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Animal Services manager's goals are a handful

Ed Boks is trying to lower euthanasia rates while making friends with the animal welfare community. His success has been mixed.

March 15, 2007|Tony Barboza | Times Staff Writer

Ed Boks says he runs the Los Angeles city department that "most people love to hate."

Taking over as general manager of Los Angeles Animal Services a little more than a year ago, he became the fourth person in four years to oversee the care of thousands of animals in city shelters.

The turnover rate alone illustrates the political pressure that historically hangs over the department as it manages the population of unwanted pets whose treatment people care about deeply -- even radically.

In his first six months, Boks tried reaching out to all shades of animal activist and rescue groups, but he has since become more cautious.

Boks (rhymes with spokes), 55, does not reveal where he lives, and recently changed his cellphone number to stop the steady flow of threatening calls he was receiving from some of his most dedicated critics.

He presides over an agency flush with $155 million in city bond money, which is being used to renovate all six shelters and build two more.

His unconventional approach has helped raise his own profile.

Boks' arrival was heralded by many in the Los Angeles animal welfare community because he was identified with the "no-kill" movement, which seeks to stop the practice of destroying healthy shelter animals because of a lack of space. But his bold pledge to achieve that goal within five years has invited criticism, including charges that he has not taken significant steps to meet it.

Karen Dawn, who runs an Internet-based animal advocacy group, said Boks' hiring was a relief. "He's one of us, he's an animal person," she said.

Boks has an unlikely background: He never graduated from college, worked as a minister and fought an allergy to cats much of his life.

A near-vegetarian (he eats fish), he admits to a predilection for boxers, which he calls the "clown prince of dog breeds" because of their goofy expressions.

As a high school freshman working at an animal shelter in his hometown of Harper Woods, Mich., he was asked to take an ailing spaniel to be euthanized. The experience haunted him, he said.

In Los Angeles, the "kill rate" at city shelters is the main yardstick for measuring Boks' effectiveness.

The euthanasia rate for dogs dropped to an all-time low of 28% last year, according to department statistics. But the rate for cats has gone up since Boks started.

The stubbornly high statistics have turned some of Boks' initial supporters into critics, including animal activist and blogger Ed Muzika. "The numbers started turning south," he said.

Boks has been lauded for hiring two new assistant general managers and working to curb animal overpopulation. He has expanded a city spay-and-neuter voucher program and helped craft proposed legislation that would make the procedure mandatory for most dogs and cats statewide.

But he largely has failed to bring about concrete improvements at city shelters, critics say.

"He's a talker but not a walker," said Pamelyn Ferdin of the Animal Defense League of Los Angeles, who said Boks has not laid down specific written policies for achieving the no-kill goal.

Assistant General Manager Linda Barth disputed that, saying the department is developing operating procedures to replace the archaic manual it inherited from previous administrators.

Others cite shortcomings in hiring and retaining veterinarians. Nine of the department's 12 budgeted positions are vacant.

Activists' attacks have shaken up previous department heads. The Animal Liberation Front took responsibility for detonating smoke grenades outside the Bunker Hill apartment of former chief Guerdon H. Stuckey in 2005. Protesters outside the home of his predecessor, Jerry Greenwalt, spray-painted "murderer" on his car before he resigned in March 2004.

Boks, however, made some inroads with the animal welfare community.

"The communication is better than it ever was before," said Scott Sorrentino, president of Rescue & Humane Alliance-Los Angeles, an association of local humane organizations.

Boks even reached an accord with the Animal Defense League of Los Angeles, the activist group known for demonstrating at Animal Services employees' homes. Ferdin and her husband, Jerry Vlasak, who head the organization, have characterized themselves as law-abiding liaisons and spokespeople for such groups as the Animal Liberation Front, which the FBI has deemed a terrorist organization.

After meeting with Boks in early 2006, Ferdin and Vlasak agreed not to hold protests for his first six months in the job but remained critical.

Boks said he now regrets meeting with radical animal activists.

Boks said he was targeted at his apartment despite efforts to keep its location secret. Returning home from vacation July 5, he found several windows of his city-issued sedan smashed and a travel bag lying on the trunk.

Police said it appeared to have been a random act, with no suspects and no apparent link to animal activists.

But to Boks, the burglary was too close to his six-month anniversary on the job. He thinks the vandalism was a warning to quit.

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