Wagging the dog?

After audit of Animal Care Services shelter, watchdog group criticizes Long Beach for allowing spcaLA to hinder its adoption program

Courtesy Stayin’ Alive Long Beach
Records that animal-advocacy group Stayin’ Alive Long Beach acquired from Long Beach Animal Care Services (ACS) show that Blue, a 5-year-old pit bull who arrived at the local shelter “very sweet, friendly, approachable,” spent 71 days there before being euthanised for “moderate behavior.” Patricia Turner, co-founder of Stayin’ Alive Long Beach, said her group closely monitors the shelter’s numbers and that, during Blue’s stay at the shelter, ACS hosted three adoption events but did not take him to any of them. Turner explained that Blue’s case is not atypical— that dogs arrive at the shelter friendly and playful, according to the shelter staff’s notes, but are euthanised nevertheless. Turner said Blue’s case demonstrates that the shelter does not have a full, viable adoption program and should look to other comparable cities, like Sacramento, which implements a robust volunteer program and has dramatically lower euthanasia numbers compared to Long Beach.

Perhaps city officials were trying to look on the bright side, or maybe they wanted to commend the work of employees in an unenviable position, but when the City of Long Beach issued a press release last month announcing the results of phase one of an independent audit of its animal shelter, the first finding it emphasized was that the animal-care provider is performing “above average” in recognizing the need for programming targeted at increasing positive outcomes for animals.

While local animal lovers— and the community at-large— may appreciate that animal-shelter workers are doing a good job of seeing the necessity for better programs, one local watchdog group wants the City to address the not-so-bright side— the 173 recommendations made in the audit.

What has surfaced as the primary focus of those recommendations is that Long Beach Animal Care Services (ACS) should develop “a clear, shared vision with an effective, feasible strategic plan,” including the consideration of a formal operating agreement with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals— Los Angeles (spcaLA), which shares the shelter with ACS and is responsible for most of the adoptions at the facility.

However, development of that formal agreement may prove to be a challenge for city officials, as Madeline Bernstein, president of spcaLA, told the Signal Tribune Tuesday that she is unwilling to devise another plan with the City— she views the current partnership as one that is working just fine and characterized her relationship with ACS Manager Ted Stevens as one of open communication and cooperation.

That status quo, however, does not sit well with Patricia Turner, co-founder and spokesperson for Stayin’ Alive Long Beach, an animal-advocacy initiative whose ultimate goal is to make Long Beach a no-kill city.

In an emailed response to the Signal Tribune‘s Dec. 22 publishing of the City’s press release about the audit report, Turner criticized the City for a lagging reaction to concerns Stayin’ Alive Long Beach has articulated for years.

“The City’s response to recommendations is to delay to an indefinite future time many low-cost, life-saving recommendations, including best practices in adoption programming and a foster program,” Turner wrote. “The report also recommends euthanasia of animals, many of them healthy and treatable, if the shelter’s resources are stretched. The emphasis on euthanasia as a primary backup plan will likely lead to increases in unnecessary euthanasia in the immediate future.”

In a subsequent interview with the Signal Tribune, Turner was critical of Mayor Robert Garcia for taking so long to request an audit of the facility— the P.D. Pitchford Companion Animal Village. He did so a year ago, and the City Auditor’s Office hired animal-shelter consulting firm JVR Shelter Strategies to review ACS shelter operations, including animal intake, veterinary services and programs aimed at positive animal outcomes.

“We’ve been researching the Long Beach Animal Care Services shelter since 2012,” Turner said. “And we actually published two substantial reports on their practices in 2013 and 2014, having looked at over 3,000 pages of city records related to the shelter, and it’s been quite a long period of involvement we’ve had with monitoring what’s going on with the shelter.”

Turner said that, in 2013, her organization contacted city officials with concerns that the shelter has no adoption or foster programs.
“We met with the shelter director, and he gave us a very odd answer to our question of, ‘Why is there no adoption program?'” Turner said. “He said that they didn’t really do adoptions at ACS because spcaLA didn’t want ACS to do adoptions. And that struck us as odd because it seems like the tail was wagging the dog— a private organization was dictating some kind of policy to ACS.”

Turner, who acknowledged she did not have evidence of spcaLA’s influence over the Long Beach shelter, said her group has been monitoring ACS’s numbers for the last five years, and “like clockwork, spcaLA takes 25 percent of the animals, and 75 percent of them are left to languish on the shelter side— the City side— with no viable adoption program, no foster program.”

Turner pointed out that Sacramento, which has a median income and demographics comparable to Long Beach’s, had conducted about 4,500 adoptions by October, whereas Long Beach had facilitated only about 570 adoptions by the same month.

“[ACS has] made increases in life-saving, but mostly it’s been because they’ve been subject to public scrutiny,” Turner said. “We run a very active Facebook page, where we publish their numbers and counter the mayor’s claims, because the mayor only tends to publish very cherry-picked numbers that show the shelter in a positive light, and we’ve always advocated that he show all of the numbers, so that people realize that, yes, while impounds are down, and euthanasias are down— which is what he often says and he publicizes with great fanfare— adoptions have barely moved up and many, many adoptions could be done, [but] instead of being done, these animals are being killed— and needlessly so.”

The Signal Tribune asked Turner why an animal-advocacy organization like spcaLA would hinder the adoptions of another such agency.

“My best guess is that adoptions [are] the ‘soft and fuzzy’ side of animal control, and it’s also the place where you can get a lot of donations,” Turner said. “So, if you’re the group that’s out there with the public face of, ‘Look, we’re adopting all these animals out, and look at all these cutie-pies and the soft-and-furries,’ then you’re going to be the organization that gets the donations. And spcaLA gets a lot of donations.”

Turner then pointed out that the audit report does indeed call for a clarification of the operational relationship between the two entities.

The Signal Tribune contacted the City Auditor’s Office through email, seeking clarification on that partnership, and the office responded by describing the situation as “a unique and challenging environment.”

“The current agreement between the City and spcaLA is a 55-year leaseback agreement, and it does not address how they should work together,” the statement reads. “At the end of the animal-holding period, spcaLA has the option to select animals it wishes for future adoption. This informal arrangement is not covered by the leaseback agreement. Animals that are not selected by spcaLA remain under ACS care; many of these animals, mainly cats and dogs, have challenging behavior or medical issues. As highlighted in the review’s recommendations, part of the strategic plan should include developing a formal operating agreement with spcaLA to address how they should work together.”

Turner said she believes ACS should essentially cut ties with spcaLA.

“SpcaLA and ACS are completely separate entities with different organizational structures, leadership and funding sources,” Turner said. “We believe that ACS needs to establish autonomy in its operations, practices and policies with respect to spcaLA. A key part of that is to put in place strong ACS-operated adoption and foster programs that are separate from those of spcaLA, which uses overly restrictive adoption criteria to determine who they will adopt to. We would like to see the City replace spcaLA with another well vetted humane organization as a partner shelter, though this may be difficult to achieve.”

Turner added that, if it is legally and humanely necessary to maintain a transfer relationship with spcaLA in the short-term, ACS needs, at a minimum, to establish autonomy and require spcaLA to make their policies, as well as their live-release rate and other animal outcomes, public and transparent.

“SpcaLA benefits from taxpayer assets— the City owns the land SpcaLA occupies and takes in animals from ACS,” Turner said. “And as a result, spcaLA should be required to be transparent as to the outcomes of the animals that go into their care.”

SpcaLA’s president views the situation differently.

In a phone interview this week, Bernstein explained that her organization has helped the local facility in numerous ways.

“So, basically, the way it works is spcaLA built the Village. We raised the funds, and we built the Village. And, as a private organization, we are also fortunate enough— you know, we’ve been around 140 years and are extremely well respected— we’re also fortunate enough to get a lot of things donated. So, the way it stands now is spcaLA is the landlord on the property. We get all our food donated. We feed all the City animals. We get vaccines donated. We also donate them to the […] animals that come in through the City animal-control department. We get flea treatments donated, and we share those things.”

Bernstein said the goal of the existing agreement is for the two agencies to split their costs and share resources.

“The theory is that we can split common costs, which we do. We share things that we can share, when we’re fortuitous enough to get something to share,” she said. “For example, Long Beach hasn’t bought the basic mainline food for 15 years because we’ve been feeding them for 15 years. The goal is that each one of us performs to the best of our ability or function. So, Long Beach City— the goal is for them to be the best animal-control organization in the world because they don’t have to worry about the things we are worrying about, and we have multiple locations. We, at that location, only worry about adopting and nurturing and caring for the animals. We don’t have to worry about issues we worry about at our other facilities.”

Although Bernstein’s characterization of the Long Beach shelter’s goal is to be the best of its kind, one of the main findings of the audit was that there is a lack of clarity regarding the facility’s identity and purpose.

The press release the City Auditor’s Office issued on Dec. 19 about the audit indicates that there is currently a “misalignment between stakeholder expectations and ACS’s capacity of care.” JVR determined that ACS has been trying to provide levels of service that are beyond what staff and resources will allow, and that overextension is impacting overall service effectiveness and efficiency.

“As a result, the City is at a critical juncture,” the press release states. “Stakeholders— City elected officials, City management and employees, and the community— must determine what kind of a shelter it wants ACS to be. Stakeholders must clarify and solidify a vision to develop a strategic plan that will guide policies and practices, outline initiatives and programs, and marshal and prioritize resources. Part of the strategic plan should address the consideration of a formal operating agreement with spcaLA, which shares the shelter facility with ACS and is responsible for most of the adoptions at the shelter. Currently, while the success of ACS and spcaLA are linked to one another, the City’s leaseback agreement with spcaLA does not address how they should work together.”

Next week, the Signal Tribune will publish part 2 of this story, including more information about the relationship between spcaLA and ACS, as well as what steps the City is taking in response to the audit.