After months of pressure from animal rights activists, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa fired the head of Los Angeles' Animal Services Department on Thursday, replacing him with the man who held the corresponding job in New York City.
The move was praised by some members of Los Angeles' animal welfare community, who said they hoped that the incoming interim general manager, Ed Boks, would bring serious change to a department that kills tens of thousands of stray dogs a year.
But 149 department employees protested the move in a letter that accused Villaraigosa of caving in to a radical fringe of animal activists who have used vandalism and threats to try to drive away the outgoing general manager, Guerdon H. Stuckey.
"To concede to the terrorists for the ousting of our general manager ... has placed a pall over the department and the city," the letter says. "Continued empowerment of these terrorists will only serve for them to step up their terrorist activities against department employees."
The reactions suggest that Villaraigosa, who has moved deftly through other contentious issues, has yet to master the bizarre political predicament that has grown up around Los Angeles' animal shelters in recent years.
L.A.'s mainstream animal welfare activists have never lacked for passion, but they have organized into an especially potent force of late. In January, they held a voters forum during the mayoral race that a number of leading candidates, including Villaraigosa, attended.
At the same time, extremist groups like the Animal Liberation Front have been suspected by law enforcement of staging numerous acts of vandalism and harassment in Southern California. In September, the front took responsibility for detonating smoke grenades in Stuckey's apartment building on Bunker Hill.
Villaraigosa, who has met with animal rights activists in the past, said he did not cave in to pressure from extremists.
"That's not what we did," he said. "I told them that as long as they continued to engage in that kind of activity I would never bend to that kind of pressure. So they stopped a long time ago."
But Julie Butcher, head of the union that represents most rank-and-file Animal Services workers, said her members have good reason to be upset.
"They are angry that the city would somehow bargain with terrorists," Butcher said. "It looks like the city is totally giving in."
The broader controversy turns on the deaths of the animals in Los Angeles' six city shelters. L.A. euthanized more than 39,000 dogs in the 2001-02 fiscal year, and reduced the number to about 25,000 in the 2004-05 year, according to the department.
Although some officials say those numbers show progress, activists contend that the numbers are actually much higher. They also argue that Los Angeles has lagged behind big cities that have adopted "low kill, no kill" strategies.
Many animal rights activists had opposed Stuckey's appointment since former Mayor James K. Hahn named him to the position in November 2004.
Stuckey had a management background but little experience with animals, and they were worried that he would be unable to bring the kill rate down.
Then-City Councilman Villaraigosa voted to approve the appointment. But at the voters forum in January, he told activists he would fire Stuckey. More recently he appeared to waver, saying the Animal Services chief deserved a chance.
In a terse letter to Stuckey on Thursday, Villaraigosa announced his removal and thanked him for his service.
Stuckey could not be reached for comment. But Tuesday he called a meeting of his staff to let them know he was being pressured to step down, according to two city officials familiar with the session.
"He told the staff the mayor's office has requested his resignation, and he said he has declined," one high-level city official said.
Other City Hall officials said Stuckey has retained legal counsel, ostensibly to fight his dismissal.
Meanwhile, Villaraigosa's office praised Boks' 22-year record in dealing with animals. According to a news release, Boks was director of New York City Animal Care and Control for two years.
He recently resigned, the release states, "after setting in motion a turnaround effort to upgrade animal shelters, substantially increase pet adoptions and spay/neuter. During his tenure, New York City reduced euthanasia by approximately 20% and increased pet adoptions by 30%."
Before that, Boks was head of Maricopa County Animal Care and Control in Phoenix, where he implemented a similar turnaround, the release states.
Boks, who starts his job Jan. 3, could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Scott Sorrentino, president of the Rescue and Humane Alliance-Los Angeles, said the hire was a victory for animal rights activists.
"We're cautiously optimistic that this is an improvement over what we've seen in the past," Sorrentino said. "Mr. Boks has definitely associated himself with 'no kill.' He comes in with experience that others in the past have not had."