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Animal Services Benefit a Bust

The L.A. department severs its ties to a spay-and-neuter fundraiser by a Hooters restaurant after it is dogged by criticism at City Hall.

June 28, 2006|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

Since taking office last summer, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has urged his employees to be creative and think outside the box.

Taking that advice to heart, the chief of the Los Angeles Animal Services Department paired with a Hooters restaurant in Hollywood for a bikini contest to raise money for city neutering and spaying programs.

But the howls of protests that greeted animal services chief Ed Boks' fundraising plan forced him to reconsider. On Tuesday afternoon, he canceled the city's role in the contest.

As word of the event spread through City Hall like a distemper epidemic, the reaction was swift and nearly unanimous: Boks was involved in a spectacularly bad idea. The department's role in the July 13 event raised the hackles of those who believe that the government's domain doesn't quite extend to judging the relative merits of swimsuit babes.

"Are we going backward? What is going on here?" asked City Controller Laura Chick, who said she called Boks on Tuesday morning to urge him to cancel.

Ranking high among complaints about the event was a poster displayed on the department's page of the city's website late last week. The dominant image was a bikini-clad woman, with considerably smaller photos of a dog and cat at the bottom of the poster.

By Monday -- after the first complaints -- that poster was replaced with a poster in which the buxom woman had been dropped; in her place was a forlorn dog wearing a "Hooters for Neuters" T-shirt.

In an interview Tuesday, hours before he dropped his plan, Boks said Hooters and other businesses came up with the idea of the bikini contest and approached his agency about being the beneficiary. He agreed because of his goal to reduce the number of animals euthanized in the city's six shelters.

"Animal Services has a five-year goal to end euthanasia. It is going to take an entire community to do that," Boks said. "We are merely the beneficiaries of this event; we are not sponsoring it. The long-term purpose of participating is to save lives of animals.

"Are some people going to be offended that we're working with Hooters?" he added. "Obviously, and I apologize for that. Hooters is a legitimate business -- it's not pornographic -- and they're helping us. I hope other businesses in the community will be inspired by them."

Not long afterward, Boks issued a news release, stating:

"I have reconsidered Animal Services' role as beneficiary" of the event "and have decided we will not be accepting any donations."

In the last year, the city has euthanized about 19,500 animals, Boks said -- an improvement over years past but still far too many, he believes.

But a good cause doesn't justify the means, others said.

"All of us are looking for money under every stone," said Paula Petrotta, executive director of the city's Commission on the Status of Women.

"As a city, we need to stand for something and make social statements," Petrotta said. "On one hand, we're disciplining city employees for sexual harassment; on the other hand. we're aligning with companies like Hooters, whose whole purpose is to exploit women for money."

Hooters is an eatery whose logo is an owl but it is probably best known for outfitting its female wait staff in decolletage-baring tank tops and construction-orange short-shorts. The company's website boasts that all its waitresses are required to wear bras and pantyhose.

The animal services agency has been in a state of perpetual controversy for years, with a constant turnover of department chiefs and ongoing protests from activists who believe the city euthanizes far too many dogs and cats each year.

Boks took over the agency in December after Villaraigosa fulfilled a campaign promise and fired the previous chief, Guerdon Stuckey, whose predecessor left because of safety concerns after his car was vandalized by activists.

Many officials in City Hall said that they sympathized with Boks, noting that he had arguably the most difficult agency to run. Still, they didn't think his agency needed to profit from a bikini contest.

"How stupid can they be?" asked Councilman Jack Weiss.

Then, scrutinizing the original poster, he said:

"I'm not the sort of person who notices the scantily clad woman, but I am the kind of person who notices that [promoters] can't spell the word 'adopt.' "

Indeed, it was originally spelled a-d-d-o-p-t until revised in the new poster.

Animal activist Judy Cairns of San Pedro said she could live with the bikini contest on the condition that city officials -- namely the men -- also show some skin.

"I want to see Mayor Villaraigosa's legs," Cairns said.

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