What’s a Dog Worth?

Los Angeles kills more animals in its shelters than any other metropolitan area in the United States. For that to change, we will have to figure out what to do with the pets none of us want

His name is Roy. At least for now. Whatever it was before, whatever it might be again, he will live or die as he is known here. The staff of the South Los Angeles shelter came up with it, turned him into Roy, to help improve his odds—of winning someone’s heart, of leaving on a leash. Without a name, he would be just A774623, which has been written on surgical tape and fastened to a chain around his neck. He looks like a Roy. He is old and skinny, the color of faded cinnamon. He has a wrinkled brow and flabby jowls, a face that is weary but earnest. Whenever a stranger enters the kennel, Roy springs to his hind legs, pawing at the metal grate that covers his cinder-block cell. He wriggles his snout between the gaps, sniffing and snorting, his tongue a gush of sloppy kisses. He turns himself sideways, scratching his bony hide against the bars, inviting human fingers to join in. His tail wags. His eyes beg.

Photograph by Jennifer Leigh

But nobody comes for Roy. Not an owner, if he ever had one. Not the people who found him on the street and called the city for help. Not even the rescue groups that scour the shelters for overlooked mutts, fostering them until they can be placed in a permanent home. Roy is not anyone’s idea of a pet. He is not cute. He is not fluffy. He is not tiny. He is not exotic. He is an eight-year-old pit bull, a mastiff-and-Staffordshire mix, whose singular misfortune is to belong to a breed for which supply exceeds demand. Roy is surplus. In our system of animal control—a system few of us have seen, a system most of us will never encounter—dogs like Roy are doomed from the start.

Los Angeles fusses over its pets. We primp them and we perfume them, we drive with them in our laps and we sleep with them in our beds, we deck them out in jogging suits and we doll them up in diamond collars, we soothe them with massages and sedatives and psychotherapy. We also kill them—or rather, we do it by proxy, leaving the job to our government. The animal control agencies of L.A., including those of the city, the county, and two dozen smaller municipalities, put to death 104,841 animals last year, more than any other metropolitan area in the United States. About 35,000 of them were dogs, 55,000 were cats, and the rest a miscellany of rabbits, roosters, snakes, and guinea pigs. That is the good news. For decades the number has been so outlandish—250,000 a year in the 1970s, 150,000 a year in the ’80s, 125,000 in the ’90s—that even a decline this monumental somehow feels hollow. In 35 years Los Angeles has exterminated more than 5 million animals. The toll is at once appalling and abstract. “I call it every community’s dirty little secret,” says Ed Boks, the new chief of the city’s animal shelters. As the notion of animals possessing rights has moved into the mainstream, the secret has gotten out. The institution of the dog pound is being assailed everywhere in the country but nowhere more so than L.A., where a cadre of activists—led by a former child actress, the voice of Lucy in the old Peanuts cartoon specials—has thrust the city to the forefront. The city changed the name of its department a few years ago, from Animal Regulation to Animal Services. It later added a slogan, “Saving Animals’ Lives.” Earlier this year Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa hired Boks, a former minister who comes touted as a champion of the “no-kill” philosophy. He is the seventh general manager in the past decade. But the battle over image and semantics only underscores the great contradiction of this business—that the protectors of unwanted animals, the people who pluck them from danger, who clean them and feed them and heal them, who give them names and buy them time, are also their executioners.

The shelters call it euthanasia, the Greek term for a merciful death, and that is, at times, the service they perform. Nobody should underestimate the damage done animals at the hands of uncaring owners, the filth, the sores, the parasites, the starvation, the dogs maimed in fights, burned by acid, left to strangle on their own collars. Like county hospitals, the shelters must take them all, the worst cases, no matter how poor the chances of recovery. A lethal injection, if it puts an end to the misery, requires little justification. Some animals die before they can even be killed. More frequently, though, L.A.’s shelters preside over another kind of death, one dictated by time and space. If nobody is coming for Roy, how long should the city hold him? What is its financial obligation, its moral obligation, to maintain a dog nobody cared for in the first place? These are called euthanasias, too, but it is harder to think of them as merciful. They are deaths of convenience, a way to rid the world of expendable pets. To the most combative of the activists, the practice is evil, the canine equivalent of ethnic cleansing. They have aimed their outrage at the managers of Los Angeles Animal Services—or in their rhetoric, the Los Angeles Auschwitz Squad—whose callousness and ineptitude, as they see it, are to blame for the slaughter. The department sees itself as the victim, forced to sweep up the mess of a throwaway society. Everyone benefits when stray and distressed animals are removed from the streets, but few consider the thankless burden that falls on those who do the dirty work of disposal. “It’s really such a brutal system, absolutely brutal,” says Robin Jampol, the founder of Westside German Shepherd Rescue of Los Angeles, which adopts dogs from the city’s shelters. “The people involved—your whole life gets sucked out.”

Few city agencies have been as historically underfunded as animal control, the stepchild of public safety. The department’s workforce is largely blue collar and, by necessity, desensitized. They are trained to move animals through the system, not to ponder the ambiguities of their mission. What this lumbering bureaucracy is being called on to do, though, is just that—to stop the machinery of the shelters, to consider the sanctity of each life inside. Such a radical turn would require a rethinking of ethical questions, of emotions, of biases, of habits, that we are rarely consistent about ourselves. Most of us recognize the wisdom of Gandhi’s proverb, that a nation can be judged by its treatment of animals. We do not, as a rule, condone their suffering. Still, we make exceptions all the time, for food, for entertainment, for clothing, for science, for tradition. Few of us have the zeal to lead purely vegan lives, rejecting every product that relies on the sacrifices of a nonhuman species. When it comes to the animals that serve as our pets—our best friends, our surrogate children—we profess a special affection. But we do not apply it equally. We romanticize some breeds and write off others, often on the most superficial of grounds. If the animals being killed in our shelters were shih tzus, the practice would have already come to a halt. But they are not. They are Roys.

The South Los Angeles Animal Care and Control Center is one of six shelters in the city system. The county system, which serves unincorporated L.A. and 50 contract cities, has six of its own. There are smaller municipal shelters, as well as humane organizations, from Long Beach to Santa Monica to Pomona. Even then, South L.A. stands out as the wildest and the grimmest, the MASH unit of dog pounds. Half of the dogs euthanized by Los Angeles Animal Services are killed inside this one building.

Nothing about the facility, which is tucked on a side street, across from a dairy, in what is otherwise a residential corner of Jefferson Park, appears as forbidding as its reputation. The newest of the city’s shelters, it has a playful, modernist facade, with sharp angles and bright colors, and a banal, waiting-room quality to the interior. The P.A. system is usually tuned to the “smooth jazz” of 94.7 The Wave. A tiny Garfield figurine is taped to the receiving desk. Every so often a time-release canister of deodorizing mist sweetens the corridors with mango or cherry. The community it serves, though, sandwiched between the 10 and 105 freeways, is mostly poor and immigrant and besieged by gangs, an environment in which the struggles of people often trump the needs of pets. These are the unspoken variables of animal control—class and culture—the conditions that fuel L.A.’s kill rate. As urban as South-Central is, much of its population shares an agrarian past, Latinos having come largely from farming societies and African Americans primarily from the South. With that comes a view of animals that tends to be utilitarian and unsentimental. Dogs here are more likely to be kept outside, less likely to be spayed or neutered. If affluent L.A. is inclined to pamper its dogs, inner-city L.A. is inclined to toughen them. A dog in the hood is a source of empowerment, a symbol of sexual dominance even; Snoop Dogg has made a career of tapping this imagery, reminding us that promiscuous males act like canines—and that their female equivalents are, technically speaking, bitches.

On the streets the dog of choice is the pit bull, a term that encompasses several muscular breeds, most of which were developed for the blood sports of Elizabethan England. No animal is more maligned in the world today, the source of so many irrational fears. Most shelters in the United States refuse to offer them for adoption, killing them as soon as they are impounded. Some cities have outlawed them altogether. There is no question that pits, with their pink-rimmed eyes and saber-toothed chops, can look scary. They have committed a disproportionate number of the most-publicized attacks on humans. But not unlike their owners, they can also be the victims of profiling, presumed vicious, even though all but a few are sweethearts; the Staffordshire, according to the American Kennel Club’s guidelines, has “affection for its friends, and children in particular.” Because of pit bulls, the South L.A. shelter kills 54 percent of the dogs that come through its doors. If the West L.A. shelter were being overrun by big, bad dogs, it would do the same. Instead, it kills 19 percent. At a certain point the question of compassion becomes one of demographics: If the dogs of South-Central are dying, how much should the rest of the city care?

Of the 13,000 dogs and cats that enter South L.A.’s doors every year, 9,000 are brought in by animal control officers, or ACOs, the cops of the shelter system. Their job is rooted in the belief that stray animals pose a threat to health and safety, and that it is a civil society’s duty to round them up. Because their relationship to dogs—and sometimes the public—can be antagonistic, they follow the protocols of a paramilitary organization. They address one another by last name and rank, speaking in acronyms over their radios. They wear tan-and-olive uniforms, like sheriff’s deputies, with creases and badges and thick leather Sam Browne belts. The formality, though, is mostly illusion. It conceals the nakedness of the job, that the city is patrolled by officers equipped with little more than the tools of a rodeo hand. They have rope and they have gloves; the gloves, the joke goes, are not for keeping teeth out but for holding blood in. They can also reach for a Ketch-All pole, a stick with a noose that has been around for half a century. They do not carry tranquilizers or nets. The city issues them firearms but not for self-defense, only to euthanize an animal already close to death. The best officers have keen intuition, a gift for reading growls and defusing barks, a flair for playing the alpha. The rest burn out. If they all show up, South L.A. is supposed to have six in the field on any given day. Often there are just two. “We’re in a line of work that’s really touchy,” says animal control officer Jose Gonzalez, who has been stationed at the shelter for five years. “People and animals. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

Before pulling out of the shelter, Gonzalez wipes down the interior of his white kennel truck with a disinfecting towelette, slides a Thomas Guide onto the dash, and radios in to his dispatcher. Every call is given a ranking, coded on a scale of 1 to 18, with injured or dying animals at the top. What officers find at the scene, though, does not always correspond to the original complaint. Often callers will embellish the circumstances, making a dog sound sicker or more vicious than it is, or pretending that it is a stray rather than their own worn-out pet. In some neighborhoods, the concept of pet ownership itself is vague; dogs seem to float in and out of yards, cared for as long as they remain a novelty, discarded as soon as they require a vet. A report of two “stray, aggressive” dogs sends Gonzalez to East 61st Street, where he pulls up to a brick bungalow covered with Mexican soccer flags. There are dogs wandering on the patio, dogs sleeping on the curb.

“Señora?” Gonzalez calls to a lady behind the wrought-iron screen.

“These dogs won’t leave,” she shouts back. “Will you take them away?”

It takes several minutes for Gonzalez to realize what is going on, that the woman he is talking to, the one who called for help, is not the one being menaced. She is the source of the problem, a collector of strays—and now that they are causing trouble with her neighbors, she wants them removed. “That’s not how it’s supposed to work,” Gonzalez tells her. The city normally charges $20 to pick up an unwanted pet. He agrees to impound one dog from her property, a brown shepherd mix that may or may not have tried to bite a girl a few houses away. He lassos a couple more in the street, swinging his lariat like a charro on the heels of a calf. Hoisting them onto his truck, he is approached by several neighbors, presumably relieved to see the dogs go. “Can you take our dog, too?” they ask.

“Goodness,” Gonzalez mutters. “I feel like the garbageman.”

When his truck is full, he heads back to the shelter, where he will need the better part of an hour to unload. Officers call it the booking process. One at a time, Gonzalez guides his quarry down the back corridors, sometimes cajoling, sometimes commanding, sometimes dragging, dog nails on concrete. “C’mon, old man,” he urges one of the 61st Street strays. “Walk with me. You’ll learn. Good boy.” They reach a heavy green door, the entrance to the Treatment Room—the first stop, and often the last, in an animal’s stay. A caricature of a dog in a doctor’s smock, with a half-cocked smile, says: “Sorry, employees only.” At times the room is quiet, all stainless steel and fluorescent lights; at times it is pandemonium, dogs coming in by the dozen, dogs by the dozen being led to their death.

With the help of the veterinary staff, every impounded animal gets weighed and vaccinated, doused with flea spray and scanned for a microchip, a silicon implant that would denote an owner. Gonzalez enters the data in the department’s computer, using a system known as Chameleon. It generates an identification number, to be worn on a collar as long as the animal is here. Gonzalez readies a cheap digital camera, preparing his dogs for their mug shot. One side of the Treatment Room sink has been converted into a backdrop, complete with white trellis and fake ivy. The pictures will be posted on the Internet, a cyber-age technique for attracting potential adopters or, depending on the image, scaring them off. When he is done, Gonzalez leads each animal across the hall to the kennels, row after row of padlocked cages, 66 altogether, which usually house at least 150 dogs. It is the ultimate perp walk, a journey down a gauntlet of howling, taunting, territorial creatures—animals that, if they had tin cups, would be raking them across the prison bars. The clamor is dizzying. The newcomers, tails tucked, heads bowed, slink close to the ground. Some quiver. Some urinate. If they had not already figured it out, this is the moment that their predicament becomes clear, that they are captives, guilty of something.

Cats fare no better. Many more die. Most of those, however, are feral animals, with no need or desire for a home. Dogs are the measure of the system—they pose a greater threat, they take up more space, they wear their misery for all to see. Locking the cages behind him, Gonzalez tells himself he is doing the dogs a favor, rescuing them from an uncertain fate. There is always a chance that a nice family could visit, that someone might look one of these pooches in the eye and fall in love. If not, he will never know. “In all honesty, once I put them in, I don’t go back and check,” Gonzalez says. “That would be almost like facing the reality of things.”

At the opposite end of the shelter, closer to the front door, South L.A.’s animal care technicians pick up where the animal control officers leave off. If the ACOs stock the shelter with animals, the ACTs are charged with trying to get them out. There are 14 of them, mostly dressed in blue Dickies and hickory-striped railroad shirts, the touchier, feelier side of the system. They get to see the success stories, to orchestrate the happy endings—the 5,000 dogs and cats adopted last year. Their walls are covered with letters of gratitude. Instead of badges, the saving animals’ lives slogan is embroidered above their breast.

More than any other job in the department, though, theirs borders on the irreconcilable. Half their time is spent keeping animals alive, the other half preparing them for death. One minute, animal care technicians are playing matchmaker, encouraging visitors to consider adopting. The next, they are undoing their own work, attending to owners who want to relinquish bothersome pets. These are called over-the-counter surrenders, and the reasons never change: The dog is too big, the dog requires too much attention, the dog tries to escape, the dog clashes with the furniture. For relieving pet owners of their responsibilities, the fee is $5 an animal. The worst part is watching those same people then head for the kennels, to shop for a replacement. “This isn’t a used-car lot,” says Gerald Hill, who, until February, was the kennel supervisor. “You shouldn’t be able to turn in an old bucket just to get yourself a new one.” The department’s slogan, he thinks, is not only disingenuous but also self-defeating. By advertising a favorable outcome, instead of the likelihood of death, the shelters make it too easy for owners to give up on their pets. “You’re deceiving the public,” Hill says. “It lets everyone off the hook.”

By state law, animals must be kept a minimum of four business days, after which they become available for adoption or for euthanasia. Like clocks set to another time zone, every calendar in the South L.A. shelter is marked ahead, so that Monday shows Friday and Friday shows Wednesday. Some animals end up getting more time, weeks, even months, to find a home. Some are granted just the 96 hours. Those that get sick, a constant risk, can be put down at any time. Animal care technicians are the ones assigned to make that calculation, to evaluate the adoptability—the marketability—of the creatures in their custody. It is a task laden with impossible choices, reductive judgments. What they are really doing is assessing us, the tastes and prejudices we bring to the size, age, breed, sex, and color of the animals we choose as pets. Toy dogs, the Chihuahuas, the terriers, the Pekingese, and the Pomeranians, are in such fashion that they are often snatched up within minutes of becoming available. Sometimes the city is even forced to conduct auctions to accommodate all the would-be adopters. Just a few days before Roy was brought in, ten people showed up at the South L.A. shelter to bid on a white poodle. The standard fee would have been $72. It sold for $800. As much as we like to think of our pets as companions, they are, in the end, commodities. The older, the bigger, the darker, the more stigmatized the breed, the less likely it is to be picked. Some humane groups have argued that the very concept of breeds is detrimental, an anachronism from the days when dogs existed primarily for labor—hunting, warfare, herding. By pairing the “right” dogs, fanciers believed they could improve on the breed; conversely, mixed and illegitimate couplings produced dogs of low standing, a canine underclass viewed as a source of danger and disease. Whenever we start talking about animals, in other words, we end up talking about ourselves.

The South L.A. shelter reinforces those stereotypes. The toy dogs are housed in a special showroom up front, inviting visitors to peek through the window, not unlike the old Patti Page song. The undesirables, the ones deemed aggressive to either people or animals, are kept in a segregated wing. It might as well be doggie death row. The staff often selects a “pet of the week,” showcasing the cuddliest dogs. The not-so-cuddly are branded with labels, unflattering characterizations that ensure a poor first impression. In the kennels, every animal is identified by a computer-printed card, slipped into a plastic sleeve and fastened to the grille of its cage. Animal care technicians have traditionally added stamped or handwritten admonitions: “Go slow.” “Use caution.” “Keep alone.” “Can be unpredictable.” “I will bite.” The notes are partly for their own safety, partly to shield them from the liability of sending someone home with a dangerous animal. But they end up having the effect of prophecy. When the decision is made to kill, the staff can point to these same warnings as justification. The new administration recently put a halt to the practice; the shelters were ordered to put all commentary on the back of the cards, out of public view.

Euthanasias are often described as a function of space—too many animals coming in, not enough heading home. While that is generally true, it implies that the shelters have a fixed capacity, and that once those limits are reached, a specific number of dogs must be culled. Space, in fact, is an elastic concept. Sometimes the kennels are jammed, four and five dogs per cage. Sometimes a cage sits empty. There will always be room to hold a popular dog; there will never be enough room for the dogs nobody wants. “I’m a realist about what I know is going to get adopted,” says Javier Lopez, the second-in-command of South L.A.’s kennels under Hill. “Sometimes that means I do things that I know are going to look bad in the eyes of the public.”

For years Lopez has been the arbiter of life and death at South L.A., entrusted with drawing up what is referred to, in shelter jargon, as the “euth list.” He is 41, burly yet soft-spoken, with a full salt-and-pepper beard and a gold Jesus Christ medallion hanging over his collar. The son of an Eastside machinist, he recalls accompanying his father to the farmlands of Chino as a child, selecting a goat and slaughtering it for birria, the piquant Mexican stew. Everyone calls him Javi. He has been on the job for 15 years. “I like being around animals,” he says. Every morning, after clocking in at seven, he covers his ears with a padded headset, to block out the howls, and tours the kennels with his clipboard, which has been adorned with a smiley face. At each cage he pauses, tapping the bars. “Hi, doggies,” he says. In return he receives fierce snaps and desperate licks. Some dogs hog the attention, snarling at any cell mate that dares to horn in. Others cower in the corner, too defeated to even raise their heads. The list Lopez assembles, usually 10 to 20 dogs a day, consists mostly of pit bulls. “We’ll do this one,” he says, pointing to a barking Staffordshire. “We’ll hold off on this one,” he says about another. “This one, for sure…This one, most likely…This one, he’ll definitely go…I mean, they’re good-looking dogs, but nobody adopts them, unfortunately.”

In the past year Animal Services has tried to standardize its procedures, so that every dog gets one last shot at adoption before it is killed. The euth list is supposed to be completed by 9 a.m., then sent by e-mail blast to dozens of rescue groups that have registered with the city, giving them at least 24 hours to find an IP, or interested party. “It doesn’t actually mean it’s a death sentence,” Lopez says. “It’s just a possibility. Sometimes it helps in a way, to get attention.” Rescues, which are usually private, nonprofit corporations, play a complex—and occasionally disputed—role in the adoption process. Most perform a noble service. Every day they save forsaken dogs, often just minutes before the animals are scheduled to die. Some, however, exploit the system, using the shelters like thrift shops. They comb the kennels for prized breeds, adopt at reduced fees, then resell the dogs for hundreds of dollars. “It’s a business, believe it,” says Hill, the kennel boss.

If Hill and Lopez have a nemesis, a name from the rescue world guaranteed to make their eyes roll, it is Zsuzsa Blakely. No one else is as passionate, as fanatical about South L.A.’s dogs. “I haven’t had a life for a long time,” says Blakely, an out-of-work legal secretary with hair streaked gray and magenta. “I picked this. I guess you could call it an obsession.” A refugee of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, Blakely was an aspiring actress and opera singer when she arrived in L.A.; stage fright ended her hopes. Divorced, with “no human kids,” she is a fruitarian and self-described ascetic, “just a little, hard-nosed, sort-of-eccentric old lady,” as she puts it. Over the past decade she has visited almost every dog to pass through the South L.A. shelter, thousands of them every year, a quixotic campaign to plead for their release. She takes notes and snaps pictures, internalizing the suffering and, invariably, the loss. “You talk about lonely?” she says. “I’m like this voice crying in the wilderness.” It is almost as if Blakely inhabits a parallel universe, seeing redemption in the dogs Hill and Lopez consider most unfit. When the euth list goes out, she fires off her own version, a mash note in which every dog is “the most beautiful” or “the sweetest” or “the most loving” of its kind. “OMG!!! No, no, no…” a typical entry begins. The shelter accuses her of delaying the inevitable, of expressing interest in dogs without intending to come for them. One day she calls for Lopez. “Tell her I’m not here,” he says. Another day, as she walks through the kennels, Lopez twirls his finger around his ear. “She’ll make up all this stuff—claim a dog is real friendly even though it’s a ‘use caution’ dog,” Lopez says. “It’s a stalling technique.” Blakely insists that the shelter is so determined to kill, it fabricates excuses to justify its haste. To prove her point, she picks out a pit bull with use caution stamped on its kennel card. She bends down and beckons, nuzzling through the cage. The dog licks her cheek. “Is this insane or what?” she asks. “Are we in the Twilight Zone?”

After 24 hours, Lopez makes his rounds again. He revisits every dog on the list, this time pulling its kennel card from the plastic. At his computer he punches in each ID number, checking to see if anyone has made a case for clemency. “Nothing,” says Lopez, flipping to the next dog. “Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. No. Nobody’s put interest on any of them.” A box on the screen prompts him to select an outcome. He scrolls down with his mouse, replacing euth poss with euth schld. Before he can save the change, the computer asks him, “Are you absolutely, positively, unequivocally sure?” Lopez hits ok.

This feature originally appeared in the May 2006 issue of Los Angeles magazine