Took L.A. to “no kill” at cost of soaring pit bull attacks
LOS ANGELES, California––Brenda Barnette, the third-longest-serving general manager of Los Angeles Animal Services since World War II, has announced her retirement, effective in mid-May 2021.
The City of Los Angeles has officially not yet begun what is expected to become a nationwide search for Barnette’s successor.
Confirmed Barnette to ANIMALS 24-7 on March 30, 2021, “Yes, after an exciting 10+ years I am retiring. I was hired by former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and was privileged to be invited to continue to work the last seven years under mayor Eric Garcetti,” who was elected in 2013 and re-elected in 2017.
“Proud of my time”
“There is no way to thank all of the community members and national groups who have helped make our work possible, “ Barnette said, “but I am so grateful to them all. I am proud of my time with the City of Los Angeles and will miss being an active member of the city family.
“Over the past 10+ years,” Barnette added, “I have watched my co-workers develop into an amazing team. I am so proud to know and to have worked with them. The truth is, they don’t need me. They are ready to carry on and take Los Angeles Animal Services to the next level for the animals and people who love them.”
Wrote Barnette to the Los Angeles Animal Services staff two days earlier, “It is with very mixed feelings that I am letting you know I have given my retirement notice to the mayor. It isn’t immediate. I will be here until early May.
Stopped a revolving door
“As many of you know, before I was hired, there had been seven general managers in the previous 10 years. That must have been very difficult for you.”
Barnette lauded her staff for “incredible accomplishments that would not have been possible without your hard work and dedication.” Barnette promised to “document some of these accomplishments before I leave.”
One of those accomplishments, perhaps the accomplishment least likely to be noticed and appreciated by people outside of Los Angeles Animal Services, was keeping one of the four largest animal control agencies in the U.S. running throughout the COVID-19 crisis, despite a personnel absentee rate frequently topping 20%.
Thanks “creative & resilient team”
With 348 total personnel, including 233 animal control officers in the field to serve a human population of about four million people, almost one million dogs, and more than a million cats, Los Angeles Animal Services handles about 60,000 impounded, stray, feral, and owner-surrendered animals per year.
COVID-19 at times necessitated closing two of the six Los Angeles Animal Services shelters, reassigning personnel to keep the other four shelters fully staffed, while administrative staff worked from home.
At that, though, Los Angeles Animal Services appears to have maintained essential services as effectively as any comparable agencies. Many smaller animal control agencies were closed for weeks at a time.
“Thank you for being a creative and resilient team,” Barnette finished her message to employees. “You have kept the community safe, you have made major strides in life-saving and you are serving our community well.”
Lauded by Best Friends Animal Society
Barnette, 72, announced her retirement a little less than three weeks after Best Friends Animal Society president Julie Castle exulted on March 10, 2021 that, “Los Angeles has entered the ranks of our nation’s no-kill communities as the largest such city in the country!
“The 2020 save rate in the city of Los Angeles was 90.49%,” Castle blogged. “L.A. is now NKLA!,” meaning “No Kill Los Angeles,” a brand name that the Best Friends Animal Society uses for Los Angeles activities.
Castle also claimed for the Best Friends Animal Society much of the credit for the high Los Angeles “save rate.”
Barnette and the Best Friends Animal Society had a longtime close relationship for nearly 20 years before Barnette took the Los Angeles Animal Services job as general manager.
Transferred shelter to Best Friends management
About a year after arriving in Los Angeles, Barnette in August 2011 proposed transferring the city-owned but idle Northeast Animal Care Center to management by the Best Friends Animal Society. This arrangement was accomplished, after six months of negotiation, in January 2012.
Completed in 2008, the Northeast Animal Care Center cost $19.5 million to build, financed by a $154 million bond issue to upgrade animal facilities. Operating costs were to come out of the Los Angeles Animal Services annual budget. Repeated budget cuts, however, left the Northeast Animal Care Center mostly unused.
Best Friends operated the shelter until the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated closing it in 2020, due to social distancing requirements that precluded holding public adoption events.
Barnette’s statements were more cautious
Barnette herself was much more restrained than Castle and many others in celebrating the record high Los Angeles “save rate,” noting that Los Angeles Animal Services still kills several thousand animals per year for causes including injury, illness, and––now rarely––dangerous behavior.
Barnette may have been aware that the “save rate” is less a measure of “lifesaving” services than an indication of what an animal sheltering system and/or animal control district is not doing: removing problematic animals from the community.
The more aggressive an agency is in impounding dangerous dogs, in particular, the lower the “save rate” will be––if the agency puts public safety first, including the safety of other animals.
Led U.S. twice in shelter dog attacks
Indeed, far from keeping Los Angeles safe, Los Angeles Animal Services led the U.S. in known fatal and disfiguring attacks by dogs in animal shelters and/or rehomed by shelters in both 2019 and 2020.
And Los Angeles Animal Services personnel have apparently not even done well at maintaining their own safety in recent years.
According to City Watch columnist Phyllis Daugherty, who to be sure has rarely credited Barnette with any positive accomplishment, “A recent safety analysis by Los Angeles Animal Services executive management showed a 47% increase in dog attacks/bites in the shelters, according to reliable City of Los Angeles sources.”
The Los Angeles Animal Services shelters have now been among the U.S. leaders in known disfiguring attacks by shelter dogs getting extra chances to be rehomed in every year since 2016.
Pit bull attacks
Attacks rating at the fifth level of the six-level Ian Dunbar scale for dog attack severity have been committed by two German shepherds, a Cane Corso, a bull mastiff, and eight pit bulls. The sixth level is a fatality.
Los Angeles rarely had an attack either in the city shelters or by rehomed dogs in the preceding 148 of the 153 years that the city has had an animal control agency.
Los Angeles Animal Services has not yet been held culpable for a human fatality, either under Barnette or under previous leadership, but came close in June 2020 when a recently rehomed pit bull left the mother of the adopter in critical condition.
The pit bull who inflicted that attack had arrived at Los Angeles Animal Services after a previous severe attack, and had a history of dangerous behavior while in custody.
Barnette did finally authorize euthanasia for the pit bull in that instance, and for another pit bull at the same time.
L.A. introduced both decompression killing & city-subsidized s/n
Los Angeles was already killing less than a third as many impounded dogs and cats per thousand human residents as the U.S. national average when Barnette arrived.
The last Los Angeles Animal Services general manager who failed to reduce shelter killing was Richard Bonner, who served from 1939 to 1969. Bonner in 1949 introduced the use of decompression to kill dogs and cats en masse, which––with the endorsement of the American Humane Association in 1950––soon caught on nationwide.
Bonner retired 16 years before the last decompression chambers used to kill shelter animals in the U.S. were decommissioned as inhumane in 1985.
Percentage-wise, the greatest drop in Los Angeles shelter killing was effected by Robert Rush, who headed Los Angeles Animal Services from 1969 to 1992. Rush introduced city-subsidized spay/neuter services, long performed by Marvin Mackie, DVM, who developed and taught many of the high-volume spaying and castration techniques that are now used worldwide.
Barnette quit disclosing pit bull data
Though Barnette appears to have substantially reduced the Los Angeles Animal Services rate of killing pit bulls, which had already dropped under her immediate predecessor, Ed Boks, it is not clear––because Barnette quit publishing breed-specific data in October 2017––that any of this was accomplished by reducing the city pit bull population through spay/neuter, or by placing and keeping pit bulls in responsible homes.
As of October 2017, Barnette and staff had identified more than 27,000 pit bulls since July 1, 2012, rehoming nearly 18,000 of them while euthanizing more than 9,000, according to data posted on the Los Angeles Animal Services web site. This was approximately the reverse of the national average at the time, according to data collected by ANIMALS 24-7, which showed most shelters euthanizing about two-thirds of pit bull intake, primarily for exhibiting dangerous behavior.
Third party sources allege that pit bulls now make up as much as 85% of Los Angeles Animal Services dog impoundments and owner surrenders. This would be high compared to the animal control agencies of other major U.S. cities, but pit bull intake rates of up to 60% of dog intakes are currently not uncommon.
Exported pit bulls to Canada
Barnette in large part lowered pit bull euthanasias by escalating pit bull exports to shelterless nonprofit “rescues” in other communities. Pit bulls said to be from Los Angeles became controversial, early in Barnette’s Los Angeles tenure, throughout the U.S. west and in western Canada.
Many pit bulls said to be of “Los Angeles” origin were implicated in attacks on humans and other animals after arriving in other cities and being rehomed with little or no documentation offered about the pit bulls’ origin and history, let alone with specific disclosures about previous attacks.
In January 2011, for instance, barely six months after Barnette arrived in Los Angeles, the Vancouver Sun reported that an organization called Better Life Dog Rescue had imported about 200 dogs from the Los Angeles Department of Animal Regulation, as the agency was called before Barnette renamed it.
The pit bull imports coincided with increased pit bull attacks on both pets and people throughout the greater Vancouver area.
If the problematic pit bulls believed to be from Los Angeles were in truth from elsewhere and misidentified, Los Angeles Animal Services under Barnette appears to have done little or nothing to disassociate the agency from the traffic.
Citywide Cat Program
Barnette’s most noteworthy success appears to have been on behalf of cats, and is only just beginning to be implemented––or rather, re-implemented, having originally been started and then abruptly dismantled before her time.
The Los Angeles Citywide Cat Program, a project Barnette kept her eye on as steadily as a cat watches a mouse hole, and pursued throughout her tenure, on December 10, 2020 won unanimous approval from the Los Angeles City Council.
“The Council vote clears the way for the city to use municipal funds to operate the Citywide Cat Program, which will spay or neuter 20,000 cats per year,” explained Alley Cat Allies publicist Peter Osborne.
The vote came approximately 60 days after publication of a 714-page Los Angeles Citywide Cat Program Final Environmental Impact Report.
“Project Does Not Encourage Feeding”
A single seven-word subheading in Chapter 3 of that report appears to have decisively turned the Los Angeles political tide in favor of the Citywide Cat Program:
“The Proposed Project Does Not Encourage Feeding.”
With those seven words, the City of Los Angeles, Department of Public Works, Bureau of Engineering swept away almost every objection to the Citywide Cat Program, as Barnette outlined it, that had been offered by either opponents or proponents of neuter/return outdoor cat population control.
The City of Los Angeles Citywide Cat Program Environmental Impact Report, published in August 2019, concluded that because feeding is not a component of the program, “No significant environmental impacts were identified in the analysis of the proposed project.”
Had been suspended by judge
The framework of the Citywide Cat Program was introduced by the Los Angeles Department of Animal Regulation in 2006, while Ed Boks was general manager.
It appeared to be making demonstrable headway toward reducing the Los Angeles outdoor cat population when halted on December 9, 2009 by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Thomas McKnew.
McKnew ruled, on behalf of five organizations representing birders, that Los Angeles Animal Services had violated the California Environmental Quality Act by issuing $30 sterilization vouchers to neuter/return practitioners. The vouchers were redeemable at five privately operated low-cost spay/neuter clinics and three mobile spay/neuter clinics that worked under city contract.
Nearly 10 years elapsed after the McKnew verdict before Barnette found the budget to commission the formal environmental impact report needed to comply with the law.
During the 10 years that the Citywide Cat Program was suspended, while Barnette cut the red tape necessary to restart it, the estimated Los Angeles free-roaming cat population increased from circa 50,000 to 342,915, according to the Citywide Cat Program Final Environmental Impact Report.
Declawing & elephants
The Los Angeles Animal Services web site claims, on behalf of the agency under Barnette, that it “is often the leader on progressive animal issues,” citing the passage of city bans on declawing than began within the Los Angeles Animal Services jurisdiction in 2003 and covered the entire jurisdiction by the end of 2009, having been introduced almost entirely during the Ed Boks tenure as Los Angeles Animal Services general manager.
Los Angeles was also “the first major city to pass a ban on the use of the elephant bull hook,” Los Angeles Animal Services web site mentions, “inspiring other cities.”
This coincided with “Ringling Brothers [beginning to make] plans to retire their elephants from circus acts,” a statement indirectly confirmed by Ringling president Kenneth Feld, who complained bitterly about the increasing difficulty of finding attractive locations that could accommodate a circus with elephants.
Backfiring anti-“puppy mill” ordinance
Los Angeles Animal Services also claims credit for introducing “The anti-puppy mill ordinance to prevent the importation of mill-bred puppies and kittens,” versions of which are now state law in California and have been passed in hundreds of other jurisdictions nationwide.
Commonly overlooked is that such ordinances appear to have accomplished nothing positive. The percentage of puppies acquired from commercial breeders is now at an all-time high and rising, total dog acquisitions from animal shelters has remained flatlined at between four and five million per year since the mid-1980s, and many major retail pet supply stores no longer offer puppies and kittens for in-store acquisition, either by purchase or adoption.
Instead, puppy sales in particular have moved online, bypassing retail stores and thereby also evading inspection points. Puppy millers have not been less vulnerable to to law enforcement since the first federal legislation to regulate dog sales was introduced in 1966.
Boks, Stuckey, & Greenwalt
Barnette came to Los Angeles after four years as chief executive officer of the Seattle Humane Society, hired after a year-long search to find a successor to Ed Boks, who resigned in April 2009 after just under four years in Los Angeles.
Boks’ immediate predecessor, Guerdon Stuckey, was fired by then-Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in his thirteenth tumultuous month on the job, only days after Villaraigosa took office.
Stuckey had succeeded former Los Angeles Zoo director Jerry Greenwalt, who retired under intense pressure from activist factions.
Dan Knapp & Gary S. Olsen
Greenwalt had taken over from the late Dan Knapp after Knapp finished his tenure, 1998-2001, on a prolonged sick leave attributed to stress. Knapp had previously headed the Humane Society of Humboldt County and the Humane Society of Sonoma County, both in northern California, and later headed the Capital Area Humane Society in Columbus, Ohio, all with eminent success, but developed a heart condition while in Los Angeles.
Knapp died from a sudden heart attack at age 49 on August 1, 2004.
Knapp in Los Angeles succeeded Gary S. Olsen, a 30-year Los Angeles Animal Services employee. Olsen retired five years after being moved into the top job on an interim basis when Robert Rush quit. Olsen was in January 1994 made the “permanent “general manager when the city was “unable to convince an outsider to take over,” according to the Los Angeles Daily News.
Success in Seattle, Walnut Creek, Redwood City, & San Francisco
Barnette arrived from the Seattle Humane Society after achieving a rise in adoptions rose from circa 4,500 per year to 6,091 in 2009, then the most in the 112-year history of the organization.
Previously, as executive director of Tony LaRussa’s Animal Rescue Foundation in Walnut Creek, California from mid-2003 to January 2006, Barnette doubled program spending, halved fundraising and administrative expense, cut the debt owed for a $16 million new shelter from $6 million to $3 million, and boosted adoptions from 456 in the year before the new shelter opened to more than 1,800 in 2005.
Barnette earlier enjoyed similar success as executive director of Pets In Need, in Redwood City, California, and was development director at the San Francisco SPCA while it increased revenue ninefold within 10 years of going no-kill in 1984.
Under fire from before day one in Los Angeles
Her appointment in Los Angeles was immediately criticized by several of the most vocal critics of the previous Animal Services directors.
Former Los Angeles Animal Services commissioner Marie Atake predicted to Rick Orlov of the Los Angeles Daily News that Barnette would run into trouble in handling pit bulls in specific and the law enforcement end of the job in general.
Agreed Animal Issues Movement founder Phyllis Daugherty, who as a City Watch columnist has attacked Barnette practically weekly throughout Barnette’s tenure, “I don’t think anyone without Los Angeles experience and especially someone with no law enforcement experience can do anything but harm here. I am definitely going to oppose this move by the mayor,” Daugherty pledged, as she did.
Brought Los Angeles administrative stability
But what Daugherty said Los Angeles Animal Services needed most, upon Barnette’s arrival, Barnette provided: administrative stability.
Sherman Oaks activist Daniel Guss wrote in a March 2010 Los Angeles Daily News op-ed column that “Villaraigosa needs now a progressive-minded shelter leader,” mentioning Barnette among a list of nine people he believed fit the definition, but agreed with Daugherty’s expressed concern that Barnette was a dog breeder.
Barnette had once been legislative liaison for the American Kennel Club in Seattle, and acknowledged having bred a Portuguese water dog kept by her adult daughter, but told Carla Hall of the Los Angeles Times that, “To think I’m a breeder is a little bit of a stretch.”