Lejla Hadzimuratovic, right, of the nonprofit Bunny World Foundation,… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
Every day, shoppers flock to downtown L.A.'s Fashion District for cheap fabric and knock-off jeans, purses and shoes.
But on some street corners, vendors carrying small plastic cages hawk turtles, bunnies and birds.
City officials say the sidewalk sale of animals is an underground economy that has gotten out of hand. In hopes of stopping it, they've passed a law that makes buying animals on public streets or sidewalks illegal.
The ordinance approved preliminarily by the Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday calls for penalties of $250 for the first violation, $500 for the second and $1,000 for the third. The measure will come back to the council for a final vote Aug. 10.
It adds to an existing city prohibition on the sale of live animals on public streets, as well as a state law signed last week that bans the practice and sets tougher penalties for those convicted of animal abuse or cruelty.
Officials hope the measures will help dissuade shoppers from buying the animals, many of which are young, malnourished and not inoculated. They plan to post signs in the Fashion District and other places where the practice is a problem, including Venice and Chinatown, warning shoppers that buying animals on the street is a crime.
Stephanie Pullen, 21, says she wouldn't have bought a bunny downtown last week if it was against city law.
She and a friend were shopping for clothing in the Fashion District when they stopped to pet a tiny rabbit lying in a cramped cage.
"We felt really sorry for him because he was just sitting in this little cage in the heat on the street corner," she said. They paid $20, named him Harry and took him home.
Four days later, Harry got sick with diarrhea. The next morning, Pullen found him dead.
Many of the black market bunnies and other animals that survive often end up in the city's shelters, officials say.
Others end up at rescue organizations. Lejla Hadzimuratovic, who runs a nonprofit called Bunny World Foundation, has taken in hundreds of bunnies to try to nurse them back to health.
"The law's going to help, but we don't know how much," she said.
The Animal Services Department and the police often conduct busts on illegal animal vendors. Cmdr. Andrew Smith of the Los Angeles Police Department said many of the vendors have ties to gangs.
He said dissuading potential buyers is as important as cracking down on vendors. "We're hoping the market will just drop out for this," he said.
The ordinance will go to the council for a final vote next Wednesday.