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Vet shortage puts bite on city animal shelters

With only two of 12 L.A. posts filled, the lives of thousands of creatures are on the line annually.

January 08, 2007|Tony Barboza | Times Staff Writer

As the city of Los Angeles spends millions revamping its animal shelters, 10 of 12 veterinary positions in the Department of Animal Services, including that of chief veterinarian, go vacant.

The lack of veterinarians has raised questions about the department's ability to care for the thousands of animals under its charge. It is especially notable given the stated priorities of the department's general manager, Ed Boks, whose promises upon taking the job a year ago included more humane treatment.

The agency faces many obstacles in hiring new veterinarians: a statewide veterinarian shortage, undesirable working conditions and a history of attacks by animal rights activists.

Yet, the city's main local counterpart, the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control, has not had the same problems with veterinary staffing. The county has 10 budgeted positions and only two vacancies, Deputy Director Michelle Roache said. The county generally has not been targeted by animal activists.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday February 09, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 77 words Type of Material: Correction
Veterinarians: An article in the Jan. 8 California section about a shortage of veterinarians at the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services said former General Manager Guerdon Stuckey was fired after being criticized for failing to reduce the number of animals euthanized. It should have said Stuckey was criticized for not making a larger reduction in the number euthanized. According to department records, there was an overall reduction in the number of euthanized animals during his tenure.

The city vacancies have forced the two staff veterinarians to divide their time among the city's six shelters, which together take in roughly 46,000 animals each year.

The veterinarian shortage comes as the city is spending $155 million in bond money rebuilding its shelters. When the project is completed, the total number of kennels available citywide will jump from 595 to 1,770.

Boks said the extra space will help the department achieve its twin goals of finding homes for the animals and reducing the number euthanized each year. He has said he wants to eliminate the euthanizing of healthy animals within the next few years.

But critics say the lack of veterinarians could thwart that goal.

"If you create larger spaces and you fill them up with more animals but you don't get the personnel, what you've done is you've actually worsened the problem," said Madeline Bernstein, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Los Angeles.

"It's more trips to the vet, it's more litter boxes to clean. It has to change commensurate with the animal population," Bernstein said.

The veterinarian shortage "is our top problem," said animal services Personnel Director Russ Core. "Our two vets are just overtaxed."

There should be two veterinarians assigned to each shelter, Boks said. The shortage means the city must contract with private veterinarians for much of its medical care, such as spaying, neutering and other surgeries.

Thirty-eight registered veterinary technicians help take up some of the slack by performing certain medical procedures but only with authorization by veterinarians.

One of the obstacles to increasing veterinary staff is the scant applicant pool, officials said.

A starting veterinarian, even without experience, would make a base salary of at least $79,000 a year working for a Los Angeles shelter, a rate that is competitive with private practices.

But veterinary school graduates enjoy a lucrative job market, with nationwide veterinarian shortages in both private practices and municipal shelters.

"There are six-plus job offers for every graduate," said Donald J. Klingborg, associate dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis, one of only two veterinary schools in California. (The other is the College of Veterinary Medicine at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona.)

Shelter working conditions may be repelling potential applicants, officials said. Shelter veterinarians often treat hundreds of animals a day, and their work is often more demanding or unpleasant than that of private practitioners. Euthanasia, often done because of a lack of space in the shelters, is a significant part of a shelter veterinarian's job.

Los Angeles Animal Services euthanized an estimated 19,215 dogs and cats in 2006. That is the lowest number in five years, according to department statistics, but still far more than officials would like.

Boks' predecessor, Guerdon Stuckey, was fired after being criticized by animal activists and department commissioners for failing to reduce the number of animals euthanized by the city.

Veterinarians may be reluctant to work for the city because they face heavy criticism for their role in putting down animals, Boks said. In the last several years, animal services employees have endured vandalism and menacing phone calls by animal rights activists, who oppose euthanasia.

"Los Angeles has a very vocal minority of animal activist radicals who have been able to scare vets away," Boks said. "But I think that as we demonstrate that we as an organization are really moving in the direction of no-kill, we will make it attractive to vets."

The two city veterinarians declined requests for interviews.

As of Friday, the newly rebuilt North Central Shelter in Lincoln Heights was housing 442 cats, dogs and rabbits. The 275 dogs appeared to be well cared for, housed in clean, heated concrete kennels outside, hung with signs showing names such as Scooby, Aphrodite and Paloma.

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