LA Is in the Midst of an Unprecedented Shelter Crisis · The Wildest

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Healthy Pets are Being Euthanized in LA Shelters for “Bogus” Reasons

“No kill? It just means slow kill,” one volunteer says of the unprecedented shelter crisis.

by Laura Stampler
July 8, 2024
Sad white dog alone in an animal shelter.
Melanie DeFazio / Stocksy

It was a late April day in Los Angeles, and Bobby, a wiggly Pit Bull-type / Lab mix, was in for a treat. It was National Adopt a Shelter Pet Day, and the city-run East Valley Shelter needed a well-behaved, camera-ready dog to be featured on a local news segment. Although sometimes reactive around other dogs, Bobby was an easy choice. In the 10 months he’d lived at the shelter, the goofy senior had been selected to greet high school volunteers and attend library events. 

“He’s a ham who loves everyone he meets,” a volunteer wrote in Bobby’s official notes, describing a teen-filled event that required dogs who were “bomb-proof” around people.

So, on that sunny day, Bobby trotted into the play yard, wagging his tail throughout Good Day LA’ s interview with Staycee Dains, Los Angeles Animal Services’ (LAAS) general manager. “We have the ability to care for about 737 dogs,” she told Good Day LA. “We have almost 1,500 dogs in our six shelters across the city … so we are looking for every way possible to save their lives.”

After the interview, Bobby returned to his rarely trafficked row of kennels. According to May 3 notes we obtained from volunteers, he didn’t leave that small enclosure for days. On May 17 — two and a half weeks after Dains was photographed rubbing the dog’s belly in an LAAS social media post that read: “We have tons of wonderful pets, like Bobby, who are ready to be adopted and go home with you!” —  her office authorized Bobby to be euthanized unless rescued by June 1 at 4 p.m., sharp. The LAAS later posted on X that Bobby had become a “safety concern” for having a “hard time with other dogs” — though we obtained records that showed there weren’t any physical alterations, rather “reactive” incidents, like barking. 

Per these volunteer-provided notes about Bobby, he was unable to be “safely housed with other dogs.” Some anonymous volunteers question if that could have been a factor in an overcrowding crisis that requires dogs to double or even triple up in kennels — but LAAS denies any claims that they kill dogs for space.

The very next day, a shelter volunteer picked Bobby as a “fool-proof” dog for a visiting Girl Scouts troop. Allowing himself to be pet by groups of three children at a time, he was unaware that he’d joined more than 100 other dogs on the LAAS “Red List,” which, at the time, was a list of dogs who need to be adopted immediately because they are at risk of being euthanized. This is just a snapshot into what some LA animal volunteers are calling an “Armageddon.”  

LA shelters have a big problem.

LA City shelters are overwhelmed, understaffed, underfunded, and often around 200 percent over-capacity — forcing large dogs to double or even triple up in kennels or small pop-up crates lining hallways, sometimes confined for weeks or months at a time without going outside to walk, play, or defecate outside of their urine-soaked cages. In the words of a volunteer who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal: “Some things are worse than death.”

“There’s 100 percent retribution against any volunteer or staff member that speaks out,” says Shira Scott Astrof, founder of The Animal Rescue Mission. “Long-time volunteers that are so essential to getting the dogs out and love the dog so much, they won't take any chances by speaking out because they know that they’ll get blocked.”

Volunteers we spoke with mentioned fear of or past experiences with being asked to leave their shelters, and thus, losing access to the animals they so tirelessly try to save. Some have sought legal representation to fight alleged unfair dismissal after publicly criticizing the shelter system, which relies on unpaid volunteers for social media, rescue efforts, dog socialization, and more. 

If their volunteers or staff publicly call out any issues within the system, rescues risk losing their New Hope partnership status, which reduces adoption fees and aims to “eliminate obstacles” in rescuing city-run shelter animals. According to the LAAS’s public handbook, New Hope Rescue Partners can only refer to their alliance with shelters in “a positive way ... whenever using any form of media to publicize the needs of animals within our care.” LAAS did not immediately respond to comment about the allegations of retribution.

“But people should be told, ‘If you drop your dog at the shelter, your dog may be killed, your dog will not receive good care, and your dog might not be walked for months,’” Astrof says. “I remember when I first saw Bobby on the news; I knew I’d have to save him.”

How did we get here?

There are many reasons for LA’s shelter overcrowding crisis. “It’s definitely the worst I have seen in my career,” Brittany Thorn, executive director at Best Friends Animal Society says. “We didn’t see an increase in intake after people went back to work after COVID. But since that point, people are struggling to pay for housing and groceries. When it comes to feeding your child or your dog, you’re picking your child.” 

The rising costs of living and a housing crisis — in which many landlords can bar dogs from rentals and insurers can deny coverage to parents of certain breeds — is just one factor. Leah Cohen, spokesperson for Department of County Animal Care and Control (DACC), tells us that even though there’s “a clear upward trend in the number of owner surrenders, especially from mid-2022 onwards, peaking in early 2024, percentages of owner surrenders compared to total intakes have generally decreased or remained stable because total intakes have also increased … [including] more litters this year.” 

The city and county have been working toward a solution for this unprecedented crisis. “The DACC is implementing a five-year plan to decrease the number and percentage of animals euthanized in our animal care centers,” Cohen adds. “This plan focuses on community engagement and services to keep pets and families together.” For example, the LA County Animal Care Foundation recently issued a $370K grant to support the Vet@ThePark program, which provides free veterinary exams, microchips, food, and vaccinations for dogs and cats. 

In April, the LA City Council voted to move forward with a pay-to-foster program to decrease the financial burden of taking animals out of overcrowded shelters. The city council also put a moratorium on new breeding licenses until shelters fall below 75 percent capacity. 

But, as it stands, outraged advocates believe that the city and county can’t solve the overcrowded crisis without dedicating more of their budgets to shelters and enforcing spaying and neutering ordinances. Furthermore, the explosion of illegal backyard breeders — who flood shelters with litters of specialty mixes and designer dogs, like Frenchies and Labradoodles, who fail to sell — won’t be deterred by a moratorium on licenses they never applied for to begin with.  

Healthy dogs are dying.

When an animal is surrendered in LA, they are either turned into one of the seven LA County shelters operated by DACC or one of the six city shelters run by LAAS. These two systems are ruled by two completely separate governing bodies, each with their own budgets, protocols, and significantly different euthanasia policies. 

County-run shelters are open about the fact that healthy dogs get euthanized due to lack of space and resources. Although volunteers shared that there often isn’t enough time for adoptable dogs to find homes before being killed — they can be euthanized days or weeks after being surrendered — much of the public outcry has been against city-run shelters, which are bursting at the seams. 

These conditions create unsafe environments for animals, volunteers, and staff. After a kennel supervisor at the city’s Harbor Animal Shelter was mauled by a dog last month, an LAAS spokesperson told the Los Angeles Times that dogs are “suffering physically and mentally from either their excessively long shelter stays or the challenging conditions resulting from overcrowding in the city’s shelters.”

Sadly, volunteers told us stories of dogs who had been killed by kennelmates or starved to death because their kennelmates had eaten their food. But many sources note these conditions make it much harder for friendly, healthy, and adoptable dogs to be properly showcased to potential families.

“Each day now, on average, just one more dog stays in the shelter than leaves it,” LAAS spokesperson Megan Ignacio says. “An average of 47 dogs enter the shelters each day, and 46 leave. If just three additional dogs left the shelters each day, even at current intake levels, LAAS would be able to reach and go below its built-capacity in under nine months.”

According to public statements, the LAAS claims its city-run shelters are “not euthanizing healthy, friendly and safe animals for any reason including space.” But critics say that it simply isn’t true and add that “[shelters] are trumping up charges on dogs” to justify their practice of euthanasia. The following could all be a health or behavioral cause for euthanasia: an upper respiratory infection, growling at staff or other dogs after spending months spinning in a kennel, simply showing signs of increased stress due to their environment.

A kill list or call to action?

“No kill? It just means slow kill,” photographer Cat Edwards (@la_rescuties) says. Rather than becoming an official volunteer and abiding by the restrictions that come with it, Edwards has dedicated the past six years of her life to making videos of animals in South LA to both humanize and publicize dogs to potential rescues, but also to shed light on the grave conditions at one of the city’s most overstressed shelters. “You tortured them and made them lose their mind for 18 months, and now you’re going to kill them? That’s not OK. But what’s the alternative? You kill them after 30 days? That’s not enough time.”

Until mid-June, LAAS had put dogs who were at risk of being put down and in need of immediate adoption on the “Red List,” which some sources described as a “kill list,” but what Ignacio counters as “just the opposite,” noting, nearly 90 percent of all dogs that were placed on the Red List are rescued or adopted.

“Our goal is to save the lives of healthy and safe animals,” Ignacio tells us. “The Red List is a list of animals that the department has determined need help immediately. It is a call to action to help these animals in desperate need. These are animals that, if given the right home, would be rewarding companions, but need a patient, caring, and invested home to take them right away.”

But as an anonymous volunteer says, that’s a gamble that often doesn’t pay off. “Sometimes, they Red List dogs to motivate people to get them out, but I’ve seen those bluffs called, and those dogs get killed.” 

In late May, multiple sources reported that as rescuers were loading three dogs set to be euthanized that day at 4 p.m. into a van to their new homes, they asked for a one-to-two-day extension on a Red-Listed puppy named Trey.

Hours before his scheduled euthanasia, a rescuer found Trey a potential adopter and was in the process of coordinating the adoption. Still, staff reportedly declined to extend his date to be euthanized, and as rescuers loaded the last of the dogs into the van, “Fourteen-month-old, happy, waggy-tailed Trey was walked back to the kill room and euthanized.” 

According to his files, which sources provided to us, the reason for Trey’s euthanization was an “excited” bite. The bitten volunteer wrote in his file, “Took Trey out for a potential adopter. Energetic, playful and friendly. Very jumpy. When I turned away from the jumping, Trey grabbed at my arms to gain my attention. Sadly he bit … Not hard, not with malice but had to report.” LAAS did not immediately respond to comment regarding Trey.

And even when homes are secured for dogs, mistakes can and do happen. On June 11, a Pit Bull mix was accidentally euthanized at an LA shelter one hour before his scheduled adoption.

Some good news: Bobby’s story had a happier ending.

Astrof’s rescue was at capacity. “Most of us are completely full. I have very adoptable dogs that have been in foster care for almost two years now, which was never the case before,” she says. But she knew she had to save Bobby. “I couldn’t let him be used as a prop, as a poster child for an adoptable dog and then killed for a bogus reason.”

Astrof’s nonprofit rescued Bobby from the shelter a week before he was scheduled to be killed. Although the LAAS thanked A.R.M. for rescuing Bobby on X, she was put off by the message. The post claimed Bobby was put on “our lifesaving list” (aka the Red List) for the “safety concern” of having a “hard time with other dogs,” which Astrof says isn’t true. A day after he was placed with a foster, Astrof posted a video of him ecstatically participating in a pack walk with the caption, “He loves other dogs!”

We were unable to get the finalized number of the fate of the other dogs who were Red-Listed alongside Bobby. “If you’re going to kill for space, be truthful about it,” Astrof says.

The Red List is gone — but has been replaced with something worse.

On June 11, LA’s City New Service reported, LAAS retired the “Red List” and replaced it with a similar “Needs Rescue List” for animals who are at risk of euthanasia and are demonstrating that they are suffering” as well as a separate, more imminent, euthanasia list. Dogs put on the euthanasia list will be given only 72 hours to be rescued, and can only be adopted via a New Hope Partner.

“The new policy essentially limits our access to many dogs we have relationships with and to new intakes who will clearly benefit from our working to enrich their stay with us,” shelter volunteers wrote in a letter to Mayor Karen Bass, published in the LAist. “The result is a conveyor-belt pace of killing happy, healthy dogs falsely labeled as unadoptable.” This implemented change comes after volunteers had already told us they were frustrated with bureaucratic policies that were challenging their ability to rescue dogs.

You can help LA shelters. Here’s how.

Although the situation is dire, there are many ways you can help LA’s most vulnerable animals. 

Make noise.

Reach out to policy makers and your local council members. Go to the directory of LA City Council members to find their contact information, including email addresses, office phone numbers, and social media accounts. 

You can also raise awareness in your own community by talking about the importance of rescuing animals and sharing adoptable shelter animals’ information on social media. 

Follow LAAS shelter volunteer accounts on social media, and share as much as you can.

If you see that a dog has been put on the euthanasia list at any shelter, please share so you can help get that pup off the list. The best way to do that? Follow any of these volunteer-run accounts.

Volunteer at city and county shelters.

While it’s great to work with your favorite local rescue, shelters are in dire need of help. And though it may seem emotionally intimidating, the potential for positive impact is extraordinary. On top of playing with orphaned animals and interacting with potential adopters, volunteers can assist with anything from photography/videography to marketing, office administration to working adoption events.

  • Apply to learn more about volunteering at city animal shelters. There are locations in West LA, Chesterfield Square/South LA, North Central, Harbor, West Valley, and East Valley. 

  • Apply to learn more about volunteering at county animal shelters, which are located in Agoura, Baldwin Park, Carson/Gardena, Caustic, Downey, Lancaster, and Palmdale.

Become a foster parent to a pup.

If you don’t have the ability to care for a dog long-term, fostering is a fantastic way to provide animals with a loving home before they find their family. As we mentioned above, city shelters are also in the process of establishing a pay-to-foster program that would offset the added expense of taking in an animal.

You can foster through shelters or rescues through the LAAS system.

Donate items and money.

Shelters are overcrowded and under-resourced. You can help by donating supplies like blankets, pee pads, leashes, collars, towels, toys, and food.

There are countless worthy organizations in the LA area, but if you’re looking for suggestions, shelter volunteers recommend helping the below rescues, including: Outta The Cage, The Animal Rescue Mission, A Purposeful Rescue, Deity Animal Rescue, Grand-Paws Senior Sanctuary, The Soulful Dog Rescue, K9 Kismet, Blue Man Dog, Beezy’s Rescue, and Paws for Life K9 Rescue.

There are also nonprofit organizations like KTLA Anchor and animal advocate Kacey Montoya’s Fix’n Fidos, which assist low-income Angelinos with spaying and neutering their pets and provides pet parents with financial assistance to pay for unexpected veterinary bills

Adopt a dog (or two).

And encourage others to do the same (any of the shelters listed above are great options!). If a friend says they’re only interested in one breed, assure them they can adopt their dream dog without going to a breeder. Per a 2024 Forbes report, between 25 and 30 percent of shelter dogs are purebred, and there are specialized rescue organizations dedicated to specific breeds. You can also find purebreds in shelters, as we mentioned in our reporting above.

Fight the harmful (and false) stigma that animals are surrendered because there’s something wrong with them. These animals are resilient, silly, and loving. Volunteers and rescue organizations are invested in finding animals a home, so they will help you find the perfect match.

References:

Laura Stampler works with her dog on her lap

Laura Stampler

Laura Stampler is a freelance writer and the author of Little Black Dresses, Little White Lies. Formerly a reporter at Time magazine, Business Insider, and HuffPost, she has also written for Fortune, the LA Times, Vulture, Women's Health, Teen Vogue, WP Creative Studio, and various brands. She currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband, toddler, and rescue Chihuahua, Mr. Cuddles, who is currently pursuing his doctorate in the art of being a very good boy.

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