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
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The kennel cards are handed to whichever animal care technician is working in the Treatment Room that day, an assignment that rotates once a week. Employees get a 5 percent bonus for the shift, which comes out to a couple of extra dollars. “I hate this,” says Darline Mallet, a former dog groomer who joined Animal Services in 2001. Before heading to the kennels, she checks the city’s Web site for job openings. “Anything,” she says, “to get out of this department.” At the first cage Mallet slides her key into the padlock, swinging open the gate. She dangles her rope in front of a white-and-brown Staff. “C’mere, honey,” Mallet coos. The dog bows its head through the loop. Those who equate the shelter with a slaughterhouse like to imagine a frantic struggle at the end, a battle of wills, each animal dragged to its doom. The opposite is true. “You know what’s sad?” Mallet says. “They think they’re going for a walk.”

In the beginning, when the pound was little more than a pen in the L.A. riverbed, dogs were shot and buried in the silt. By the 1880s, dogcatchers had taken to drowning the “poor brutes,” as the newspapers called them, submerging the “load of writhing, gasping creatures” until they were still. The new century brought cyanide gas, which killed more swiftly but prompted critics to complain about the unpleasant “physical expression” left on the dogs. At the peak of the killing, in the 1970s, the city relied on decompression chambers, which in the span of 45 seconds simulated the loss of oxygen experienced at 55,000 feet. As the chief veterinarian explained at the time, the method helped to ease the psychological burden on his staff. “With the chamber, you are really not directly involved in that killing,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “The chamber does it.”

Today the department uses a lethal dose of sodium pentobarbital, the industry standard. It is a blue liquid, packaged in 250-milliliter jars, and sold under the brand name Fatal-Plus. The vet staff in South L.A. keeps it in the top drawer of a white cabinet, behind a white curtain, at the far end of the Treatment Room. Rubber mats cover the floor, which is sloped, leading to a drain in the center. The back wall is a shiny metal door. It opens to a walk-in freezer. If euthanasia is not quite the right word for what occurs here, the vets use an even odder euphemism: bump. It is at once lurid and bland, a term associated with Mafia hits but always spoken in a more genteel fashion, as if the injection were merely a nudge into Neverland. “The consolation of bumping an animal, I tell myself, is that I am taking care of the product of irresponsible people,” says Donato Lapuz, who has been working at the shelter since 2000. “But sometimes we bump so much, it gets to us. We take it home with us. We bump and bump. It’s part of the job, but we have a heart, too.”

The bump room, as it is sometimes called, is staffed by six people, a supervising vet and five registered veterinary technicians, also known as RVTs. Most of the techs, like Lapuz, were veterinarians in their native countries, but their credentials were not recognized by California. In Lapuz’s case, home was the Philippines, the birthplace of all but two of his colleagues. It is hardly a coincidence that the people who administer Fatal-Plus have ties to a deeply rural nation, a land in which the traditions of animal husbandry remain vital—and a culture in which cockfighting still qualifies as a national pastime. “Some people think we have a magic wand, that we can keep anything alive,” Lapuz says. “But they’re not the ones taking care of it. You have to want to save them all, but sometimes somebody must go.” Bald, with almond eyes and sharp cheekbones, Lapuz looks like Yul Brynner in a lab coat. He is 46 and the father of three children, ages 8, 9, and 13; for years he and his wife also fostered a boy with Down’s syndrome. As he sees it, there is no comparison between euthanasias of necessity—conducted to put an animal out of its misery—and those that serve simply to clean house. When an officer hands him a tan Labrador mix, a dog that is cold and emaciated and excreting bloody diarrhea, Lapuz wastes no time readying the syringe. “Hi, puppy,” he says. “The Sandman is here.” His children know about this, that “putting to sleep” sick pets is part of their father’s job. The other part, the killing of superfluous animals, he does not know how to explain. “That’s closed,” Lapuz says. “I need to lie to them.”

Even under ideal circumstances, if there were ample funding and steady leadership and public support, Animal Services would be an exhausting place. But the conditions could not be worse. For the past three years the department has been targeted by a band of agitators called the Animal Defense League, which has waged a clever but ugly campaign to shut down the “death camps.” Its strategy has been to personalize the city bureaucracy, identifying top managers—and harassing them until they quit, go on leave, or get fired. On its Web site, stopthekilling.net, the group has created a gallery of “the most wanted scum,” ranging from the department’s head veterinarian to its commander of field operations. Every time an administrator steps down or is removed, a red X is posted over the photo—notches in our belts, the caption reads. With bullhorns and skeleton costumes, demonstrators have marched up to the front lawns of city officials, including the San Pedro home of then-mayor James K. Hahn, waving signs that say you have a mass murderer in your neighborhood.

Although the group claims 5,000 members, its Los Angeles chapter is inseparable from Pamelyn Ferdin, who launched her career with 1969’s A Boy Named Charlie Brown and appeared regularly on The Odd Couple and Lassie. Ferdin left acting to become a nurse, eventually marrying a trauma surgeon named Jerry Vlasak. They became active in the late ’90s, protesting the treatment of animals in the circus and the fur trade. They were once arrested for chaining themselves together outside the Fendi boutique on Rodeo Drive, shutting down the street for three hours in the thick of day-after-Thanksgiving traffic. Ferdin also received a 30-day jail sentence for brandishing an illegal prod, used to train elephants, outside a Circus Vargas performance. “We are militant,” says Ferdin, who is 47 and lives in Santa Monica. The city attorney’s office contends that they are “a criminal enterprise,” one that has encouraged attacks on Animal Services employees, according to a 14-count complaint filed last December. Jerry Greenwalt, the head of the department when Ferdin and Vlasak began their crusade, had his Santa Monica home splattered with red paint and the word “Murderer” scrawled on his city-issued car. The next general manager, Guerdon Stuckey, had smoke grenades detonated in the lobby of his Bunker Hill high-rise. Jackie David, the public information officer who served under both of them, woke up on Christmas Eve 2003 to find her car doused with battery acid and the taunt “Resign Bitch” spray-painted across her garage. She left on stress-related disability last year. The Animal Defense League insists those attacks are the work of another organization, the underground Animal Liberation Front, a group regarded as domestic terrorists by the U.S. Justice Department. “We admire the heck out of them, but we’re not them,” Vlasak says. “Whoever they are,” adds Ferdin.

As vilified as they are, Vlasak and Ferdin have managed to achieve the political victory of being taken seriously, of forcing the city to acknowledge the horror in its own backyard. While campaigning in 2005, Antonio Villaraigosa pledged to make L.A. the “most animal-loving city in America.” He also promised to fire Stuckey, a Community Services director from Maryland with no animal experience. When the new mayor failed to act quickly, the Animal Defense League added him to its hit list. “Due to Villaraigosa’s lie,” its Web site charged, “thousands die.” When Villaraigosa did fire Stuckey in December, more than half of Animal Services’ 250 employees signed a letter of protest, accusing him of inviting more turmoil. “The terrorists will never be satisfied,” they wrote. By then, though, the mayor’s choice, Edward A. Boks, was already on the ground, trailed by a camera crew that he has sanctioned to document his transformation of L.A.’s shelter system. His goal is to make this a no-kill city by 2010, but he thinks it will happen even sooner. “I like to underpromise,” says Boks, formerly the chief of the Phoenix and New York City systems, “and overdeliver.”

He is getting a head start. The number of animals euthanized in city shelters has been dropping steadily, from 40,802 five years ago to 25,029 last year. The county system, which has not experienced the same political scrutiny, last year euthanized 52,848 animals. While the city’s downward trend offers hope, the decline is not as encouraging as it appears. The adoption rate has changed little. What has changed is the number of animals entering the system—14,000 a year fewer now—and that is a figure that can be artificially depressed. Under Stuckey, the department disbanded a special unit whose only function was to round up stray dogs, a deliberate strategy to reduce impounds and therefore the number of animals killed. It allowed the department to mollify critics but at the expense of the poorest communities, the ones most burdened by strays. “The business of animals,” says David, the former spokesperson, “is really dishonest.”

The other solution, the best one for keeping animals out of the system, is to spay and neuter. L.A. was one of the first U.S. cities to offer the service at clinics within its shelters, but those centers were shuttered in the early ’90s as a cost-cutting measure. Under Boks, the department is pushing a program called the Big Fix, which includes mobile spay-and-neuter clinics and reduced rates for low-income pet owners. He will also inherit an impressive new infrastructure, with six state-of-the-art shelters, funded by $154 million in Proposition F tax bonds, slated to open in the next year. To operate these facilities—and get the clinics back on line—he is asking the mayor for a 44 -percent increase in the department’s budget, from $18 million to $26 million. “L.A.,” he says, “is already way ahead of the curve.” The 54-year-old retired Seventh-Day Adventist pastor still has a difficult road ahead: He must keep city hall appeased, the militants at bay, and his own employees from mutiny. Just a few weeks into the job, Boks called an all-staff meeting at Friendship Auditorium in Griffith Park. The audience was quiet, more numb than polite.

“Do you guys have a pool on how long I’ll last?” Boks asked.

“I just lost it,” joked someone up front.

Laying out his no-kill philosophy in a PowerPoint presentation, Boks said the term—part dream, part myth, part gimmick—will energize the community, inspiring volunteers and generating donations. A clerk from the South L.A. shelter, Larry Hill, raised his hand. “No means ‘zero,’” he said. “It’s unrealistic.” Boks nodded. Of course, he explained, some animals will be killed, but only the irremediably sick and vicious. Hill was insistent. “You’re putting a statement in front of us that’s deceptive,” he said. “You want us to trick people into coming into the shelter?”

“The community loves the concept,” Boks said. “It’s a rallying point.”

It is a bait and switch, he was told, a marketing ploy.

“No,” Boks said. Then he paused. “Yeah, hell,” he added. “It is.”

The call came at 12:25 p.m. on February 2, a Thursday. “Stray dog confined,” the radio crackled. A pit bull apparently chained to a pole. “To me, this is distress,” said Officer Hoang Dinh, calculating the proper weight to give his response. “I’ll call this a 3.” He steered his laboring GMC, the door still stenciled with animal regulation, up Crenshaw and down Adams, to the 2600 block of Dalton Avenue. Dinh is from Orange County, of Vietnamese descent, just 26 and eager. “They keep telling me that I’m going to get burned out,” he said, “that I need to tone it down. Nobody’s going to pat you on the back.”

As he turned onto Dalton, he spotted the dog, chained not to a pole but to the trunk of a towering palm tree. “How sad is that?” he said. He leaned into his radio. “Eighty-two twenty-two to eighty-two hundred,” Dinh reported. “Show unit arriving at activity twenty-two forty-eight.” At least six or seven young men were hanging around, their look somewhere between player and thug. They told Dinh that the dog had been loose, that they captured it and were waiting for help. He looked at them, then at the dog. It was painfully thin, ribs and vertebrae crying out. Its rear was covered with sores, typical of tethered animals, and its ears were scarred by fly bites. Dinh slid a rawhide glove onto his left hand, a latex glove onto his right. “This guy is probably friendly,” he said. “Watch.” Dinh whistled and chirped. The dog squirmed with delight. Dinh offered his rope. The dog smacked and slurped. “Pit bulls have a natural love for humans,” Dinh said. “They get a bad rap—but it’s their owners, not them.” He walked the dog back to the truck. “Take care of it, man,” hollered one of the neighborhood dudes, a guy in a camouflage hat. “Kinda fishy,” Dinh said.

With the shelter so close, maybe a mile away, Dinh decided to head straight back. From the rear of the truck, the dog’s tail could be heard thumping, boom-whack-a, boom-whack-a, like a hip-hop beat. “That’s my boy,” said Dinh, unlocking the cage and urging the dog to leap out. The dog pulled Dinh into the building, tugging all the way down the corridor, gasping from the effort. Dinh wedged his boot against the Treatment Room door. The dog burst in, bobbing and sputtering, trying to vacuum up a thousand new scents.

“Hey, old man,” said Cheryl Lee Olson, the vet tech on duty. She squatted, offering the palm of her hand. “C’mere, sweetie.”

“Cute dog, huh?” Dinh said.

“He’s not really had a nice life,” Olson replied. She waved what looked like an iron over its back, seeking the signal of a microchip. She knew already she would not find one. The dog twirled around her, tying her up with its rope. “Oh, my goodness, you ruffian, you,” Olson said.

At the computer Dinh created a file for the dog, A774623. He aimed a Logitech QuickCam, trying to capture the dog’s personality in pixels. “I love it when I get ’em a good picture,” Dinh said. “It helps their chances.” But the dog was too distracted—too scared, too hopeful—to look Dinh’s way. The photo came out poorly, a portrait of an animal under duress. Dinh led it to cage 56, the first kennel on the “keep alone” wing, which is where most pit bulls, especially unneutered males, end up. When the night staff came by, they saw a working-class dog, dutiful but weathered, honest to the point of goofy. They called it Roy. “I try to go by what they look like,” said animal care technician Larry Gonzales, who rechristens most of South L.A.’s dogs and cats. “Maybe it will help. I don’t know. I never really find out how they do.”

Over the next 12 days Roy waited in his cage, a four-foot-by-ten-foot cubicle. During that time, dozens of dogs were adopted from the shelter. On the weekend of February 11 and 12, the staff even hosted a pet fair, with balloons and treats and half-price adoptions. But there was no interest in Roy. Realistically, there probably never would be, not for a mistreated South Central pit bull, no matter how playful and affectionate. That he even survived this long was something of a fluke, owing to a sudden reshuffling of the kennel staff. Based on “an extraordinary amount of concerns and complaints” about the handling of animals in South L.A., Boks in early February approved the transfer of several key employees, including Gerald Hill and Javier Lopez. The news rattled everyone. “That’s not right,” said a dismayed Jorge Figueroa, South L.A.’s acting district manager. A farewell barbecue was organized, with Lopez grilling carne asada and chorizo for his colleagues on the shelter’s back patio. As they prepared to pack up, neither he nor Hill seemed much interested in clearing the slate for their successors. They stopped scheduling euthanasias, ensuring that the new supervisors would have to begin their tenure by killing. “I’m going to leave them a lot of dogs,” Lopez said. “Not to be mean. But just so they realize what they’re up against.” Their replacements, both women, were coming from the North-Central shelter, where they earned a reputation for working closely with rescue groups. They had a mandate to get more dogs out of South L.A. alive. “We’re girls,” said Leslie Corea, one of the new supervisors. “We’re kind of mushy when it comes to the animals.”

If Roy caught a break with the transition, everything about his final hours conspired against him. Since his arrival, he had been on a regimen of amoxicillin, 500 milligrams a day, for his pressure sores. On February 14, Corea’s first day on duty, Roy finished his last dose. It was recorded on the back of his kennel card: “OK to stop.” The day he was declared healthy, Valentine’s Day, was the same day he was added to the euth list. “I wish I could save them all, I really, really do,” said Corea, who is 40 and grew up in the South Bay. “It’s like playing God, I know. I have to pray, ‘Please, Lord, these are your animals. I hope you understand.’ I want to get into heaven, and I don’t want what’s going on here to affect that.” No longer on medication, Roy was also awarded a new kennel card. It did him no favors. Even though the staff had been ordered to avoid prejudicial comments, he was now listed as “fractious,” a strangely ornate word to describe an unmanageable animal. Why it had been entered was unclear. Corea herself was unhappy to see it. In the lexicon of the shelters, fractious is a synonym for animals that show aggression to humans. More commonly, these are called “use caution” dogs, which could attack at any time. Roy was considered aggressive only to other animals. As such, he was not a safety threat, merely a “keep alone” dog. “There’s a big difference,” Corea said.

As if Roy’s fate were in any doubt, the computer system crashed. It was impossible for South L.A. to e-mail anyone the euth list. Throughout the day Blakely called the shelter, frantic to know which animals were being scheduled. Someone finally agreed to read her the ID numbers; there were 15 dogs and 6 cats. She started working on her appeal that evening. “NO, PLEASE, DON’T LET THIS SWEET ANGEL BE KILLED!!!” she wrote about Roy. “He’s such a social, loving, friendly angel, greeting you at the front of the cage to give you all his love, begging you so politely to get him out of there before it’s too late.” Blakely kept writing into the night, only to fall asleep before she could finish. “It takes me forever to write these descriptions,” she said. “Nobody sees what I see.” Her e-mail—“Subject: BEYOND URGENT”—did not go out until 9:47 the next morning. By then, Roy’s kennel card had already been pulled, the machinery already set into motion.

“Sometimes, when I’m sitting here doing this, I hope somebody’s going to call and say, ‘Please, stop!’” said Corea, who was signing the euthanasia orders on February 15. Roy’s card was the last one on her desk. She lingered for a moment, studying his name, looking at his picture, perhaps seeing something salvageable in that awkward frown. “Roy,” she sighed.

The cards were circulated through the building to other supervisors, on the animal control side and the veterinary side, for signatures. By the time they were sent back to the kennel staff, Roy’s card had a new label: use caution. It was stamped in red ink on the upper right corner. Earlier that morning, when the card had been on Corea’s desk, there was no such warning. If “fractious” could be dismissed as a careless generalization, perhaps even a clerical error, this looked deliberate. For two weeks Roy had existed in the shelter without any sort of high-risk designation. Now, just minutes before he was scheduled to die, somebody had taken the time to embellish his card. Roy may not have been pretty. He may not have been the pet you would pick for your child. But he was not a use-caution dog. It was hard not to think of the label as retroactive doctoring, a way to make Roy’s death more palatable. Maybe to assuage the consciences of the people assigned to carry it out. Maybe to help the department gin up statistics in support of its no-kill goal. Everyone looks better if the dogs being destroyed in L.A. are vicious pit bulls.

“I’m just doing my job,” said Carlos Lopez, the animal care technician on vet duty, as he approached cage 56, carrying Roy’s card. “I just want to get it done as fast as I can and try not to think about it.” Lopez was wearing a full-length apron, with straps behind his legs to keep it from flapping. Roy greeted him as he had greeted everybody, leaping and lapping, anxious to be touched. As Lopez walked him down the corridor, Roy tugged so hard this time that he actually collapsed—paws splayed, chest heaving, chin to the ground.

In the back of the Treatment Room, next to the freezer door, a vet tech named Joel Cruz waited with a needle. Fatal-Plus is administered according to body weight, one milliliter for every ten pounds. Because nobody wants to leave an animal in agony, the staff usually amps up the dose; Roy, an emaciated 56 pounds, called for eight milliliters. Humane organizations everywhere have endorsed sodium pentobarbital as the only acceptable method of euthanasia. The drug triggers instant unconsciousness, followed by cardiac arrest. If it is as swift and painless as it appears to be, the same cannot be said for the time it takes to restrain a dog that realizes it is going to die. Roy may have been eager to go for a walk, but he was not about to consent to a lethal injection. As is the custom, Lopez looped his rope around Roy’s muzzle, cinching it shut. He straddled Roy, pinning the dog with his knees. With both hands, he gripped Roy’s cheeks from behind, pulling them taut. Roy tried to shake free. “Knock it off, buddy,” Lopez told him. Kneeling with the syringe, Cruz rubbed alcohol on Roy’s right front paw, feeling for a vein. He eased the needle in. He pulled back on the plunger, making sure that blood was clouding the blue juice. Then he pushed down all the way. “It’s okay,” Cruz told Roy.

In a second, Roy crumpled. Lopez relaxed his fists. Cruz unfastened the chain from Roy’s neck and prepared to disinfect it, to reuse on another dog.

Once a day a green truck arrives at South L.A.’s rear gate. The driver gets out, unlocks it, then backs down the alley, to a loading dock behind the Treatment Room. He wears a Bureau of Sanitation uniform. He tugs open the freezer. The animals are waiting, stacked neatly by the vets, three, four, five bodies deep, dog atop cat atop raccoon atop dog. Not that it matters at this point, but there is something grotesque about the arrangement—undignified, really—about natural enemies, creatures that would have snarled and hissed, even fought to the death, now in the same wretched heap. Their eyes are open and their tongues are out, their fur streaked with urine and vomit. It is silent but for the heavy fans blowing cold air. The driver swings Roy into the belly of the truck.

The truck pulls away, making its rounds, one shelter to the next. Its final stop is to the east, just beyond the city limits, across the industrial plains of Vernon, between the Los Angeles River and the Santa Fe Railroad. On Bandini Boulevard the truck slows, turning up the driveway of an unmarked factory. The only sign is a triangle with three looping arrows: the universal symbol for recycling. Behind the chain-link fence, which has been covered in fraying tarps, is a labyrinth of silos and pipes and vats and catwalks, brown with grease. The air is rank—sweet and meaty. Gulls swarm above. Every animal killed in every municipal shelter ends up here, not just those of L.A. but of Ventura County, Kern County, Orange County, Riverside County, and San Diego County. For decades this has been the only facility in Southern California willing to handle euthanized pets.

Even acknowledging that such a place exists is considered impolite, like rifling through a neighbor’s trash. We do not like to be reminded of the waste we leave behind, of dumps and sewers and morgues, of anything that breaks the illusion of life being orderly and clean. “I do serve a necessary function,” says William Gorman, the president of the factory, which operates under the names West Coast Rendering and D&D Disposal. It is a family business, run since 2000 by Gorman, his wife, and his brother, who in turn purchased it from another brother team, Davis and David Brownstein, who founded D&D in 1945. Instead of paying for its raw materials, D&D charges each municipality a monthly fee for the animals that it accepts. Compared with other forms of disposal, such as burial or incineration, rendering is inexpensive and environmentally sound. Landfills carry the risk of contamination, of Fatal-Plus leaching from carcasses. Crematoriums, as a report by L.A. County Animal Care and Control recently concluded, might generate unwelcome “emotional reactions.” Rendering makes the most of a bad situation, not merely disposing of the problem but converting it into something profitable.

The principles of rendering are as old as civilization: By separating the fats from the proteins—which is to say, cooking the meat off the bones—offal can be “denatured,” then reused. Everything from the animal kingdom makes its way to D&D, the detritus of shelters mixed with that of zoos, farms, racetracks, cockfights, butchers, and roadkill. Ground up and stewed, in giant steam-fired kettles, the mash is reduced to its chemical elements. The fat, called yellow grease, is skimmed off and refined in a centrifuge. The protein is pressed and dried, becoming a powder called tankage. The roughly 250 rendering plants in the United States produce 17 billion pounds of recycled fat and protein every year, according to the National Renderers Association. The stuff that leaves D&D is a common ingredient of animal feed, dispensed to both livestock and aquaculture. Like the science fiction classic Soylent Green—in which euthanized citizens are processed into edible biscuits—the dead dogs of L.A. are, in fact, returned to the food chain.

That a bit of Roy might live on in a surf-and-turf dinner is not a thought for the squeamish. Perhaps he deserved better. Perhaps we should have given it to him. Instead he was unloved, a castaway after eight years. On the premise of a second chance, Animal Services reeled him in from the streets, but that just hastened his end. Roy was a burden, perversely, until he entered the freezer. In death, he could be reconstituted. The parts were worth more than the dog. Alive, he could only be a pet.

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