Wednesday, December 12, 2007

It’s a New Day in Our Clinics

On December 10, 2007, I had the pleasure of announcing to the Board of Animal Services Commissioners that the sixth full-time member of LA Animal Services’ veterinary team had just come on board.

To the best of our knowledge, this addition makes our current veterinary staff the largest it has been in the 98-year history of the department. Combined with more than 24 Registered Veterinary Technicians (most of whom are licensed veterinarians in their countries of origin) and a growing network of shelter-based clinics, Animal Services is better equipped to handle the health needs of more animals than ever before.

This tremendous accomplishment is due in large part to the hard work of our interim Chief Veterinarian, Dr. Steven Feldman, who has spent more than a half a year investing his considerable time, energy and effort personally recruiting highly qualified, dedicated veterinary professionals to build this team. It also is the product of a lot of hard work of our Human Resources Director, Russ Core and his team, as well as Assistant General Manager Linda Barth, both of whom did heavy lifting to make these jobs more attractive in an extremely competitive market for veterinarians. (These days good, newly-minted veterinarians often have up to seven job offers to choose from the day they receive their license to practice!)

It’s no secret that through the spring of this year our veterinary team was losing members. The local papers highlighted it and members of the humane community expressed their concern that the department couldn’t provide the care required both by state law and good, humane management practices. Some of our critics tried to turn it into a cause celebre, arguing that the attrition and the delays in recruiting new veterinarians were indications of deeper problems. At first they were right.

When I joined the LA Animal Services team in 2006, the pay scale for our veterinarians was one of the lowest in the Southern California public sector. It was lower than the scale for vets at the LA Zoo and certainly lower than for those working for LA County Public Health (which provides their services to LA County Animal Control). Additionally, one of our now-former veterinarians had taken an extended leave of absence after having her out-of-the-city home repeatedly visited by animal rights protestors. Word had gotten around in the vet field about how this job could “follow you home”. Needless to say, in such an environment recruiting veterinarians wasn’t easy.

AGM Linda Barth and Russ Core worked diligently into 2007 with the Personnel Department, the City Administrative Office, and the City’s labor unions to win approval for a raise in the pay scale for our veterinarians. By spring we had accomplished that and were able to attract Dr. Feldman into the fold. However, observers remained skeptical of our ability to reverse the situation. What they didn’t properly reckon with was our commitment to create a medical team like no other.

One by one – at a rate of about one every month or two – we convinced talented, experienced veterinarians that Animal Services was heading toward a national leadership position in the delivery of shelter medicine. Encouraged by Dr. Feldman and the humane medical environment he is creating, they came on board, bringing us to where we are today. There is one fully licensed veterinarian available for each of our current six shelters, backed up by one of the strongest Registered Veterinary Technician (RVT) crews I’ve ever seen or heard of in my nearly 30 years in the animal care and control field. The fact that we are in the midst of opening great new or expanded animal care centers featuring full clinics and state-of-the-art medical equipment may have helped a bit too.

Shelter medicine is one of the most challenging areas of veterinary practice because everything is done in high volumes, from prophylactic and remedial care, to spay/neuter, to euthanasia (though we’re bound and determined to keep that last category on a downward curve). And, apart from the new LA Animal Services facilities, shelter medicine often must be practiced in surroundings that are less than inspiring as far as equipment and atmosphere go. I have always been in awe of the dedication shelter veterinarians exhibit in the face of such adversity, and I feel extremely fortunate to be able to offer them a more positive environment in which to work their magic for L.A.’s animals.

Our medical team is working hard to raise the level of care for the animals in our system. Dr. Feldman and his team are instituting strict new protocols to monitor that care, ensure the proper and safe use of medicine and other pharmaceuticals, and provide a range of services unprecedented for the department.

We also have skilled outside providers currently operating spay/neuter clinics in our South Los Angeles and North Central animal care centers and the in-house staff intends to have the just-completed West Valley spay/neuter clinic up and running as soon as possible. We also are starting a Request for Proposals process to recruit outside providers to run some or all of the new clinics slated to be ready for use by summer 2008.

All of this adds up to a benefit at the bottom line. In recent years, operating with a smaller veterinary team, LA Animal Services has had to contract with outside vets for a substantial amount of the care our animals needed, at considerable expense. I’m looking forward to those expenditures starting to decline in the coming months as we handle more of the animals’ needs in-house. In these difficult budgetary times, that’s a blessing.

When Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa first interviewed me for the position I now hold, he emphasized the need for the next General Manager to focus on every aspect of this department’s infrastructure, staff and performance. I took that challenge seriously and have drawn upon all my years of experience as an animal care and control professional and public sector management trainer to try to do so. The emergence of our strong new veterinary team is, I think, one of the most noteworthy successes in that effort.

But it’s not the only one. We’ve brought new talent, skills and energy to our administrative, financial, human resources and information technology staffs. We’ve worked to provide enhanced leadership and training to our shelter and field staffs even as we’ve had to undergo a continual recruiting and hiring process to meet the expanded needs posed by the new and expanded facilities. And we’re actively looking for new public relations and volunteer management people, along with an Assistant General Manager for Operations.

I know that not everyone believes LA Animal Services has yet turned the corner in its effort to move beyond the concerns and controversies of the past or even the present. Fair enough. But we’re working hard and making progress. I am confident this department is reinventing itself every day, acknowledging and addressing issues, moving toward “no kill” and helping to make Los Angeles the most animal-friendly big city in the United States. It’s not only a new day in our veterinary clinics; it’s a new day for every aspect of the department.