As the cries and yips of the condemned echoed in the background, Mayor James K. Hahn stood in the lobby of the South Los Angeles Animal Shelter on Thursday and announced that he wanted the city to stop euthanizing adoptable animals by 2008.
In a city where more than 30,000 dogs and cats were put to death last year, officials hailed the announcement as a great step forward for animal welfare.
"In five years, we want Los Angeles to be a no-kill city," the mayor said.
Under current policy, dogs and cats are held for at least four days at city shelters, but because of overcrowding, many are euthanized soon after.
Protesters crashed the mayor's news conference, including a trauma surgeon who moonlights as an animal activist and a man holding a sign calling for the ouster of the city's animal services director.
They dismissed the initiative as a feel-good measure that would do little to stop euthanasia.
"We think this is a political ruse and a lie," said Pamelyn Ferdin, a member of the Animal Defense League of Los Angeles, which is planning another protest Monday.
Ferdin and other activists charge that instead of coming up with ways to save animals, officials are devising a new temperament test that will enable them to declare most animals unworthy of adoption and continue killing them.
City officials defended their policy.
"Temperament testing is being done around the country," said Jerry Greenwalt, head of the Animal Services Department and owner of several pets adopted from the city shelters.
"There are animals that come in that are just so antisocial that we would be really remiss if we allowed them back into the public."
Dogs and cats that fail temperament tests will still be available to rescue groups, he said.
Activists say the tests, which could include poking dogs while they are eating and assessing the sociability of cats, are difficult for animals in the stressful environment of a kennel.
On Monday, the city Animal Services Commission asked the department to come up with revised testing plans, one for dogs and one for cats, Greenwalt said.
The city also plans to expand the spaying and neutering of pets in Los Angeles. Last year, the city bought a mobile pet-surgery van that visits neighborhoods and offers free spaying and neutering. Pet owners drop their animals off in the morning and pick them up in the evening.
The city will also expand its shelter program, increasing the number of kennels from 370 to 1,400 so there is space to keep animals longer before euthanizing them.
"We're faced with a harsh reality here of what happens when people aren't careful about spaying and neutering," Greenwalt said as he stood in the crowded shelter.
Animal Services Commissioner Helen Johnson agreed.
"Oh, poor dogs," she said, peering into cages full of canines gazing back at her. "It just tears my heart apart."