Today’s blog is the third and final installment in a series in which I review how the Los Angeles County Animal Care & Control (DACC) has improved its operations over the past 20 years. This edition discusses how DACC engages with the community to provide resources to assist pet parents and how we have revolutionized our animal adoption and customer service programs.
Animal care agencies play a critical role in helping people and the animals they care about. One of the most rewarding parts of my work has been reuniting lost pets with their families. It is extremely frightening for pet parents whose beloved animals have gone missing, and equally as terrifying for the animals who have lost their way. While I have many fond memories of seeing joyous reunions between lost pets and their families, one in particular always brings a smile to my face.
In the late 1980’s I worked at the Helping Hands Humane Society in Topeka, Kansas. One day as I walked through the kennels I noticed a huge black dog, about 100 pounds, with extremely long ears and soulful eyes. Because of his long ears, deep jowls, and sad eyes I could tell he clearly had some Bloodhound in him. He had a glossy coat, was in good condition, and had that look I often see in the eyes of lost pets that says, “I have a family!”. He stood out as something special to me, and I made a mental note of his presence in our shelter.
This was before the internet, social media, mainstream use of microchips, and other resources we use today to reunite lost pets and their owners. We relied on the local newspaper’s daily lost and found ads to try to reunite lost pets and their families. As I was reviewing the lost and found ads later that day, I saw the ad that I was sure was this dog. He was identified as a black Labrador Retriever/ Bloodhound mix named “Droopy” (I’m sure in reference to his pendulous ears). Droopy was lost while his family was camping along the Kansas river about 20 miles from our shelter. Being a Bloodhound mix, I’m sure he became fascinated with the smorgasbord of smells he found and just kept following his nose until he became lost. He followed the river for 20 miles until he arrived in our city, where an animal control officer found him and brought him to safety at our shelter.
Droopy belonged to a family who lived in Wichita, which is about 140 miles from Topeka. They had searched frantically for Droopy near their campsite to no avail and had to return home, praying that the ad in the local newspaper would bring him home. I immediately called the owners, who were overjoyed beyond belief and immediately drove the two hours to our shelter to reclaim him. They later sent me the kindest note and a bouquet of flowers to thank me for reuniting them with Droopy. He clearly meant the world to him. Animal shelters play critical roles in maintaining the human-animal bond. DACC has made tremendous strides over the past 20 years in improving its work in this area.
The Year 2001
In 2001, DACC’s operations did not focus on public service in terms of striving for excellent customer service or engaging the community to further the cause of animal wellbeing. DACC’s approach was very enforcement-driven and flexibility in addressing pet owners’ needs was not seen as necessary. Efforts to reunite them with pets like Droopy were scattered and not part of the daily expectations of staff. People reclaiming their lost pets sometimes could not afford to pay the impound fees required to redeem their pets and had to leave them with DACC. The adoption process was arduous because of long lines in care center lobbies and the time it took to work through the process, and sometimes people left in frustration without adopting a pet. No efforts were made to implement promotions, reduced costs, and other incentive adoption programs to get more animals adopted.
Without mutual understanding of each other’s resources and intentions, many staff viewed animal rescue groups with animosity or ambivalence instead of developing working relationships with them to save animals. There was also a sense of competition, rather than collaboration, with other animal agencies in the region. Aside from public rabies vaccination clinics, no resources were provided to the community to assist them with their animal needs. Care center volunteers were strongly discouraged and, except for a dedicated group at the Agoura Animal Care Center, were almost nonexistent.
Long lines of customers plagued the care centers, creating anger and frustration for the people who needed our help or were trying to comply with pet licensing requirements, as well as extreme stress for our overtaxed workforce. County residents in the Antelope Valley were frustrated being served by a communications center nearly 100 miles away in the city of Downey, where staff found it difficult to efficiently dispatch calls given the Antelope Valley’s unique geography.
DACC accepted all animals brought to us without question and without providing intervention services so families could keep their pets. This flood of animals even included capturing and accepting healthy wildlife that were a nuisance to residents. Because California Fish and Wildlife regulations prohibit relocating wildlife further than one mile from where they were captured, the only option provided for wildlife brought in by the public was euthanasia. This did nothing to resolve the concerns about nuisance wildlife as other animals quickly filled the void left by the removed ones, and the problems continued.
The Year 2021
Twenty years later, we have completely reversed the old approach to customer service and community engagement. We constantly consider and implement service improvements to provide better customer service and ensure all staff observe them by requiring training and regularly updating our policies and procedures.
DACC has improved its pet reunification strategies in several ways. The Shadow app, accessible through our website, is a tool for people who have lost or found pets to connect and reunite them. We also provide information and advice about using social media and local neighborhood online groups to help lost pets find their way home. Our officers carry microchip scanners in their trucks and scan every animal they capture; animals that have microchips are taken directly to their homes and immediately reunited with their owners whenever possible. We are currently exploring the use of facial recognition software for pets to further our efforts. DACC works with pet owners experiencing financial hardship who wish to reclaim their lost and impounded pets and reduces or waives fees when possible. Grant funding and donations largely subsidize these costs.
DACC and the Los Angeles County Animal Care Foundation (ACF) also collaborate to address situations where pet owners feel they must relinquish ownership of their pets to DACC because they are experiencing a lack of access to affordable veterinary care or other financial hardship in caring for and keeping their pets. The ACF funds the Care Voucher program, which DACC staff employ to help pet owners in need of financial assistance and refers people to local participating providers of veterinary services, temporary boarding, grooming, pet food and other essentials. The ACF and the agencies that provide grants to it have stepped up to keep pets and their families together and reduce the influx of animals needlessly admitted to the animal care centers. With their support, DACC staff have the resources to provide substantial assistance to pet owners in need with the goal of allowing them to keep their pet.
DACC’s move to appointment-based services has eliminated customer waiting lines, improved service levels, reduced the length of stay for our animals, and increased adoption rates. Appointments allow DACC staff to better prepare to provide the best adoption experience for visitors and make better matches with available pets. Dogs and cats that were often overlooked in the past get more visibility with this approach and many special needs or long-stay animals have found new homes this way.
Our newly launched Love at First Sight adoption process provides a fast-tracked animal assessment and preparation process so animals are made available more quickly for adoption, and adopters can easily identify which animals at the care center are ready to go home the same day. This process includes better coordination of the required medical exams, spay/neuter, and behavior assessments. In the past, adopters had to first select an animal and then wait days for the process to take place, often making multiple trips to the care center. No more – they can take their new family member home that very day!
The ACF and DACC have also begun providing low-cost spay/neuter services for community cats to reduce the number of unwanted kittens born and subsequently euthanized. Purrfect Fix is a program that works in collaboration with local community cat organizations who are already helping cat caretakers in Los Angeles County. Purrfect Fix will spay or neuter the cats, vaccinate them against rabies and other preventable cat diseases, and treat them for fleas and worms. After surgery, the cats are returned to their original environments where they can continue to reside but not produce unwanted offspring.
DACC now has a vibrant volunteer program with several full-time volunteer coordinators on staff. In 2019 we had more than 1,300 volunteers putting in a total of 44,341 hours helping animals at our ACCs, assisting during special events, and during emergency evacuations. While in-person volunteering has understandably decreased because of the COVID-19 pandemic, after implementing new health precautions we are now recruiting and engaging volunteers to assist us again. Volunteers are invaluable to helping DACC effectively implement its animal welfare and adoption programs and maintain community engagement.
DACC now has an established Adoption Partner program for organized 501(c)(3) nonprofit animal rescue groups so they can act as partners in our efforts to rehome animals. Some of these animals need further medical or behavioral treatment, and Adoption Partners can provide this assistance through their programs. This system provides a structured means of notifications and outreach to Adoption Partners so they can adopt animals in need of their services. We now have partnerships with more than 380 animal rescue organizations!
We no longer accept healthy wildlife and now only accept those that are sick or injured. We work closely with wildlife rescue and rehabilitation groups to help these animals recover and return to their native habitat. We have also established a second communications center at our Lancaster Animal Care Center that is dedicated to servicing the unique geographical needs of the Antelope Valley.
DACC now partners and collaborates with animal agencies throughout the state, and especially in southern California. We have Mutual Assistance Agreements with 20 regional animal care and control agencies to help each other during wildfires, mudslides, or other disasters and emergencies. DACC participates in the California Animal Welfare Association’s (CalAnimals) programming and training. Other cross-agency partnerships include working large-scale animal cruelty cases together. We are happy to help our colleagues in animal welfare protect people and animals in our communities and theirs.
DACC’s approach to serving the community has changed from an enforcement-heavy, bureaucratic authoritarian agency to a community resource agency that assists residents with their animal problems, values animal life-saving programs, and collaborates with other animal groups and agencies to bring the best resources to the community. It is an honor to be entrusted with these important responsibilities, and I salute the dedicated staff and volunteers who work every day to meet our mission.
Marcia Mayeda is the director of Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control.