A day after he was named to head the Animal Services Department, Ed Boks laid out an ambitious vision for the city of Los Angeles.
Boks said Friday that he believes that Los Angeles can be "the first major city to truly accomplish the no-kill" policy in shelters and that it should strive to do that in five years. He considers San Francisco as the "national model" of a well-funded city animal agency with a no-kill policy. And he suggested Los Angeles challenge New York City -- whose animal control department he headed until Friday with a mix of frustration and success -- to see which city could achieve the goal first.
"By New York and Los Angeles engaging in this kind of contest, it really raises the bar in every city," Boks said in a telephone interview from Arizona, where he is visiting family. "This has been every community's dirty little secret far too long."
The agency's newest general manager -- its fourth in four years -- takes over a department often under attack by a vocal animal welfare community for killing thousands of stray animals each year. Extreme activists have resorted to such tactics as painting the word "murderer" on the car of a former animal services department head and setting off a smoke bomb in the lobby of the apartment building where outgoing general manager Guerdon H. Stuckey lived.
Boks said he was well aware that he was coming to a city where animal rights activists are known to be aggressive.
"It's a passionate cause, and passionate people feel strongly," Boks said. "Usually it erupts into what you call radicalism when people feel they haven't been listened to. We may not be able to do everything they want to do, but certainly you can give opportunity for every sector of the community to speak on this. Everybody brings a piece of the puzzle, and that's my role -- to put the puzzle together."
But Boks also said he wanted to meet with the department's employees and reassure them of his commitment to saving animals.
"People don't get into this line of work unless they have an inherent love of animals," he said.
Half the staff signed a letter to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa protesting his firing of Stuckey, saying the mayor had caved in to pressure from animal rights activists.
On Friday, City Councilman Greig Smith said he had received telephone calls from employees of the Animal Services Department making allegations, which he had not verified, that Boks "is very strongly aligned with the extreme animal rights issues."
"My concern is that the replacement, I'm hearing, may be somebody that we really don't want," he said.
But one prominent animal welfare activist who has kept particular watch on New York City animal shelter practices praised Boks' work.
"I thought he did a great job of turning around a horrendous situation, which was completely the doing of a previous administration," said Gary Kaskel, the New York-based head of United Action for Animals.
Boks, 54, had two boxers -- Sadie and Buddy -- that he adopted from a shelter when he was head of Maricopa County Animal Care and Control in Phoenix. But when he went to New York two years ago to direct that city's animal control agency, he moved into a small apartment that did not allow pets. As a result, he decided to leave his big dogs in the care of his grown son in Arizona. While living in New York City, he periodically fostered sick and injured city shelter cats that he managed to sneak into his apartment.
Under his stewardship, Boks said, the euthanasia rate at New York's animal agency dropped by 30% and the adoption rate shot up by 127%. The statistics on the New York City Animal Care & Control website roughly bear that out.
But it was a bumpy tenure, fraught with problems that Boks contends are inherent in that city's system. The New York agency had a budget of $7.2 million, which Boks called "one of the lowest in the country for a major city." The Los Angeles animal services budget is more than twice as much at $15.6 million.
The board in New York that oversaw Boks' agency was headed by the city's health commissioner and included the commissioner of parks as well as a police commissioner, he said. "When you have a board whose primary interest is not animal welfare but lowering the budget and meeting other goals, you have all these competing priorities," Boks said. "Animal welfare will always fall to the bottom of the list."
New York's three shelters not only needed more money, they needed a new air circulation system that would prevent the spread of airborne germs, he said. "I was willing to start with baby steps -- let's get the air conditioner fixed, let's get these cruel cages out of our shelters, let's thank the volunteers," Boks said. "It was like pulling teeth. It was strictly a maintenance board -- managing the budget and that was it.... They're good people, they just don't really care about animal welfare."