A nod to the mayor

Best Friends is entirely nonpolitical, and in Los Angeles we have worked to help city shelter animals since the mid-1990s, regardless of the politics of the administration. We have offered programs and support to L.A. Animal Services (LAAS) general managers working under Mayor Riordan, Mayor Hahn and Mayor Villaraigosa. That would be one Republican and two Democrats, and a total of eight GMs or interim GMs. I have been in the middle of much of this and have a pretty good perspective on the priority given to LAAS by the various administrations. While prior mayors have given a respectful bow to animal issues, Mayor Villaraigosa is the first to refine his understanding of issues over his tenure and to keep faith with the cause of a no-kill Los Angeles rather than simply toss the occasional bone to appease the loud and often raucous animal community, whom we all know and love.

To be sure, there will be those who disagree, and the comments below will likely reflect that. There are also some who believe that they themselves or one of their rescue buddies should be running L.A. Animal Services and will never forgive the mayor for passing them over. All that’s to be expected, but when you filter out the noise and consider the challenges, I believe we owe Mayor Villaraigosa a big thank-you for keeping his pledge to the animal community to move the city toward no-kill.

L.A. Animal Services is a full partner in the NKLA Coalition. The campaign is knocking it out of the park, with shelter killing in the first year, 2012, down to the lowest level since pre-crash 2007. That success owes in large part to support from the mayor’s office, starting with the hiring of Brenda Barnette as general manager in the middle of an epic budget crisis and a shrill, contentious and near-violent uprising from segments of the animal community.

The L.A. city website lists 43 departments and bureaus, one of which is the Department of Animal Services. Most big city mayors (Los Angeles is the second largest city in the country) regard animal services and the animal community as a stone in the shoe – insistent and annoying, but relatively unimportant when set against the other issues they deal with – infrastructure, crime, public works, ports and airports, sanitation, emergency response, transportation, etc. Also, no mayor comes to his or her post with a strong background in animal welfare or the no-kill movement. When, and if, they open their door to the various animal services stakeholders, they are greeted with conflicting messages from a cohort that includes old school catch-and-kill advocates who see animal services as strictly a public safety undertaking, tenured union shop senior shelter staff who want to keep the status quo, traditional sheltering professionals from the largest local humane society or SPCA, and, of course, the various factions of the rescue community. The typical response is to close the door as quickly as possible and to try to keep a lid on that particular can of worms for as long as possible.

To his credit, Mayor Villaraigosa has kept that door open and worked in good faith to sort through the competing narratives in the face of heated personal vilification. He “gets” that saving the lives of shelter animals – compassion in its most elemental form – has a benefit to the social fabric of the city and to the community as a whole beyond the animals themselves. He has not simply offered an assortment of appeasement gestures to a vocal minority; rather, he has put in the time to get a handle on the issues and opened the door to new ideas and new ways of doing business.

Los Angeles was hit hard by the great recession and the housing crisis in particular. As more and more families lost their homes, animal shelter intake soared while city revenue plummeted. Animal services have never enjoyed a fat budget, but hiring freezes and across-the-board budget cuts for all departments hit LAAS hard. Mayor Villaraigosa’s hiring of Brenda Barnette, who came with a depth of no-kill experience going back to her role as a critical part of Richard Avanzino’s staff at San Francisco SPCA in the 1990s, was a bold and surprising move. His continued support of Brenda as she has worked to straighten out a department that has been in disarray for as long as I can remember is further testament to his commitment to the animals. The standard move is to offer up the LAAS general manager as a sacrifice to the mob if change isn’t immediate and to bring in a new target for public ire while keeping the mayor’s office at a safe distance. He didn’t do that.

When the city was faced with the reality that there was no money in the budget to staff a newly constructed animal shelter in Mission Hills, the mayor instructed his chief administrative officer (CAO) to explore a public/private partnership to get value for the city out of the facility rather than put it into mothballs. Best Friends put in a proposal and worked out a contract with the CAO to save lives by operating the Mission Hills complex as an additional pet adoption center for L.A. shelter animals and as a low-cost and free spay/neuter center for low-income families. Our proposal went to the city council for approval, and the mayor's support was critical to its passage. As a result of his vision and grasp of the issues, the public/private partnership with Best Friends has been a cornerstone of the NKLA Coalition that collectively – there are over 50 coalition partners – reduced shelter killing by 4,200 lives in 2012 compared with 2011 and is on track in 2013 to position the city for a final push to no-kill.

Los Angeles’ animals have been fortunate to have Mayor Villaraigosa presiding over their fate. When L.A. finally becomes NKLA, it will be in no small part due to his vision and leadership. Thank you, mayor, and good luck in your future endeavors.

Francis Battista