LA Animal Services celebrates its centennial this year; 2009 marks one hundred years of providing services to the pets and people of Los Angeles. Los Angeles established a characteristic progressive direction in 1909 by creating its original Animal Services Department, charged with protecting the public from rabid dogs, as a Board of Humane Animal Commissioners. The Department today continues to maintain the safety and security of the City’s four million residents by controlling animals and eliminating animal-related safety and health hazards.
However, from its modest beginnings in 1909 LA Animal Services has also been at the forefront of advancing the most progressive and innovative animal welfare programs in the nation. These programs have been designed to ultimately end the use of euthanasia as a methodology to control pet overpopulation. In large measure they have proven very effective.
A Centennial seems an appropriate time to look back and review the path that got us to where we are today.
At its inception in the first decade of the 20th Century, LA Animal Services served an emerging urban community where dogs and cats were owned by families who were used to having pets because of what they contributed to a more rural lifestyle. Dogs, for the most part, were considered working animals earning their keep on a local farm or ranch, or were used for hunting to help put dinner on the table. Cats, and some small dogs, were used as mousers to help keep small rodents and rats out of home, barn, yard and business. Consequently, both cats and dogs were permitted to run free.
By the third decade of the 20th Century, free roaming dogs resulted in a noticeable dog overpopulation problem with an accompanying increase in canine rabies.
The seriousness of rabies in the early 20th Century was brilliantly depicted in the 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In the novel, Atticus Finch, a Southern small town lawyer, is called upon by his community to serve as an Animal Control Officer. He is conscripted to shoot a rabid dog in the middle of a quite neighborhood street as residents watched trembling behind locked doors and windows. The account suggests Atticus had been called upon to dispatch rabid dogs before, earning him the deferential moniker “one shot Atticus”.
Although Los Angeles was forceful about licensing and establishing a leash law, this all too common scenario occurring across America through the late 1950s motivated state legislators to establish rabies and animal control programs to ensure dogs were vaccinated against rabies and licensed. Cats were not included because they were, and are, not a significant rabies vector. Over time LA Animal Services’ dog vaccination and licensing program effectively reduced the incidence of rabies in dogs to the level that naturally occurs in cats, that is, rabies today is equally as rare in dogs as it has always been in cats.
As recently as the early 1960s, dogs running free and biting people presented the very real threat of rabies, with dozens of cases seen every year, many resulting in death. Aggressive enforcement of leash laws and licensing requirements were keys to controlling this public health crisis resulting in the virtual eradication of rabies in our city.
So successful was this program that it is easy now to forget the terror the word “rabies” once evoked in the hearts of Angelenos. The fact that scenes like the one depicted in “To Kill a Mockingbird” are a thing of the past is a tribute to animal control professionals who today maintain and enforce successful rabies control programs without firing a shot.
Effectively gaining control of the dreaded disease rabies led to a striking societal change in the human/animal relationship. In the late 1950s and early 1960s many Angelenos started to reject the conventional wisdom that pets were meant to be kept outdoors and a significant number of dogs and cats found their way out of the backyard into our hearts, our homes, and for many of us, into our beds. Pets were no longer considered staff; they had become part of the family.
By the early 1970s LA was experiencing a serious pet over population crisis and LA Animal Services was killing over 110,000 dogs and cats annually. Los Angeles was the first major city in the United States to tackle this problem head on. In 1971, LA Animal Services opened the first municipal spay/neuter clinic in the United States. Thanks to LA Animal Services progressive Big Fix-style spay/neuter programs over the past 37 years nearly 500,000 surgeries were either fully funded or partially subsidized. These extraordinary efforts resulted in LA’s pet euthanasia rate plummeting an astonishing 86% during the same time that LA’s human population increased 42%.
In 2007, 15,009 animals were euthanized. Sadly, in 2008 the euthanasia rate increased to the 2006 level due to an unprecedented housing foreclosure crisis leading to the number of animals taken in by LA Animal Services spiking to the 2002 level. Despite this regrettable setback, it is important to remember that the past three years were the lowest euthanasia rates in LA history and LA Animal Services is committed to continuing this 37-year trend moving forward into the future. The current economic downturn also led to the development of such programs as “A House is not a Home without a Pet” and “Operation Safety Net” to respond to aspects of this crisis.
In addition to progressive programs, Los Angeles is also the first major city in the United States to officially, and financially, respond to community expectations for a humane animal control program. A $160 million commitment to build state of the art animal care community centers serves as a daily reminder of this promise.
The new Centers increased shelter space by more than two hundred and fifty percent and better help accommodate the on average 150 lost, sick, injured, neglected, abused, lost or unwanted animals entrusted to us each day.
The new Centers, with their wide aisles, solar and radiant heating, cooling misters, veterinary and spay/neuter clinics, park benches for visitors, fountains and lush landscaping are a world away from the typical “dog pound,” where animals become so agitated or depressed that they may seem ill-tempered and, thus, “unadoptable” by old school animal control reckoning.
By transforming our animal shelters into places of hope and life, instead of despair and doom, we experienced over a 40% increase in our adoption rates over the past two years - despite the current economic downturn. LA Animal Services is the largest-volume pet adoption program in the world with over 25,000 live placements in 2008.
To be sure, LA Animal Services cannot achieve these remarkable results alone. Los Angeles is fortunate to have so many wonderful adoptive families, donors, animal welfare and rescue organizations partnering with us in accomplishing our shared mission and vision to make Los Angeles the first major metropolitan community in the United States to sustain the abolition of euthanasia as a methodology to control pet overpopulation.
LA Animal Services’ second century will see a continued emphasis on humane, non-lethal animal care programs as effective as our rabies control program has been. By working together we will soon see the day when killing a healthy, adoptable animal in our shelters is as rare as shooting a rabid dog on a street in downtown Los Angeles.