Officers call it the booking process. One at a time, Gonzalez guides his quarry down the back corridors, sometimes cajoling, sometimes commanding, sometimes dragging, dog nails on concrete. “C’mon, old man,” he urges one of the 61st Street strays. “Walk with me. You’ll learn. Good boy.” They reach a heavy green door, the entrance to the Treatment Room—the first stop, and often the last, in an animal’s stay. A caricature of a dog in a doctor’s smock, with a half-cocked smile, says: “Sorry, employees only.” At times the room is quiet, all stainless steel and fluorescent lights; at times it is pandemonium, dogs coming in by the dozen, dogs by the dozen being led to their death.
With the help of the veterinary staff, every impounded animal gets weighed and vaccinated, doused with flea spray and scanned for a microchip, a silicon implant that would denote an owner. Gonzalez enters the data in the department’s computer, using a system known as Chameleon. It generates an identification number, to be worn on a collar as long as the animal is here. Gonzalez readies a cheap digital camera, preparing his dogs for their mug shot. One side of the Treatment Room sink has been converted into a backdrop, complete with white trellis and fake ivy. The pictures will be posted on the Internet, a cyber-age technique for attracting potential adopters or, depending on the image, scaring them off. When he is done, Gonzalez leads each animal across the hall to the kennels, row after row of padlocked cages, 66 altogether, which usually house at least 150 dogs. It is the ultimate perp walk, a journey down a gauntlet of howling, taunting, territorial creatures—animals that, if they had tin cups, would be raking them across the prison bars. The clamor is dizzying. The newcomers, tails tucked, heads bowed, slink close to the ground. Some quiver. Some urinate. If they had not already figured it out, this is the moment that their predicament becomes clear, that they are captives, guilty of something.
Cats fare no better. Many more die. Most of those, however, are feral animals, with no need or desire for a home. Dogs are the measure of the system—they pose a greater threat, they take up more space, they wear their misery for all to see. Locking the cages behind him, Gonzalez tells himself he is doing the dogs a favor, rescuing them from an uncertain fate. There is always a chance that a nice family could visit, that someone might look one of these pooches in the eye and fall in love. If not, he will never know. “In all honesty, once I put them in, I don’t go back and check,” Gonzalez says. “That would be almost like facing the reality of things.”
At the opposite end of the shelter, closer to the front door, South L.A.’s animal care technicians pick up where the animal control officers leave off. If the ACOs stock the shelter with animals, the ACTs are charged with trying to get them out. There are 14 of them, mostly dressed in blue Dickies and hickory-striped railroad shirts, the touchier, feelier side of the system. They get to see the success stories, to orchestrate the happy endings—the 5,000 dogs and cats adopted last year. Their walls are covered with letters of gratitude. Instead of badges, the saving animals’ lives slogan is embroidered above their breast.
More than any other job in the department, though, theirs borders on the irreconcilable. Half their time is spent keeping animals alive, the other half preparing them for death. One minute, animal care technicians are playing matchmaker, encouraging visitors to consider adopting. The next, they are undoing their own work, attending to owners who want to relinquish bothersome pets. These are called over-the-counter surrenders, and the reasons never change: The dog is too big, the dog requires too much attention, the dog tries to escape, the dog clashes with the furniture. For relieving pet owners of their responsibilities, the fee is $5 an animal. The worst part is watching those same people then head for the kennels, to shop for a replacement. “This isn’t a used-car lot,” says Gerald Hill, who, until February, was the kennel supervisor. “You shouldn’t be able to turn in an old bucket just to get yourself a new one.” The department’s slogan, he thinks, is not only disingenuous but also self-defeating. By advertising a favorable outcome, instead of the likelihood of death, the shelters make it too easy for owners to give up on their pets. “You’re deceiving the public,” Hill says. “It lets everyone off the hook.”
By state law, animals must be kept a minimum of four business days, after which they become available for adoption or for euthanasia. Like clocks set to another time zone, every calendar in the South L.A. shelter is marked ahead, so that Monday shows Friday and Friday shows Wednesday. Some animals end up getting more time, weeks, even months, to find a home. Some are granted just the 96 hours. Those that get sick, a constant risk, can be put down at any time. Animal care technicians are the ones assigned to make that calculation, to evaluate the adoptability—the marketability—of the creatures in their custody. It is a task laden with impossible choices, reductive judgments. What they are really doing is assessing us, the tastes and prejudices we bring to the size, age, breed, sex, and color of the animals we choose as pets. Toy dogs, the Chihuahuas, the terriers, the Pekingese, and the Pomeranians, are in such fashion that they are often snatched up within minutes of becoming available. Sometimes the city is even forced to conduct auctions to accommodate all the would-be adopters. Just a few days before Roy was brought in, ten people showed up at the South L.A. shelter to bid on a white poodle. The standard fee would have been $72. It sold for $800. As much as we like to think of our pets as companions, they are, in the end, commodities. The older, the bigger, the darker, the more stigmatized the breed, the less likely it is to be picked. Some humane groups have argued that the very concept of breeds is detrimental, an anachronism from the days when dogs existed primarily for labor—hunting, warfare, herding. By pairing the “right” dogs, fanciers believed they could improve on the breed; conversely, mixed and illegitimate couplings produced dogs of low standing, a canine underclass viewed as a source of danger and disease. Whenever we start talking about animals, in other words, we end up talking about ourselves.
The South L.A. shelter reinforces those stereotypes. The toy dogs are housed in a special showroom up front, inviting visitors to peek through the window, not unlike the old Patti Page song. The undesirables, the ones deemed aggressive to either people or animals, are kept in a segregated wing. It might as well be doggie death row. The staff often selects a “pet of the week,” showcasing the cuddliest dogs. The not-so-cuddly are branded with labels, unflattering characterizations that ensure a poor first impression. In the kennels, every animal is identified by a computer-printed card, slipped into a plastic sleeve and fastened to the grille of its cage. Animal care technicians have traditionally added stamped or handwritten admonitions: “Go slow.” “Use caution.” “Keep alone.” “Can be unpredictable.” “I will bite.” The notes are partly for their own safety, partly to shield them from the liability of sending someone home with a dangerous animal. But they end up having the effect of prophecy. When the decision is made to kill, the staff can point to these same warnings as justification. The new administration recently put a halt to the practice; the shelters were ordered to put all commentary on the back of the cards, out of public view.
Euthanasias are often described as a function of space—too many animals coming in, not enough heading home. While that is generally true, it implies that the shelters have a fixed capacity, and that once those limits are reached, a specific number of dogs must be culled. Space, in fact, is an elastic concept. Sometimes the kennels are jammed, four and five dogs per cage. Sometimes a cage sits empty. There will always be room to hold a popular dog; there will never be enough room for the dogs nobody wants. “I’m a realist about what I know is going to get adopted,” says Javier Lopez, the second-in-command of South L.A.’s kennels under Hill. “Sometimes that means I do things that I know are going to look bad in the eyes of the public.”
For years Lopez has been the arbiter of life and death at South L.A., entrusted with drawing up what is referred to, in shelter jargon, as the “euth list.” He is 41, burly yet soft-spoken, with a full salt-and-pepper beard and a gold Jesus Christ medallion hanging over his collar. The son of an Eastside machinist, he recalls accompanying his father to the farmlands of Chino as a child, selecting a goat and slaughtering it for birria, the piquant Mexican stew. Everyone calls him Javi. He has been on the job for 15 years. “I like being around animals,” he says. Every morning, after clocking in at seven, he covers his ears with a padded headset, to block out the howls, and tours the kennels with his clipboard, which has been adorned with a smiley face. At each cage he pauses, tapping the bars. “Hi, doggies,” he says. In return he receives fierce snaps and desperate licks. Some dogs hog the attention, snarling at any cell mate that dares to horn in. Others cower in the corner, too defeated to even raise their heads. The list Lopez assembles, usually 10 to 20 dogs a day, consists mostly of pit bulls. “We’ll do this one,” he says, pointing to a barking Staffordshire. “We’ll hold off on this one,” he says about another. “This one, for sure…This one, most likely…This one, he’ll definitely go…I mean, they’re good-looking dogs, but nobody adopts them, unfortunately.”
In the past year Animal Services has tried to standardize its procedures, so that every dog gets one last shot at adoption before it is killed. The euth list is supposed to be completed by 9 a.m., then sent by e-mail blast to dozens of rescue groups that have registered with the city, giving them at least 24 hours to find an IP, or interested party. “It doesn’t actually mean it’s a death sentence,” Lopez says. “It’s just a possibility. Sometimes it helps in a way, to get attention.” Rescues, which are usually private, nonprofit corporations, play a complex—and occasionally disputed—role in the adoption process. Most perform a noble service. Every day they save forsaken dogs, often just minutes before the animals are scheduled to die. Some, however, exploit the system, using the shelters like thrift shops. They comb the kennels for prized breeds, adopt at reduced fees, then resell the dogs for hundreds of dollars. “It’s a business, believe it,” says Hill, the kennel boss.
If Hill and Lopez have a nemesis, a name from the rescue world guaranteed to make their eyes roll, it is Zsuzsa Blakely. No one else is as passionate, as fanatical about South L.A.’s dogs. “I haven’t had a life for a long time,” says Blakely, an out-of-work legal secretary with hair streaked gray and magenta. “I picked this. I guess you could call it an obsession.” A refugee of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, Blakely was an aspiring actress and opera singer when she arrived in L.A.; stage fright ended her hopes. Divorced, with “no human kids,” she is a fruitarian and self-described ascetic, “just a little, hard-nosed, sort-of-eccentric old lady,” as she puts it. Over the past decade she has visited almost every dog to pass through the South L.A. shelter, thousands of them every year, a quixotic campaign to plead for their release. She takes notes and snaps pictures, internalizing the suffering and, invariably, the loss. “You talk about lonely?” she says. “I’m like this voice crying in the wilderness.” It is almost as if Blakely inhabits a parallel universe, seeing redemption in the dogs Hill and Lopez consider most unfit. When the euth list goes out, she fires off her own version, a mash note in which every dog is “the most beautiful” or “the sweetest” or “the most loving” of its kind. “OMG!!! No, no, no…” a typical entry begins. The shelter accuses her of delaying the inevitable, of expressing interest in dogs without intending to come for them. One day she calls for Lopez. “Tell her I’m not here,” he says. Another day, as she walks through the kennels, Lopez twirls his finger around his ear. “She’ll make up all this stuff—claim a dog is real friendly even though it’s a ‘use caution’ dog,” Lopez says. “It’s a stalling technique.” Blakely insists that the shelter is so determined to kill, it fabricates excuses to justify its haste. To prove her point, she picks out a pit bull with use caution stamped on its kennel card. She bends down and beckons, nuzzling through the cage. The dog licks her cheek. “Is this insane or what?” she asks. “Are we in the Twilight Zone?”
After 24 hours, Lopez makes his rounds again. He revisits every dog on the list, this time pulling its kennel card from the plastic. At his computer he punches in each ID number, checking to see if anyone has made a case for clemency. “Nothing,” says Lopez, flipping to the next dog. “Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. No. Nobody’s put interest on any of them.” A box on the screen prompts him to select an outcome. He scrolls down with his mouse, replacing euth poss with euth schld. Before he can save the change, the computer asks him, “Are you absolutely, positively, unequivocally sure?” Lopez hits ok.
The kennel cards are handed to whichever animal care technician is working in the Treatment Room that day, an assignment that rotates once a week. Employees get a 5 percent bonus for the shift, which comes out to a couple of extra dollars. “I hate this,” says Darline Mallet, a former dog groomer who joined Animal Services in 2001. Before heading to the kennels, she checks the city’s Web site for job openings. “Anything,” she says, “to get out of this department.” At the first cage Mallet slides her key into the padlock, swinging open the gate. She dangles her rope in front of a white-and-brown Staff. “C’mere, honey,” Mallet coos. The dog bows its head through the loop. Those who equate the shelter with a slaughterhouse like to imagine a frantic struggle at the end, a battle of wills, each animal dragged to its doom. The opposite is true. “You know what’s sad?” Mallet says. “They think they’re going for a walk.”
In the beginning, when the pound was little more than a pen in the L.A. riverbed, dogs were shot and buried in the silt. By the 1880s, dogcatchers had taken to drowning the “poor brutes,” as the newspapers called them, submerging the “load of writhing, gasping creatures” until they were still. The new century brought cyanide gas, which killed more swiftly but prompted critics to complain about the unpleasant “physical expression” left on the dogs. At the peak of the killing, in the 1970s, the city relied on decompression chambers, which in the span of 45 seconds simulated the loss of oxygen experienced at 55,000 feet. As the chief veterinarian explained at the time, the method helped to ease the psychological burden on his staff. “With the chamber, you are really not directly involved in that killing,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “The chamber does it.”
Today the department uses a lethal dose of sodium pentobarbital, the industry standard. It is a blue liquid, packaged in 250-milliliter jars, and sold under the brand name Fatal-Plus. The vet staff in South L.A. keeps it in the top drawer of a white cabinet, behind a white curtain, at the far end of the Treatment Room. Rubber mats cover the floor, which is sloped, leading to a drain in the center. The back wall is a shiny metal door. It opens to a walk-in freezer. If euthanasia is not quite the right word for what occurs here, the vets use an even odder euphemism: bump. It is at once lurid and bland, a term associated with Mafia hits but always spoken in a more genteel fashion, as if the injection were merely a nudge into Neverland. “The consolation of bumping an animal, I tell myself, is that I am taking care of the product of irresponsible people,” says Donato Lapuz, who has been working at the shelter since 2000. “But sometimes we bump so much, it gets to us. We take it home with us. We bump and bump. It’s part of the job, but we have a heart, too.”
The bump room, as it is sometimes called, is staffed by six people, a supervising vet and five registered veterinary technicians, also known as RVTs. Most of the techs, like Lapuz, were veterinarians in their native countries, but their credentials were not recognized by California. In Lapuz’s case, home was the Philippines, the birthplace of all but two of his colleagues. It is hardly a coincidence that the people who administer Fatal-Plus have ties to a deeply rural nation, a land in which the traditions of animal husbandry remain vital—and a culture in which cockfighting still qualifies as a national pastime. “Some people think we have a magic wand, that we can keep anything alive,” Lapuz says. “But they’re not the ones taking care of it. You have to want to save them all, but sometimes somebody must go.” Bald, with almond eyes and sharp cheekbones, Lapuz looks like Yul Brynner in a lab coat. He is 46 and the father of three children, ages 8, 9, and 13; for years he and his wife also fostered a boy with Down’s syndrome. As he sees it, there is no comparison between euthanasias of necessity—conducted to put an animal out of its misery—and those that serve simply to clean house. When an officer hands him a tan Labrador mix, a dog that is cold and emaciated and excreting bloody diarrhea, Lapuz wastes no time readying the syringe. “Hi, puppy,” he says. “The Sandman is here.” His children know about this, that “putting to sleep” sick pets is part of their father’s job. The other part, the killing of superfluous animals, he does not know how to explain. “That’s closed,” Lapuz says. “I need to lie to them.”
Even under ideal circumstances, if there were ample funding and steady leadership and public support, Animal Services would be an exhausting place. But the conditions could not be worse. For the past three years the department has been targeted by a band of agitators called the Animal Defense League, which has waged a clever but ugly campaign to shut down the “death camps.” Its strategy has been to personalize the city bureaucracy, identifying top managers—and harassing them until they quit, go on leave, or get fired. On its Web site, stopthekilling.net, the group has created a gallery of “the most wanted scum,” ranging from the department’s head veterinarian to its commander of field operations. Every time an administrator steps down or is removed, a red X is posted over the photo—notches in our belts, the caption reads. With bullhorns and skeleton costumes, demonstrators have marched up to the front lawns of city officials, including the San Pedro home of then-mayor James K. Hahn, waving signs that say you have a mass murderer in your neighborhood.
Although the group claims 5,000 members, its Los Angeles chapter is inseparable from Pamelyn Ferdin, who launched her career with 1969’s A Boy Named Charlie Brown and appeared regularly on The Odd Couple and Lassie. Ferdin left acting to become a nurse, eventually marrying a trauma surgeon named Jerry Vlasak. They became active in the late ’90s, protesting the treatment of animals in the circus and the fur trade. They were once arrested for chaining themselves together outside the Fendi boutique on Rodeo Drive, shutting down the street for three hours in the thick of day-after-Thanksgiving traffic. Ferdin also received a 30-day jail sentence for brandishing an illegal prod, used to train elephants, outside a Circus Vargas performance. “We are militant,” says Ferdin, who is 47 and lives in Santa Monica. The city attorney’s office contends that they are “a criminal enterprise,” one that has encouraged attacks on Animal Services employees, according to a 14-count complaint filed last December. Jerry Greenwalt, the head of the department when Ferdin and Vlasak began their crusade, had his Santa Monica home splattered with red paint and the word “Murderer” scrawled on his city-issued car. The next general manager, Guerdon Stuckey, had smoke grenades detonated in the lobby of his Bunker Hill high-rise. Jackie David, the public information officer who served under both of them, woke up on Christmas Eve 2003 to find her car doused with battery acid and the taunt “Resign Bitch” spray-painted across her garage. She left on stress-related disability last year. The Animal Defense League insists those attacks are the work of another organization, the underground Animal Liberation Front, a group regarded as domestic terrorists by the U.S. Justice Department. “We admire the heck out of them, but we’re not them,” Vlasak says. “Whoever they are,” adds Ferdin.
As vilified as they are, Vlasak and Ferdin have managed to achieve the political victory of being taken seriously, of forcing the city to acknowledge the horror in its own backyard. While campaigning in 2005, Antonio Villaraigosa pledged to make L.A. the “most animal-loving city in America.” He also promised to fire Stuckey, a Community Services director from Maryland with no animal experience. When the new mayor failed to act quickly, the Animal Defense League added him to its hit list. “Due to Villaraigosa’s lie,” its Web site charged, “thousands die.” When Villaraigosa did fire Stuckey in December, more than half of Animal Services’ 250 employees signed a letter of protest, accusing him of inviting more turmoil. “The terrorists will never be satisfied,” they wrote. By then, though, the mayor’s choice, Edward A. Boks, was already on the ground, trailed by a camera crew that he has sanctioned to document his transformation of L.A.’s shelter system. His goal is to make this a no-kill city by 2010, but he thinks it will happen even sooner. “I like to underpromise,” says Boks, formerly the chief of the Phoenix and New York City systems, “and overdeliver.”
He is getting a head start. The number of animals euthanized in city shelters has been dropping steadily, from 40,802 five years ago to 25,029 last year. The county system, which has not experienced the same political scrutiny, last year euthanized 52,848 animals. While the city’s downward trend offers hope, the decline is not as encouraging as it appears. The adoption rate has changed little. What has changed is the number of animals entering the system—14,000 a year fewer now—and that is a figure that can be artificially depressed. Under Stuckey, the department disbanded a special unit whose only function was to round up stray dogs, a deliberate strategy to reduce impounds and therefore the number of animals killed. It allowed the department to mollify critics but at the expense of the poorest communities, the ones most burdened by strays. “The business of animals,” says David, the former spokesperson, “is really dishonest.”
The other solution, the best one for keeping animals out of the system, is to spay and neuter. L.A. was one of the first U.S. cities to offer the service at clinics within its shelters, but those centers were shuttered in the early ’90s as a cost-cutting measure. Under Boks, the department is pushing a program called the Big Fix, which includes mobile spay-and-neuter clinics and reduced rates for low-income pet owners. He will also inherit an impressive new infrastructure, with six state-of-the-art shelters, funded by $154 million in Proposition F tax bonds, slated to open in the next year. To operate these facilities—and get the clinics back on line—he is asking the mayor for a 44 -percent increase in the department’s budget, from $18 million to $26 million. “L.A.,” he says, “is already way ahead of the curve.” The 54-year-old retired Seventh-Day Adventist pastor still has a difficult road ahead: He must keep city hall appeased, the militants at bay, and his own employees from mutiny. Just a few weeks into the job, Boks called an all-staff meeting at Friendship Auditorium in Griffith Park. The audience was quiet, more numb than polite.
“Do you guys have a pool on how long I’ll last?” Boks asked.
“I just lost it,” joked someone up front.
Laying out his no-kill philosophy in a PowerPoint presentation, Boks said the term—part dream, part myth, part gimmick—will energize the community, inspiring volunteers and generating donations. A clerk from the South L.A. shelter, Larry Hill, raised his hand. “No means ‘zero,’” he said. “It’s unrealistic.” Boks nodded. Of course, he explained, some animals will be killed, but only the irremediably sick and vicious. Hill was insistent. “You’re putting a statement in front of us that’s deceptive,” he said. “You want us to trick people into coming into the shelter?”
“The community loves the concept,” Boks said. “It’s a rallying point.”
It is a bait and switch, he was told, a marketing ploy.
“No,” Boks said. Then he paused. “Yeah, hell,” he added. “It is.”
The call came at 12:25 p.m. on February 2, a Thursday. “Stray dog confined,” the radio crackled. A pit bull apparently chained to a pole. “To me, this is distress,” said Officer Hoang Dinh, calculating the proper weight to give his response. “I’ll call this a 3.” He steered his laboring GMC, the door still stenciled with animal regulation, up Crenshaw and down Adams, to the 2600 block of Dalton Avenue. Dinh is from Orange County, of Vietnamese descent, just 26 and eager. “They keep telling me that I’m going to get burned out,” he said, “that I need to tone it down. Nobody’s going to pat you on the back.”
As he turned onto Dalton, he spotted the dog, chained not to a pole but to the trunk of a towering palm tree. “How sad is that?” he said. He leaned into his radio. “Eighty-two twenty-two to eighty-two hundred,” Dinh reported. “Show unit arriving at activity twenty-two forty-eight.” At least six or seven young men were hanging around, their look somewhere between player and thug. They told Dinh that the dog had been loose, that they captured it and were waiting for help. He looked at them, then at the dog. It was painfully thin, ribs and vertebrae crying out. Its rear was covered with sores, typical of tethered animals, and its ears were scarred by fly bites. Dinh slid a rawhide glove onto his left hand, a latex glove onto his right. “This guy is probably friendly,” he said. “Watch.” Dinh whistled and chirped. The dog squirmed with delight. Dinh offered his rope. The dog smacked and slurped. “Pit bulls have a natural love for humans,” Dinh said. “They get a bad rap—but it’s their owners, not them.” He walked the dog back to the truck. “Take care of it, man,” hollered one of the neighborhood dudes, a guy in a camouflage hat. “Kinda fishy,” Dinh said.
With the shelter so close, maybe a mile away, Dinh decided to head straight back. From the rear of the truck, the dog’s tail could be heard thumping, boom-whack-a, boom-whack-a, like a hip-hop beat. “That’s my boy,” said Dinh, unlocking the cage and urging the dog to leap out. The dog pulled Dinh into the building, tugging all the way down the corridor, gasping from the effort. Dinh wedged his boot against the Treatment Room door. The dog burst in, bobbing and sputtering, trying to vacuum up a thousand new scents.
“Hey, old man,” said Cheryl Lee Olson, the vet tech on duty. She squatted, offering the palm of her hand. “C’mere, sweetie.”
“Cute dog, huh?” Dinh said.
“He’s not really had a nice life,” Olson replied. She waved what looked like an iron over its back, seeking the signal of a microchip. She knew already she would not find one. The dog twirled around her, tying her up with its rope. “Oh, my goodness, you ruffian, you,” Olson said.
At the computer Dinh created a file for the dog, A774623. He aimed a Logitech QuickCam, trying to capture the dog’s personality in pixels. “I love it when I get ’em a good picture,” Dinh said. “It helps their chances.” But the dog was too distracted—too scared, too hopeful—to look Dinh’s way. The photo came out poorly, a portrait of an animal under duress. Dinh led it to cage 56, the first kennel on the “keep alone” wing, which is where most pit bulls, especially unneutered males, end up. When the night staff came by, they saw a working-class dog, dutiful but weathered, honest to the point of goofy. They called it Roy. “I try to go by what they look like,” said animal care technician Larry Gonzales, who rechristens most of South L.A.’s dogs and cats. “Maybe it will help. I don’t know. I never really find out how they do.”
Over the next 12 days Roy waited in his cage, a four-foot-by-ten-foot cubicle. During that time, dozens of dogs were adopted from the shelter. On the weekend of February 11 and 12, the staff even hosted a pet fair, with balloons and treats and half-price adoptions. But there was no interest in Roy. Realistically, there probably never would be, not for a mistreated South Central pit bull, no matter how playful and affectionate. That he even survived this long was something of a fluke, owing to a sudden reshuffling of the kennel staff. Based on “an extraordinary amount of concerns and complaints” about the handling of animals in South L.A., Boks in early February approved the transfer of several key employees, including Gerald Hill and Javier Lopez. The news rattled everyone. “That’s not right,” said a dismayed Jorge Figueroa, South L.A.’s acting district manager. A farewell barbecue was organized, with Lopez grilling carne asada and chorizo for his colleagues on the shelter’s back patio. As they prepared to pack up, neither he nor Hill seemed much interested in clearing the slate for their successors. They stopped scheduling euthanasias, ensuring that the new supervisors would have to begin their tenure by killing. “I’m going to leave them a lot of dogs,” Lopez said. “Not to be mean. But just so they realize what they’re up against.” Their replacements, both women, were coming from the North-Central shelter, where they earned a reputation for working closely with rescue groups. They had a mandate to get more dogs out of South L.A. alive. “We’re girls,” said Leslie Corea, one of the new supervisors. “We’re kind of mushy when it comes to the animals.”
If Roy caught a break with the transition, everything about his final hours conspired against him. Since his arrival, he had been on a regimen of amoxicillin, 500 milligrams a day, for his pressure sores. On February 14, Corea’s first day on duty, Roy finished his last dose. It was recorded on the back of his kennel card: “OK to stop.” The day he was declared healthy, Valentine’s Day, was the same day he was added to the euth list. “I wish I could save them all, I really, really do,” said Corea, who is 40 and grew up in the South Bay. “It’s like playing God, I know. I have to pray, ‘Please, Lord, these are your animals. I hope you understand.’ I want to get into heaven, and I don’t want what’s going on here to affect that.” No longer on medication, Roy was also awarded a new kennel card. It did him no favors. Even though the staff had been ordered to avoid prejudicial comments, he was now listed as “fractious,” a strangely ornate word to describe an unmanageable animal. Why it had been entered was unclear. Corea herself was unhappy to see it. In the lexicon of the shelters, fractious is a synonym for animals that show aggression to humans. More commonly, these are called “use caution” dogs, which could attack at any time. Roy was considered aggressive only to other animals. As such, he was not a safety threat, merely a “keep alone” dog. “There’s a big difference,” Corea said.
As if Roy’s fate were in any doubt, the computer system crashed. It was impossible for South L.A. to e-mail anyone the euth list. Throughout the day Blakely called the shelter, frantic to know which animals were being scheduled. Someone finally agreed to read her the ID numbers; there were 15 dogs and 6 cats. She started working on her appeal that evening. “NO, PLEASE, DON’T LET THIS SWEET ANGEL BE KILLED!!!” she wrote about Roy. “He’s such a social, loving, friendly angel, greeting you at the front of the cage to give you all his love, begging you so politely to get him out of there before it’s too late.” Blakely kept writing into the night, only to fall asleep before she could finish. “It takes me forever to write these descriptions,” she said. “Nobody sees what I see.” Her e-mail—“Subject: BEYOND URGENT”—did not go out until 9:47 the next morning. By then, Roy’s kennel card had already been pulled, the machinery already set into motion.
“Sometimes, when I’m sitting here doing this, I hope somebody’s going to call and say, ‘Please, stop!’” said Corea, who was signing the euthanasia orders on February 15. Roy’s card was the last one on her desk. She lingered for a moment, studying his name, looking at his picture, perhaps seeing something salvageable in that awkward frown. “Roy,” she sighed.
The cards were circulated through the building to other supervisors, on the animal control side and the veterinary side, for signatures. By the time they were sent back to the kennel staff, Roy’s card had a new label: use caution. It was stamped in red ink on the upper right corner. Earlier that morning, when the card had been on Corea’s desk, there was no such warning. If “fractious” could be dismissed as a careless generalization, perhaps even a clerical error, this looked deliberate. For two weeks Roy had existed in the shelter without any sort of high-risk designation. Now, just minutes before he was scheduled to die, somebody had taken the time to embellish his card. Roy may not have been pretty. He may not have been the pet you would pick for your child. But he was not a use-caution dog. It was hard not to think of the label as retroactive doctoring, a way to make Roy’s death more palatable. Maybe to assuage the consciences of the people assigned to carry it out. Maybe to help the department gin up statistics in support of its no-kill goal. Everyone looks better if the dogs being destroyed in L.A. are vicious pit bulls.
“I’m just doing my job,” said Carlos Lopez, the animal care technician on vet duty, as he approached cage 56, carrying Roy’s card. “I just want to get it done as fast as I can and try not to think about it.” Lopez was wearing a full-length apron, with straps behind his legs to keep it from flapping. Roy greeted him as he had greeted everybody, leaping and lapping, anxious to be touched. As Lopez walked him down the corridor, Roy tugged so hard this time that he actually collapsed—paws splayed, chest heaving, chin to the ground.
In the back of the Treatment Room, next to the freezer door, a vet tech named Joel Cruz waited with a needle. Fatal-Plus is administered according to body weight, one milliliter for every ten pounds. Because nobody wants to leave an animal in agony, the staff usually amps up the dose; Roy, an emaciated 56 pounds, called for eight milliliters. Humane organizations everywhere have endorsed sodium pentobarbital as the only acceptable method of euthanasia. The drug triggers instant unconsciousness, followed by cardiac arrest. If it is as swift and painless as it appears to be, the same cannot be said for the time it takes to restrain a dog that realizes it is going to die. Roy may have been eager to go for a walk, but he was not about to consent to a lethal injection. As is the custom, Lopez looped his rope around Roy’s muzzle, cinching it shut. He straddled Roy, pinning the dog with his knees. With both hands, he gripped Roy’s cheeks from behind, pulling them taut. Roy tried to shake free. “Knock it off, buddy,” Lopez told him. Kneeling with the syringe, Cruz rubbed alcohol on Roy’s right front paw, feeling for a vein. He eased the needle in. He pulled back on the plunger, making sure that blood was clouding the blue juice. Then he pushed down all the way. “It’s okay,” Cruz told Roy.
In a second, Roy crumpled. Lopez relaxed his fists. Cruz unfastened the chain from Roy’s neck and prepared to disinfect it, to reuse on another dog.
Once a day a green truck arrives at South L.A.’s rear gate. The driver gets out, unlocks it, then backs down the alley, to a loading dock behind the Treatment Room. He wears a Bureau of Sanitation uniform. He tugs open the freezer. The animals are waiting, stacked neatly by the vets, three, four, five bodies deep, dog atop cat atop raccoon atop dog. Not that it matters at this point, but there is something grotesque about the arrangement—undignified, really—about natural enemies, creatures that would have snarled and hissed, even fought to the death, now in the same wretched heap. Their eyes are open and their tongues are out, their fur streaked with urine and vomit. It is silent but for the heavy fans blowing cold air. The driver swings Roy into the belly of the truck.
The truck pulls away, making its rounds, one shelter to the next. Its final stop is to the east, just beyond the city limits, across the industrial plains of Vernon, between the Los Angeles River and the Santa Fe Railroad. On Bandini Boulevard the truck slows, turning up the driveway of an unmarked factory. The only sign is a triangle with three looping arrows: the universal symbol for recycling. Behind the chain-link fence, which has been covered in fraying tarps, is a labyrinth of silos and pipes and vats and catwalks, brown with grease. The air is rank—sweet and meaty. Gulls swarm above. Every animal killed in every municipal shelter ends up here, not just those of L.A. but of Ventura County, Kern County, Orange County, Riverside County, and San Diego County. For decades this has been the only facility in Southern California willing to handle euthanized pets.
Even acknowledging that such a place exists is considered impolite, like rifling through a neighbor’s trash. We do not like to be reminded of the waste we leave behind, of dumps and sewers and morgues, of anything that breaks the illusion of life being orderly and clean. “I do serve a necessary function,” says William Gorman, the president of the factory, which operates under the names West Coast Rendering and D&D Disposal. It is a family business, run since 2000 by Gorman, his wife, and his brother, who in turn purchased it from another brother team, Davis and David Brownstein, who founded D&D in 1945. Instead of paying for its raw materials, D&D charges each municipality a monthly fee for the animals that it accepts. Compared with other forms of disposal, such as burial or incineration, rendering is inexpensive and environmentally sound. Landfills carry the risk of contamination, of Fatal-Plus leaching from carcasses. Crematoriums, as a report by L.A. County Animal Care and Control recently concluded, might generate unwelcome “emotional reactions.” Rendering makes the most of a bad situation, not merely disposing of the problem but converting it into something profitable.
The principles of rendering are as old as civilization: By separating the fats from the proteins—which is to say, cooking the meat off the bones—offal can be “denatured,” then reused. Everything from the animal kingdom makes its way to D&D, the detritus of shelters mixed with that of zoos, farms, racetracks, cockfights, butchers, and roadkill. Ground up and stewed, in giant steam-fired kettles, the mash is reduced to its chemical elements. The fat, called yellow grease, is skimmed off and refined in a centrifuge. The protein is pressed and dried, becoming a powder called tankage. The roughly 250 rendering plants in the United States produce 17 billion pounds of recycled fat and protein every year, according to the National Renderers Association. The stuff that leaves D&D is a common ingredient of animal feed, dispensed to both livestock and aquaculture. Like the science fiction classic Soylent Green—in which euthanized citizens are processed into edible biscuits—the dead dogs of L.A. are, in fact, returned to the food chain.
That a bit of Roy might live on in a surf-and-turf dinner is not a thought for the squeamish. Perhaps he deserved better. Perhaps we should have given it to him. Instead he was unloved, a castaway after eight years. On the premise of a second chance, Animal Services reeled him in from the streets, but that just hastened his end. Roy was a burden, perversely, until he entered the freezer. In death, he could be reconstituted. The parts were worth more than the dog. Alive, he could only be a pet.