Accused of hoarding but not charged, no-kill shelter operator sues Los Angeles County Animal Care & Control
LITTLEROCK, California––A new strategic twist in the perpetual running battle between alleged animal hoarders and animal control agencies trying to prosecute them popped up in a January 30, 2023 web posting from the High Desert Animal Alliance, issued in support of Southern California Cat Adoption Tails founder Julia Mildenberger.
More than three months after the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Control raided Southern California Cat Adoption Tails, impounding 195 cats and 43 dogs, Mildenberger reportedly has yet to be formally charged with any related offense.
Mildenberger, predictably, is now suing after the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Control.
The prosecution in disputes between alleged animal hoarders and animal control agencies typically begins with an animal control contention that large numbers of animals are neglected, as the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Control alleged in an October 31 2022 media release.
The defense then typically asserts that the alleged hoarder is a victim of over-zealous and sometimes maliciously motivated law enforcement.
The defense in such cases also often accuses the animal control agency involved of unnecessarily euthanizing dogs and cats, whom the alleged hoarder is keeping to spare their lives.
Or just not doing the job?
Most of these elements are present in the Mildenberger case, but so is another: Mildenberger contends, as her case is summarized by the High Desert Animal Alliance, that Southern California Cat Adoption Tails ran into trouble with the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Control because the agency has not actually been doing the traditional animal care and control job of impounding animals found running at large.
The High Desert Animal Alliance, apparently a no-kill advocacy organization based in southern California, opened the January 30, 2023 media release with the conventional allegation of over-zealous law enforcement.
This was followed by an also conventional recitation of the positive accomplishments of the accused, in this case Southern California Cat Adoption Tails.
“In the ten years we’ve been here,” Mildenberger said, “we’ve placed over 6,000 animals and done TNR for over 5,000 feral cats.”
The crux of the issue, the High Desert Animal Alliance indicated, is that “Prior to Covid, city managers were expressing concern over the inhumanity and cost of killing feral cats. The county solution was a program called ‘Managed Intake’ whereby cats are no longer accepted at care centers.”
“People were told to leave cats in the desert”
Said Mildenberger, “Shelters shut down during Covid, then stopped taking cats permanently. People were told to leave them in the desert,” for which reason “animals are constantly dumped at our gate. They’re bewildered and often pregnant or starving or injured. I couldn’t leave them in the street.”
ANIMAL 24-7 briefly reported previously about the Mildenberger case, though we had no idea at the time that either she or Southern California Cat Adoption Tails were involved.
“Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care & Control public information officer Don Belton waited until Halloween, October 31, 2022, to disclose a raid five days earlier on an alleged animal rescue facility in Littlerock, Antelope Valley,” ANIMALS 24-7 noted on November 3, 2022.
“The October 26, 2022 raid brought the impoundment of 195 cats, 43 dogs, and six dead animals, an appropriately nightmarish scenario for the Day of the Dead, celebrated in Mexican culture on November 1-2, 2022,” ANIMALS 24-7 continued, adding that “Belton and Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care & Control director Marcia Mayeda unfortunately declined to name the alleged animal rescue facility, thereby putting half a dozen other animal rescue organizations in the Littlerock area under suspicion of being the perpetrators.”
Return-to-field also challenged in San Diego
The Mildenberger case is the first of which ANIMALS 24-7 is aware in which a defendant in an alleged hoarding case, albeit a case not yet charged and perhaps never to be charged, contends that the alleged hoarding behavior resulted from an animal care-and-control agency not actually doing animal care-and-control.
But the Mildenberger case is not the first, even in southern California, to challenge the so-called “return-to-field” approach to handling non-feral cats.
Depositions are just beginning in a long-pending lawsuit brought in May 2021 against the San Diego Humane Society & SPCA by the Southern California animal rescue charities Pet Assistance Foundation and Paw Protectors for practicing “return-to-field” with tame, easily handled cats.
That case seeks to establish, for the first time, a clear legal distinction between the neuter/return and return-to-field approaches to cat population control.
San Diego Humane Society & SPCA
The San Diego Humane Society & SPCA resumed providing shelter service for the San Diego city and county animal control agencies in 2018, after a 43-year hiatus beginning in 1975.
Almost immediately the San Diego Humane Society & SPCA announced that it would pursue a neuter/return policy in response to calls about feral cats, a term usually meaning hostile cats who cannot be handled easily and appear to have lived outdoors, independent of human help, all of their lives.
Feral cats were, and are, to be sterilized, vaccinated, and released where they were found, to live out the balance of their natural lives as the self-sufficient wild animals they had apparently always been.
Two years later, in 2020, the San Diego Humane Society & SPCA expanded the feral cat program into a “Community Cats” program, differing from the former neuter/return program by adding the practice of return-to-field.
Return-to-field means that any tame cats picked up by animal control, or brought to shelters by individuals, who are not identified by microchip, and therefore cannot be taken directly home, are sterilized and vaccinated if necessary, then released where captured, to either find their own way back home or try to survive as ferals.
“Giving them a chance”
Return-to-field as a method of reducing animal shelter intakes and killing in some ways resembles the practice of dumping cats to “give them a chance,” as practiced by many people instead of taking cats to shelters during most of the 20th century, when shelter killing rates for cats often ran upward of 95%.
Mildenberger contends that dumping cats to “give them a chance” is exactly what resulted when the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care & Control introduced “return to field.”
Instead of people finding cats at large taking them to the nearest Los Angeles County shelter, only to have them released right back into the neighborhood where the cats were caught, those who would prefer not to have stray cats in their yards, on their doorstep, hanging around their bird feeder, etc., apparently took to dumping cats in the Littlerock area, which is remote enough that the dumpers may not have realized it is part of Los Angeles County.
$1.1 million verdict for not doing duty
The Mildenberger case is also not the first, even involving Littlerock, in which the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care & Control has been sued for not doing animal care & control as specified by law.
Los Angeles County in September 2019 agreed to pay $1.1 million to survivors of Pamela Devitt, 63, killed by four pit bulls in Littlerock on May 9, 2013.
The four pit bulls had been left to run at large for years by the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care & Control, despite repeated complaints from neighbors about dangerous behavior.
Convicted of murder
The owner of the pit bulls who killed Devitt, Alex Donald Jackson, was in 2014 convicted of second degree murder for allowing them to run at large, and was sentenced to serve 15 years to life in state prison.
Los Angeles County deputy district attorney Ryan Williams told the court in a sentencing memorandum that Jackson kept the pit bulls and a shotgun to guard his illegal drug stash.
Williams also acknowledged that the pit bulls had attacked nine other people in 18 months, as well as several horses.
Failed to impound
The Devitt family––her husband and two adult children––charged in their lawsuit that the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care & Control had received complaints since 2005 about Jackson’s pit bulls attacking people, pets, and livestock, including twice in the four months before Devitt’s death, but had repeatedly failed to impound the pit bulls.
Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care & Control director Marcia Mayeda meanwhile told the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors immediately after Devitt was killed that animal control officers had found no dogs on Jackson’s property when responding to the earlier complaints.
“Shall capture and take into custody”
A whistleblower, however, leaked documents indicating that the pit bulls had been seen by animal control staff on multiple occasions, and that Mayeda had deliberately misrepresented the case history, including allegedly changing the dates on electronic log entries.
Sued in 2015 for purportedly neglecting a mandatory duty to impound stray and unlicensed dogs, Mayeda and Los Angeles County contended that they could not be held liable under California state law.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mel Recana agreed.
Doing the job is not optional
Appellate Justice Audrey Collins, however, in June 2017 overturned Recana’s ruling. Collins held that Los Angeles County Code language stating that the Department of Animal Care & Control “shall capture and take into custody” unlicensed or stray dogs or dogs “running at large” made this duty mandatory, and that failure to perform that duty made the county liable.
Similar cases against animal care-and-control agencies around the U.S. have followed, and are likely to follow in escalating number as result of the “turn-away” policies now in effect at growing numbers of animal care-and-control agency shelters that are trying to achieve “no kill” status by refusing admission to dogs and cats whom they might otherwise have to euthanize.
Many and perhaps most U.S. animal shelters now try to suppress shelter admissions by a variety of strategies recommended by the Best Friends Animal Society, Maddie’s Fund, and other “no kill” advocacy organizations, together called “managed admission.”
These strategies include allowing owner surrenders of animals only by appointment, requiring long wait times to surrender animals, and refusing to accept animals found at large by members of the public.
Often this means animals, especially dangerous dogs who have demonstrated themselves to be unsafe within a home, are simply dumped at large.
Neglect of duty is illegal
It is the right of any wholly privately funded animal shelter, nonprofit or otherwise, to practice any sort of selective admission policy it pleases. Some privately funded shelters accept only dogs of specific breeds, some accept only cats, and many impose further restrictions.
Most publicly funded animal care-and-control shelters, however, operate––on paper at least––under specific ordinances or contracts which mandate, like the Los Angeles County Code, that the animal care-and-control agency “shall capture and take into custody” unlicensed or stray dogs and cats, and/or dogs, and sometimes cats, found “running at large.”
This means, in effect, that practicing either “managed admission” or “return-to-field” is a dereliction of duty, likely to be held illegal if and when brought to court.
PETA tracks turn-aways
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals animal care-and-control specialist Teresa Chagrin has for a decade posted and updated a list of what she terms “No-kill policies slowly killing animals,” at https://www.peta.org/issues/animal-companion-issues/animal-shelters/no-kill-policies-slowly-killing-animals/.
As of January 31, 2023, Chagrin’s list included 40 publicly funded animal care-and-control shelters, or shelters contracted to provide animal care-and-control kenneling, which have allegedly refused admission to animals in apparent contravention of their public service mandates.
Among them are the animal care-and-control service providers for the cities of Austin, Texas; Broward County, Florida; Indianapolis, Indiana; Las Vegas, Nevada; Los Angeles, California; Nashville, Tennessee; Rochester, New York; and Sacramento, California.
Neglecting community safety
Interestingly enough, most of the 40 jurisdictions on Chagrin’s list have had fatal pit bull attacks since those communities were added to the list.
How many of those jurisdictions had refused admission to the pit bulls in question, no one will never know. But ANIMALS 24-7 is aware that many of the agencies in question have rehomed pit bulls who did go on to kill or disfigure people and other animals, yet another dereliction of the duty of an animal care-and-control agency to protect the public.
ANIMALS 24-7 is also aware, from our own record-keeping, that Teresa Chagrin’s list could probably be multiplied tenfold. Animals and humans throughout the U.S., and Canada too, are suffering from a refusal by animal care-and-control agencies to do their jobs on a scale previously unseen in any sector of public service, outside of occasional strikes by the workforce to expedite contract negotiations.
No strike & nothing to be negotiated
In the instance of animal care-and-control agency dereliction of duty, there is no strike and nothing to be negotiated.
Animal care-and-control staff are reporting to work every day, and are keeping busy.
What they are doing, though, is not the complete animal control mandate.
Whether the issue is dumping cats, causing cats to be dumped, refusing to pick up dangerous dogs running at large, balking at impounding owner-surrendered animals, or rehoming rather than euthanizing dangerous dogs, the issue of animal care-and-control agency dereliction of duty is not going away.
As ever more people and owned animals are affected, ever more publicly funded animal care-and-control agencies will be sued successfully.
Ever more taxpayers will rebel, eventually, against paying animal care-and-control agencies to do a job they are not doing.
The eventual outcome is likely to include mandates to accept all animals and to euthanize those who cannot be safely rehomed, exactly as was done for most of the 20th century, before the rise of the “No-kill movement.”
As keynote speaker at the first No Kill Conference, held in Phoenix, Arizona in 1995, ANIMALS 24-7 pointed out that privately funded animal shelters can be “no kill” only because publicly funded animal shelters do the job of protecting public health and safety.
Back then, that was true.
“No kill” can only come after there are no problems
“No kill” communities cannot be achieved if animal care-and-control agencies are either expected or allowed to operate as humane societies, whose mandate to protect animals from harm by humans is diametrically opposite to the animal control duty to protect humans from harm by animals.
Humane societies and animal control agencies should ideally cooperate with each other, to achieve the best possible outcome for each animal, but this will necessarily include euthanizing animals for reasons of health and/or behavior.
Euthanizing animals for reasons of health and/or behavior can be avoided only through targeted spay/neuter.
Only when feral cats are spayed and neutered to the point of non-problematic invisibility, owned cats are microchipped so that all can be returned to homes if lost, and inherently dangerous dog breeds––yes, this means pit bulls and pit bull derivatives by any name––are sterilized to extinction will authentic no-kill animal care-and-control be possible.