A 3-month-old Chihuahua mix cradled by a possible adopter at the new South… (Los Angeles Times )
Brenda Barnette, the general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services, ignited a firestorm of protest when she sent out an email last month explaining why she intended to eliminate animal care technicians on the midnight to 6 a.m. shifts and move them onto day and swing shifts.
That would have left some 1,500 animals in six municipal shelters unattended in the wee hours of the night. The outcry was so intense that Barnette—wisely—postponed implementing the move of ACTs, as they are known, and scheduled a meeting for the public to meet with her and discuss this (and some other issues, probably) Monday night at the East Valley shelter in Van Nuys from 7 to 9 p.m.
No one likes the idea of these already bereft creatures, confined to kennels in shelters with variable odds of getting adopted out, left alone in the night. What if they get sick? What if dogs in the same kennels start to fight with each other? What happens to the animal that someone finds, sometimes injured, and takes to a shelter in the middle of the night?
I have every confidence that Barnette doesn’t like that scenario either. But as rough as the night in the shelter system is, the days are more brutal for L.A. city department managers coping with stripped-down budgets and orders not to hire.
Barnette’s initial decision was motivated by budget problems. In an April 1 report to the L.A. City Council and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, she wrote: “In 2005-06 the Department had 120 ACTs to care for animals in 759 kennels and cages throughout the shelter system as it existed at the time. With the February 2013 opening of the new South Los Angeles shelter, Animal Services had 134 ACTs available to care for animals in 2029 kennels and cages.”
The math is pretty obvious.
Barnette believed that moving the 16 graveyard shift ACTs to day and swing shifts would help alleviate troubles with customer service, cleanliness, animal odors and paperwork in the understaffed shelters.
And she did her homework on the issue. A survey of other area shelter systems outside the city of L.A. showed that many weren’t staffed overnight. Nor, contended Barnette, do most non-emergency veterinary hospitals have overnight monitoring. She said that staff were already competent at figuring out which dogs could be peacefully housed together in kennels. She said she would put in place, and publicize, protocols about what could be done if people find an injured animal. (And if you bring an injured animal to a shelter at night that is staffed by an ACT, a vet still has to be called, and, sometimes, the animal still has to be transported to an emergency clinic.)
However, every memo made public and email she has sent out explaining what she wanted to do has been met with volleys of criticism. When she said she would spend money out of her budget—about a quarter of a million this year—to hire a single overnight security guard for each shelter, people asked why she couldn’t spend that money on ACTs. Answer: because security guards would be contract workers without pensions. ACTs are union employees that get hired with pensions and benefits and hiring them must be approved by the mayor and City Council. And that permission is difficult to get, since they're trying to limit the number of employees in the pension system.
As thorough as I think Barnette has been in laying out the groundwork for running the shelters without graveyard ACTs, I would still rather see the shelters with night shift workers. Stuff happens. There should be someone there. Perhaps the graveyard shift could be pared down to a skeleton crew. What about one overnight worker per shelter—and one hardy volunteer?
It's good that these issues will be discussed Monday night among people who care deeply about these animals. And I do hope “discuss” is the operative word. If this town hall meeting turns into little more than a public lashing of Barnette, nothing will be gained. And, in that case, it’s the shelter animals that lose.
Meanwhile, this controversy has gotten the attention of the L.A. City Council and created some political will to address the shortage of ACTs. Monday afternoon, the council's Budget and Finance Committee will take up this issue. The real solution lies in hiring more people.
The East Valley shelter is at 14409 Vanowen St., Van Nuys.
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