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Camera-Toting Group Makes Finding a Stray a Snap

February 01, 2001|LAURA ROE STEVENS |

Armed with note pads and digital cameras, Alisa Merlin and a group of 25 volunteers scour Los Angeles' animal shelters each week, creating a digital record of hundreds of animals that have gone astray in the city.

The fate of most of these animals is grim--they will be euthanized to make room for the next wave of strays.

But Merlin, an Encino veterinary technician, believes that at least a few can be saved through technology.

Merlin and her boyfriend, Craig Winter, have spent the last two years constructing a Web database of stray pets that has become the unofficial computer link for Los Angeles' animal shelters.

"They are such a reliable group and a great help to us since we don't have enough resources with our Web site," said Jackie David, public information director for the Los Angeles Animal Services Department. "They're the group the city works with."

Merlin and Winter's Web site, (, provides a search engine that lets people surf through hundreds of pictures of animals with the ability to sort by breed and by location. People also can search the database by pet size, sex and age.

"I'm on a mission," Merlin said.

"I hope that someday no animals in Los Angeles have to die in shelters."

Merlin started working on PetBond after noticing the unusually high death rate at some of the city's animal shelters.

According to the most recent city figures for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 1999, more than 50,000 stray animals were destroyed, out of a total of 73,000 animals picked up. Only 12,000 animals were adopted.

The kill rate at some shelters was especially high, such as at the South Central Animal Center where nearly 90% of strays--or about 15,000 animals--were destroyed.

Merlin thought that a stray-pet search engine could not only help owners find their own pets but also help other people search for new pets in the city's shelters.

She added that because many city shelters close at 5 p.m. on weekdays, it's often hard for people to visit until the weekends--which can sometimes be too late for those animals that are euthanized at some shelters after they have been there only four or five days.

Merlin has been a veterinary technician for 20 years.

She also has regularly appeared on local television and radio news shows as a pet expert.

The technical expertise to create the site came from Winter, who during the day is chief executive of AndAction, a digital media distribution start-up in Encino.

The site now includes all six of the city's animal shelters, plus six county shelters.

"The key to making it worthwhile is that it has to be current. So we really needed enough volunteers with digital cameras," Merlin said.

The other key was to make the site simple to use for both visitors and volunteers uploading digital pictures.

For that reason, Winter made sure that anyone, once given a password, could upload pictures without much technical experience.

"Anyone can upload pictures using a Web browser. You don't need to know anything about Web design, and a lot of people can work at once--so you're not delayed by one administrator," Winter explained.

Winter and Merlin said PetBond, which has been fully operational only since June, is attracting about 1,000 visitors a day.

The average session time is about five or six minutes, but Winter hopes this will increase once more people are aware of the site.

Winter has tracked a few people who have spent at least an hour surfing the site.

That's understandable for anyone who has lost a pet and would rather surf through pictures than drive to all area shelters from Long Beach to South Central to Burbank.

Although the city's shelters do not keep statistics on whether a pet is found via the Internet, local officials believe PetBond is helping increase adoption rates.

"PetBond is definitely good for us. Anything that lets the public know about the [pets] that we have here will increase adoptions and redemptions," said South Central's Lt. Jesus Castillo.

The pet site also is gaining in popularity among Southland animal rescue organizations.

Jonna Eintunen, who runs MuttsnSuch, a West Los Angeles-based rescue group, has seen immediate results from posting pictures on PetBond.

"Our rescue organization is only 6 months old, but to give you an idea, I recently had four puppies and two of them were adopted through PetBond. So that's a 50% ratio. We love them," Eintunen said.

The city is still compiling its animal shelter statistics for the year.

But David, of the city's animal services, said adoptions at the highest kill facilities are up: South Central is up by 8% to 9% and East Valley is up by 15%.

Although Merlin said there is no way to determine whether PetBond is having an impact, she and Winter would like to think it does.


Laura Roe Stevens is a freelance writer.

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