I am often asked why Animal Control Officers and our Cruelty Task Force sometimes impound animals and other times give warnings when they observe violations of laws such as having too many animals or animals that appear to be neglected. This is an excellent question deserving an answer.
First of all, it should be noted that Animal Services’ ultimate goal is to find safe and happy homes for all animals. This does not excuse a person from neglecting their companion animal(s) or violating local laws. But we also know from years of experience and thousands upon thousands of contacts with the community that the overwhelming majority of animal caregivers don’t intentionally abuse or hurt their animals. However, there are countless factors that may result in an animal being neglected.
Neglect sometimes results from a family or financial crisis; ignorance regarding the proper care of an animal; or any number of other reasons. Sometimes a person’s compassion for animals exceeds their capacity and they take in more animals than they can responsibly care for. These aren’t excuses. But they may be reasons that, if corrected quickly, can avoid an animal being taken to an already over-crowded shelter. With proper intervention and instruction a neglectful caregiver is often provided the information and motivation needed to become responsible.
Realizing this and based upon solid experience and statistics, Animal Control Officers throughout the country have learned that over 90% of animal caregivers who are found to have an animal in need of medical or other attention will comply with warnings, or a “Notice to Comply”, as we call them in Los Angeles. Typical situations involve dogs and cats with flea and other parasite infestations, unsanitary conditions including excessive feces and urine residue in the house and backyard or failure to provide adequate food, fresh water and shelter.
In the vast majority of these situations when an Animal Control Officer gives the caregiver a Notice to Comply, that caregiver responds and the animal’s safety and welfare is restored without the necessity of removing the animal from its home and placing it in a municipal shelter. Impounding an animal into a shelter may seem preferable at first glance but the community needs to know that even the most modern and sanitary shelters expose animals to a variety of diseases and stresses that can negatively impact an animal’s health and happiness.
Animal Services in Los Angeles is doing everything we can to make our new shelters as safe as possible, including the installation of state-of-the art ventilation systems, architectural designs that discourage the spreading of disease, and providing medical support to maintain an impounded animal in the best condition possible. But the best efforts of any municipal shelter can never provide the safe and comfortable environment that a responsible caregiver can provide in his or her home. If necessary for the animal’s welfare, impoundment may be appropriate. But if we can save a home for an animal by warning and assisting the caregiver, it is certainly worth the effort.
So, you may ask, just when do we choose to take (impound) animals from their caregivers instead of give a warning? Our policy is firm and clear (and supported by California law). LA City Animal Services will impound animals that are in imminent danger or when it is obvious that a warning to a caregiver will be ignored. But, again, if an animal is not in imminent danger and the caregiver appears responsible and able to correct a situation such as providing non-emergency medical treatment, flea or tick removal and control, or cleaner housing conditions, then there is no question that it is in the best interest of the animal that we issue a Notice to Comply with follow-up to insure that the caregiver has done whatever was necessary to correct the situation.
To be sure, the City does not issue warnings because it is easier or because we don’t care about an animal’s welfare. It is only because we know from decades of experience, both here in Los Angeles and around the country, that most people will correct problems if given a written warning with follow-up to insure compliance.
There is one particular situation that is rather unique and often times reported in the news…and that is the infamous “hoarder”. A hoarder is a term of art that refers to persons who not only have more animals than the law allows but more animals than they can properly care for. Studies show these people often suffer from a form of obsessive-compulsive behavior and will rarely respond to a warning to reduce the number of animals or provide proper care. The nature of this disease is such that these persons are not even aware of how they are neglecting the animals in their household.
“Hoarders” typically rescue animals from the streets and truly believe they are doing the best thing for the animals. Hoarders can live in a household that is filthy, infested with parasites, intolerable smells of urine and feces, and permanently stained and destroyed furniture…but even when confronted with the way they are living and neglecting their animals, they are literally unable to see the reality of the situation. It is like a person suffering from life-threatening anorexia who looks in the mirror and sees a fat, overweight person. It is a delusion of sorts.
So, in spite of our best efforts to help the average animal caregiver to correct neglectful situations, we know that “hoarders” will not (and cannot) correct a situation by themselves. Accordingly, our Animal Control Officers and the members of the multi-departmental Animal Cruelty Task Force are trained to recognize possible “hoarders” and distinguish them from those people in the community who have more animals than they can care for but do not suffer from this obsessive compulsive disorder. When there is a suspected “hoarder”, our investigators can also call upon the expertise of our veterinarians and City and County social services to confirm the person is in fact a hoarder.
When we do identify a hoarder with animals in need of immediate attention, make no mistake about it…we will not issue a Notice to Comply. As I said, this is because we know they are unlikely to correct a situation and it is in the best interest of the animals to immediately remove them from the household. We will often work with our New Hope partners and other qualified organizations in the community to coordinate resources so we can provide foster homes for seized animals so they don’t have to go to the shelter unless absolutely necessary.
Animal Services recently implemented a novel and proactive Foster Program for “evidence” animals. Historically, animals rescued by Animal Services from a hoarding or abusive situation were forced to languish in a City Shelter for weeks, months, or even longer as the case was adjudicated. Recently, with the help of the City Attorney’s Office and the support of the Animal Services Commission, Animal Services implemented a foster program for these needy animals so they don’t have to suffer the trauma of a prolonged shelter experience. If you are interested in participating in this program, please contact our Foster Program Coordinator for more information.
During this foster period, hoarding cases are fully investigated and referred to the City Attorney Animal Protection Unit for criminal prosecution or psychiatric evaluation as appropriate. Criminal prosecution is not usually effective with hoarders. Counseling, involvement with Clutterers Anonymous, and constant visits is required to help these folks. We have specially assigned prosecutors in the criminal justice system to make sure these goals are met and to get these animals into good homes as quickly as possible.
For those who have too many animals but do not fit the profile of a hoarder, we will issue a Notice to Comply with careful follow-up, knowing that almost all of these people will comply with our notice to provide the necessary medical care, cleaner or roomier housing conditions, and placing the “excess” animals in other suitable homes. Our investigators will do whatever they can to assist these people in complying with the law to provide a safe home for their animals including referring them to interested New Hope Partners and other qualified organizations and foster families to help bring about compliance in a reasonably short time…again with the animals interests coming first.
For non-hoarders who fail or refuse to respond to our written warnings (Notice to Comply), our Cruelty Task Force and Animal Control Officers will proceed with a formal investigation for neglect and other law violations and refer the matter to the City Attorney or District Attorney for criminal prosecution…and impound any animals suffering or in imminent danger.
In summary, Animal Services’ policy for issuing a warning versus immediately impounding animals is based on solid evidence and experience with one purpose in mind…to do the best thing possible for the animals as we work together as a community to make LA the safest City in the U.S. for our pets.