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Funding Isn't Where the Wild Things Are

The work of L.A.'s two wildlife experts falls victim to tight budgets. Councilman calls for reinstating the city's coyote program.

June 19, 2004|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

A mountain lion roams Griffith Park. Hungry coyotes attack children and snatch cats from backyards. Bears gambol across lawns in nearby cities.

So how can it be, some residents and city officials are asking, that the city of Los Angeles has decided to cut off funding for its two wildlife experts?

On Friday, after hearing the sad tale of three beloved cats and one small dog devoured by coyotes in a single block in the Hollywood Hills, Councilman Tom LaBonge called for reinstating the coyote program and its two experts. "There's a lot of wildlife in Los Angeles, and it's not all on Sunset Boulevard," he said.

LaBonge noted that the officers, who are slated to be moved to new positions in the city's Animal Services Department on July 1, cost the city $190,000. That's a small price to pay, he said, for residents to feel their children and pets are secure and their local parks safe for picnics.

Officials at Animal Services said the wildlife officers were victims of tight budgets. The officers will not lose their jobs, but will take on other responsibilities unless the City Council restores the funding.

The City Council has to hold hearings on the issue before a vote.

Although wild animals roam the city of Los Angeles, wildlife programs are a lower budget priority than feral dogs in South Los Angeles neighborhoods or the tens of thousands of strays on city streets.

"In these severe times, the city of Los Angeles does not have the luxury of hiring specialists," said Deputy Mayor Doane Liu. "Our taxpayers expect from us, and the mayor has encouraged everyone in the city, to try to do more with less. And that means being creative in how to provide essential services with less resources."

Liu said officials would still respond to calls about wildlife.

But some residents whose homes are near open space said wild animals are a big concern.

"There are so many dead cats and Chihuahuas on Beachwood" Drive, said Hollywood Hills resident Susan Rubin, whose voice broke as she recalled the death of her own cat in May. "At Beachwood Market, people are abuzz with this."

Rubin said her neighborhood is filled with posters for lost pets, and many of them, she fears, have wound up on the losing end of the food chain.

Coyotes are well-known for stealing garbage from trash cans and plucking koi from ponds. More disturbing is that they sometimes look upon cats, small dogs and even small children as food.

Earlier this month in Simi Valley, police shot and killed a coyote after it tried to drag a 3 1/2-year-old boy off his front porch and attacked three other children playing on a nearby street.

By law, the city of Los Angeles will not kill or relocate a coyote unless it poses a threat to people. But to help residents cope with their wild neighbors, the city's two wild-animal specialists had spent much of their time educating the public.

Lt. Wendell Bowers, with the Animal Services Department, said even if the city does not fund the designated officers, his department should continue to educate residents. "The public doesn't know about all the wildlife around here," he said.

Most cities have their share of skunks, opossums, raccoons and deer.

But in Los Angeles, black bears turn up in Tujunga, sea lions loll on local sands and bobcats stroll Mulholland Drive.

And then there are wild animals kept as pets, which sometimes escape.

Bowers said he once responded to call about a snake. He expected to find a harmless little garden snake. Instead, he was confronted with a fugitive 7-foot-long python with a conspicuous lump -- in the shape of the family's pet cat.

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