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Saving pets, one at a time

'No-Kill December' was a milestone for L.A. animal shelters. Cynics see a hollow victory; others see a way to someday end euthanasia.

January 05, 2013|SANDY BANKS

I hate to be a party pooper. So I've been eager to join the celebration over "No-Kill December" -- the first time that Los Angeles city animal shelters have managed to go an entire month without euthanizing any adoptable dogs or cats.

But I couldn't help worrying that "No-Kill December" would lead to January slaughter.

What happened to all those dogs and cats -- 1,000 in a typical December -- the city shelters are forced to put to death every year? There's no way shelter employees could have found homes for all of them.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, January 10, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 Local Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Animal shelters: A column in the Jan. 5 Section A about the euthanizing of impounded animals said that 50,000 animals are euthanized yearly in Los Angeles city animal shelters. The correct figure is 20,000 euthanized; 50,000 is the number of animals impounded yearly.

Not all, said L.A. Animal Services director Brenda Barnette. But enough to spark hope in animal lovers like me.

December capped a year in which fewer dogs and cats were impounded and more were adopted out, she said. That gave shelters space to keep animals longer -- and saved the lives of almost 4,000 that might have been euthanized last year.

A coalition of animal welfare and rescue groups helped make that happen. Led by Best Friends Animal Society, which brought together volunteers and shelter officials, the group has mounted an effort to end euthanasia in Los Angeles in five years.

That seems impossible in a city that puts to death more than 50,000 would-be pets yearly. The numbers make it easy for cynics like me to consider last month's no-kill campaign little more than a feel-good gesture aiming at putting a happy face on a very ugly situation.

But I've come to see it as a promising example of what can happen when animal lovers work together, doing what they do best.

Small rescue groups are bailing animals out of shelters, housing them with volunteers and working overtime to get them adopted. Big animal welfare groups are pouring money into spay-neutering programs, subsidizing pet adoptions and showcasing animals to a national audience.

They are also bringing marketing savvy to an animal services department that, until now, could hardly manage its own website.

The branding campaign for No-Kill Los Angeles goes beyond the typical scenes of scraggly kittens and sad-eyed mutts, relying instead on comic YouTube videos and edgy documentaries.

Moving animals like merchandise, it turns out, can save their lives.

Los Angeles is overflowing with unwanted Chihuahuas. Philadelphia doesn't have enough. So Best Friends scooped up dozens from L.A. shelters and airlifted them to cities where yappy, purse-sized dogs are in demand. They gave the program a catchy name, and rescued 1,200 animals this year through Pup My Ride.

Another group, Found Animals, capitalized on the fact that many families look for dogs or cats as Christmas gifts. They offered discount coupons for hard-to-place pets -- older animals, black dogs and cats, shy or overweight ones, those with medical issues. The group's Twelve Pets of Christmas campaign found homes for about 3,000 dogs and cats, more than double what organizers expected.

And if you watched the Rose Parade, you saw the blurb for L.A.'s animal shelters when the Beverly Hills Pet Care Foundation's "adopt an animal" float rolled by.

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The month wasn't exactly no-kill; 620 animals were euthanized because they were considered too ill or too dangerous to be adopted. Even that can be considered progress, though; that's 400 fewer than the number put to death last December because of illness or behavioral issues.

That drop is due to a push by rescue volunteers. They accuse the department of being too quick to give up on homeless animals who might just need a little more patience or personal attention.

"No-Kill December" hasn't gone over well with some of those animal activists, who see it as a smoke-and-mirrors way to hide the failings of a system that doesn't really care about cats and dogs. I've heard complaints from volunteers of overflowing shelters, where dogs were crammed five or six to a tiny kennel to make the December numbers look good.

But Best Friends director Marc Peralta said last month's success was a building block for a movement that doesn't seem like such a long shot anymore.

"This isn't just about a no-kill month. It's something we've been working on all year," he said. "We've been out every weekend, pushing everybody to do just a little bit more... those five extra spay/neuters, finding a home for a couple more dogs. People are beginning to believe that if everybody does their part, it's absolutely achievable."

The question is what has to happen to turn this temporary reprieve to a lasting moral victory.

Barnette said that can't be left to animal welfare groups. "We have to get the community involved."

She sees a promising future in a new fostering program, now recruiting volunteers to get animals out of cages and into temporary homes, where their personalities can shine.

"We used to only do it for puppies or kittens, too young to be ready for adoption," she said. Now they're trying to find foster families for dogs and cats overlooked in the chaos of busy shelters.

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