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NKLA: Where we’ve been, where we are and where we are going

In 2010, with the arrival of Brenda Barnette as the general manager of Los Angeles Animal Services (LAAS), we began laying out the blueprint for turning Los Angeles into a no-kill city. It was based on the model that we had implemented with the No More Homeless Pets in Utah campaign 10 years earlier. We knew that it would have to be customized for L.A., a large city with unique challenges. At that time, 27 percent of the population was below the poverty line, and more than 53,000 animals per year were entering an animal control system that included six shelters and provided services to about four million residents spread out over 469 square miles. Also, the local animal welfare community had been riven by conflict and in-fighting for a number of years.

The city presented such a challenge that several highly regarded no-kill leaders who had achieved no-kill in other communities declined the opportunity to lead the city when it was offered to them. Oh, and there was a state court injunction in place that prevented the city from supporting or instituting any form of trap-neuter-return (TNR) program for community cats — normally an essential component of any no-kill program package.

However, starting with my first meeting with Brenda Barnette and our initial recruiting round of local leaders to serve on a campaign steering committee, I knew that the time was right. If Best Friends didn’t step up and take the reins of the situation, no one would. I also knew that if we could achieve no-kill in Los Angeles, it could be accomplished anywhere.

In 2011, Best Friends Animal Society teamed up with LAAS and six* leading Los Angeles animal organizations to lay the groundwork for a bold campaign with a big goal: to end the killing of dogs and cats in LAAS shelters. In April 2012, the NKLA (No-Kill Los Angeles) Coalition was launched with a few dozen member organizations committed to making L.A. a no-kill city by the end of 2017. That meant achieving a combined 90 percent save rate for both dogs and cats in L.A. city shelters for the year. Today, there are more than 130 NKLA Coalition partners.

The year before the launch of NKLA (2011), the save rate for LAAS was 57.7 percent for dogs and cats combined. For dogs in L.A. city shelters in 2011, the save rate was a mediocre 71.3 percent and for cats, a paltry 36.3 percent.

Today, the lifesaving picture has improved dramatically for pets in Los Angeles city shelters. By the end of last year, L.A. did indeed become NKLA for dogs; 92.4 percent is the projected 2017 save rate for dogs entering the LAAS system. The save rate for cats and kittens in 2017, while significantly better than the 2011 save rate, is projected to be 81 percent. And the save rate for the entire shelter system for dogs and cats combined fell short of the no-kill threshold of a 90 percent save rate by three percentage points. At a projected 87 percent, we are close, but no cigar.

For most people, this level of granular analysis and transparency is unnecessary. The arcana of no-kill calculations and statistics are too “inside baseball” — too much detail. After all, the fact that we are within shouting distance of our declared no-kill benchmark is nothing short of remarkable. To all of us in the NKLA Coalition, we know that this is a technical goal, and regardless of whether LAAS concluded the year with an 87 percent or a 91 percent save rate, our lifesaving work must be sustained.

Still, there are important facts behind these topline data points. As a result of the NKLA initiative, the overall shelter intake per year is down by approximately 10,000 animals (from 56,138 in 2011 to a projected 46,192 in 2017), while the number of lifesaving outcomes has risen by nearly 5,700 (from 32,540 animals saved in 2011 to 38,218 in 2017). And the number of dogs and cats killed has dropped dramatically — from 23,751 in 2011 to 5,909 in 2017.

Those are impressive numbers and they reflect a shared commitment by LAAS and the NKLA Coalition to tailor our collective work to target the specific needs of the city, as opposed to simply pouring resources into a basket of generic best practices. Both adoption and community spay/neuter programs have been targeted to areas where they are needed most, as dictated by shelter intake data.

One thing stands out among the myriad statistics that tell the story of the remarkable achievements of the NKLA initiative. While overall shelter intake has dropped by 17.7 percent over five years, intake of neonatal kittens has declined only slightly (from 9,683 kittens entering shelters in 2011 to a projected 9,224 in 2017). At the same time, these most adorable of shelter pets comprised the largest “demographic” of animals dying in shelters. Of the 23,751 dogs and cats who died in L.A. shelters in 2011, more than 7,400 were kittens. That is both sad and shameful. By the end of 2017, the number of kittens who lost their lives in the LAAS system had dropped an astounding 74 percent, with the number of kitten deaths projected for this year at 2,003 (which, of course, is 2,003 too many).
Samantha Bell holding Cisco the cat in Los Angeles
This flatlining of kitten intake, the continuing unnecessary loss of life and the no-kill shortfall is due entirely to the state court injunction referred to above, which prevents LAAS from implementing, supporting or even speaking about any of the many possible TNR programs that could manage community cat populations. In the normal course of events, TNR would have been one of the first programs to be advanced by the NKLA Coalition. In cities where such programs have been introduced, kitten intake and kitten deaths have both rapidly declined.

The injunction is the result of a lawsuit brought against the City of Los Angeles by Urban Wildlands and several other bird and urban wildlife advocacy groups. Their lawsuit demanded that before any TNR support could be provided by LAAS, the city had to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and demonstrate through an environmental impact report (EIR) that TNR would not adversely affect the environment. Please understand that Urban Wildlands’ contention has been that removing the reproductive organs of community cats living on the fringes of Los Angeles society would constitute an adverse impact on the environment. The original case was not argued on the merits or impact of TNR, but rather on whether or not the city actually had a feral cat program.

The resulting ruling, as stated, banned the city from providing any support at all for TNR — including referring the public to TNR organizations. Sadly, this has had the predictable consequence of sustaining rather than reducing the population of community cats in Los Angeles, and has put increasing numbers of birds, reptiles and rodents at risk. By filing for an injunction, the conservancy groups actually hurt, rather than helped, their cause and the animals they purport to represent.

As dictated by the injunction, the city will conduct an EIR — spending money that could be used elsewhere. Best Friends is currently looking into the review process for the injunction and exploring all avenues that we can take, along with our NKLA Coalition partners and supporters in the community, to appeal the ruling or modify the injunction. We will keep everyone updated on our efforts.

It would have been ideal to wrap up 2017 with a pretty bow tied around a no-kill Los Angeles, but we know that we will cross that 90 percent threshold sometime this year. In either case, the work of saving lives and sustaining the achievements of the last five years continues.

Together, we will Save Them All.

Julie Castle, CEO of Best Friends Animal Society Julie Castle
CEO
Best Friends Animal Society