Why do people give up their pets?
That was the question that Scott Sorrentino, president of the Rescue & Humane Alliance-Los Angeles, posed in the West Hollywood Auditorium on Saturday. He wrote the numbers 1 through 5 on a piece of paper and asked his audience for answers.
"Moving," came one response. (the No. 2 reason). Behavior problems, someone suggested (No. 5).
But the No. 1 reason made even this audience of animal rescuers, volunteers, activists and animal services staffers -- people who wouldn't dream of giving up a pet -- gasp in surprise.
"Too sick" (or "too old") was the answer Sorrentino had written. Then he told of meeting a woman at a shelter who walked in with a cat she said was too sick for her to keep. The elderly cat was constantly throwing up, she said, and she didn't have money for veterinary care.
"Now bear in mind, this woman was in tears," said Sorrentino. "I said, 'If you could get to the vet, would you keep the cat?' She said, 'Of course!' " Sorrentino arranged -- and paid for -- a basic veterinary exam. The cat turned out to have an internal obstruction that passed through its system within a day.
"Here was a woman relinquishing her cat to a shelter," Sorrentino said, "when the whole solution was a $60 vet bill. We need to have some solutions like that.... We need to have some kind of fund that helps people who can't afford vet care to get no-cost or low-cost vet care."
Getting people to take pet ownership seriously was just one thorny issue discussed in a daylong conference, open to the public, on how to achieve a "no-kill" policy. Some call it a philosophy: the idea that shelters will not euthanize any healthy animal simply for space.
No goal is more sought after by city- and county-run shelters everywhere. And none is more difficult to achieve -- particularly at this time of year, when Los Angeles shelters have a bumper crop of kittens.
"But we can't hire St. Francis of Assisi," said Bill Dyer of the group In Defense of Animals -- which co-sponsored the conference with the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services -- invoking the patron saint of animals. "I don't think we've reached the community with this dire need for these animals to be adopted."
Rarely does any discussion of no-kill take place in L.A. in which Ed Boks, general manager of Animal Services -- which runs the six city shelters -- is not the target of people's anger. Saturday was no different. Boks commended In Defense of Animals officials for holding the conference in conjunction with his agency, "an organization that everybody loves to hate."
Only minutes after he uttered those words, six black-clad, megaphone-wielding demonstrators ran in, carrying a banner calling Boks "L.A.'s #1 Puppy Killer" and broke into a profanity-laced tirade against him. The demonstrators were chased out by conferees who later confronted them.
"Work with us to get a no-kill policy in effect," Norma Sandler, who was attending the conference, said to a demonstrator.
"The problem is you can't work with Ed Boks," said a protester who would give only his first name, Ryan. He also said he and fellow demonstrators were not part of any group. He said Boks "lies about animals brought in and how many have been killed."
"The idea that I, as general manager, could play with the data is ludicrous," Boks said, noting that shelter statistics come from numerous employees and are put into an electronic database by a separate technology team.
Jim Bickhart, liaison to the mayor's office on animal issues, said he was satisfied that Boks' statistics were correctly input. "The statistics aren't the whole story," said Bickhart, who was at the conference. "Ed Boks was brought in to work on a department with a lot of infrastructure problems. And he's working on that.... To think Ed Boks can come in and wave some magic wand in a year and a half and fix everything is delusional."
But statistics were never far from anyone's mind at the conference. Shelters end up with too many animals not just because people relinquish their pets. The offspring of unaltered feral cats and house pets wind up in shelters in huge numbers.
This is kitten season. At the moment, according to Animal Services staffer Patricia Ott, the department has about 200 kittens up for adoption. (Shelter addresses can be found at www.laanimalservices.com.)
Euthanasia statistics at city shelters have been trending lower for several years.
"I don't want to overstate the progress we're making," Boks said. "We're killing 18,000 animals," he said referring to the number of dogs and cats put to death in the last 12 months. "That speaks to the importance of AB 1634," he said of the California Healthy Pets Act, which is before the Legislature now. The law would mandate neutering and spaying of all pets.