A first-hand experience inside Long Beach’s animal shelter

‘Fired’ volunteers tell their ‘devastating’ stories of attachment and unnecessary loss of animal lives.


Photo by Cory Bilicko | Signal Tribune

A sign for Long Beach Animal Care Services indicates the direction of the shelter, which is under fire by two of its former volunteers and a local group fighting to make the facility a no-kill center.

When Alex and Paula Armstrong began volunteering at Long Beach Animal Care Services last April, they thought it would be yet another long stint in their lives’ dedication of loving and helping animals. Paula, originally from Venice, Italy, and Alex, a native of London, England, had spent years giving up their free time to work with animals, and there had always been furry, feathered and shelled friends in the picture, growing up.

“I come from a family of animal lovers, so we always had dogs and cats and birds and turtles around,” Paula said. “When I moved to the States, Alex and I started volunteering– it must have been eight years ago now– at different no-kill rescues.”

They initially sought out such shelters with zero-euthanasia policies because they’d deemed it too emotionally taxing to work with animals that would quite possibly be terminated. However, a change of heart led them to volunteer at a shelter without that no-kill rule– Long Beach Animal Care Services (ACS).

“We decided at the end to try it, just because we realized that those dogs need love too,” she said. “It’s easier on your heart to be in no-kills, but we wanted to try it. And we did– for four months, or whatever it was– since April.”

After a four-month stretch of volunteering at ACS, last week, Paula and Alex were “fired”– not because they didn’t care about the animals they were walking and playing with– but because they cared too much, they say. And because they asked too many questions.

However, their queries were completely reasonable and well founded, the Armstrongs say.

“The first experience is the orientation, in which they pretty much make you believe that they’re getting a lot better, that euthanasia is down to an absolute minimum, and it’s all like this happy family and this happy team,” Paula said. “And we left the orientation thinking, ‘Wow! They changed. That’s great. I feel good about volunteering here.’”
However, after they’d completed the four-week orientation, and actually began working with dogs, their feelings changed.

“I was walking and socializing with one dog, and the next day I’d go to see him– because I’d had some breakthrough [with him and] I was happy that he was reacting– and he would be euthanized,” Paula said. “And this happened to Alex; it happened to me. Other dogs that we knew were healthy, good dogs– even if they weren’t the youngest dog, sometimes they were 2 years old, it made no difference to them. They were just euthanized, and there were plenty of empty cages. So, that’s when you start thinking, ‘What’s your train of thought behind picking this dog and euthanizing them? There’s no need for it. You told me when I started it was only a matter of space, or if a dog was extremely vicious and couldn’t be helped. I never saw a dog [there] that was vicious and couldn’t be helped.”

Alex explained that he’d heard that a few of the facility’s staff members were afraid of some of the larger dogs, which made those animals prime candidates for euthanasia.
He said he’d also gotten wind that some dogs were being put down without even being evaluated.

“We hear that a lot of dogs are being put to sleep before being assessed,” Alex said. “So, it may be a big pit bull, but it may be a baby in its temperament but never given a chance to show that, which is against the law– to put down a dog without assessing it. They will deny that.”

Alex added that he and Paula also found it frustrating that there were dogs that had not been placed on the walk list, despite having been in cages for a month or more.

“So, we would say, ‘Can we walk this dog please?’ ‘No, it hasn’t been assessed yet.’” Alex said. “So, I’d say, ‘Well, when are you planning on doing that?’ And there would be some sort of bad feeling [as in], ‘Why are you asking?’ ‘Because he’s sitting there for a month, and I want to walk him, so he can start socializing and maybe have a chance of life.’ When we started probing with those questions, we could see the irritability in the staff of, ‘Know your role. You’re a volunteer. Stick to what we tell you to do.’ Which then became [from us], ‘No, no. We’re general public, citizens of Long Beach. I also pay my taxes. This facility, your staff– I pay for. I have every right to question you on some of your ethics.’”

But then there were the videos. Alex had shared them on social media to shed light on the issues at ACS, and someone at the facility saw them. That, staff said, was the reason the Armstrongs were let go, the couple said.

“I was devastated,” Alex said. “I was absolutely devastated, because it would take away my ability to help some of these dogs. The shelters that implement the no-kill equation have staff and volunteers aplenty that are like us. It’s compassionate people not taking it as a job, but the volunteers are doing it for free, and staff love to work there. They apply because it’s what they want to do. And that’s why it works– because everybody’s involved in doing anything you possibly can to save a life. When it’s just a job, like any job, people slack, [get] lazy. And when you do that at work, maybe you don’t sell as many products or your shipping doesn’t work or your sales don’t work. But, in this particular instance, when you slack on your job, animals die.”

That alleged lack of workplace enthusiasm could at least partially be attributed to low staffing levels, a finding indicated in both phase 1 and phase 2– the latter having been released late last month– of the City Auditor’s Office most recent audit of ACS.

Six of the 11 second-phase determinations relate to staffing, as follows: the volunteer program is not maximized to assist ACS service delivery; there are not enough animal-care attendants to meet the minimum-care requirements needed to properly feed the animals or clean their housing; there are not enough animal-control officers to meet basic coverage requirements; ACS is below the peer (referring to cities comparable in population and demographics) average for veterinary staff per animal; ACS is below the peer average for staff dedicated to life-saving programs; and ACS staff morale is low, as employees cited overall job dissatisfaction, poor communication and insufficient time and resources.

The other key findings included: ACS is not fully recovering the cost for services that it provides to neighboring contract cities; almost $1 million in citations have not been collected since 2009; the animal-license compliance rate is comparable to those of benchmarked cities, but increasing the number of licensed animals would improve ACS’s cost recovery; vaccination and pet-license data are not entered timely in the [animal sheltering software] Chameleon system; and it is unclear if the license-canvassing program is effective.

On Wednesday, Ted Stevens, manager of ACS, told the Signal Tribune that, despite the audit pointing out its lack of resources and staffing, his employees have made tremendous strides the last few years and that they continue to improve.

“Our staff are very dedicated to the animals,” Stevens said. “The [audit] consultant even pointed out in the Phase 1 report how much all of our staff was dedicated to the well-being of the animals in our care. It is not a question of will or the desire from staff at the shelter. We are proud to be an open-admission shelter that does not turn away any animals. We take in injured, sick, neglected, behavior-challenged and unwanted animals every day. We have saved many animals that a lot of shelters would label as ‘untreatable.’”

He added that ACS has a live-release rate of over 90 percent for the last two years for dogs.

“We still face many challenges, especially with respect to some of our more vulnerable populations, such as pit bulls, dogs with behavior challenges and our underage kittens,” Stevens said. “But, we are working tirelessly to improve in these areas and improve in all other areas, as well. At ACS, we never take lightly euthanizing any animal. We must always consider animal suffering and the safety of the public. Animal safety and public safety are two things we take very seriously here.”

Stevens also said that other cities– such as Austin, Texas– that declare no-kill status have done so by investing a significant amount of resources and money into such an initiative, without requiring additional revenue.

“Our agency was designed [and] budgeted to be an animal-control agency,” Stevens said. “Over the past several years, out of the desire of staff and the community coming together and working together with us, we have moved towards becoming a humane shelter that also focuses on saving lives. This change occurred without additional resources, but rather by reallocating existing resources.”

However, Patricia Turner, director of the group No Kill Long Beach, on Wednesday night, called Stevens’s argument about Austin increasing their budget “specious.”

“Austin is the flagship city for no-kill sheltering. They’ve decided to go no-kill, and they’ve meant it– authentically,” Turner said. “They’ve been willing to invest in their shelter, more than most shelters with high save rates have, and more than LBACS actually needs to. So, Long Beach doesn’t have to dramatically increase its budget to attain no-kill.

But the City uses Austin’s decision to increase their city’s sheltering budget as an excuse to not go no-kill in Long Beach. Austin proves that no-kill can be done, and it can be done exceedingly well. But, not all cities have had to increase their shelter budget, and still they’ve made major progress and are still working to save all healthy and treatable animals.”
But, Stevens seems hopeful about the local shelter’s future.

“The strategic planning process that LBACS will be undertaking later this year and in 2019 is very important,” he said, “to help determine where the resources should be prioritized and what type of agency we truly want to be and can be.”

Stevens himself, however, will likely not be part of that process. He is resigning as the head of ACS to assume another position within the City.
Although he declined to indicate why he is quitting as the shelter’s manager, he did provide some information as to what he will be doing.

“I am looking forward to returning to the Community Recreation Services Bureau with the Long Beach Parks, Recreation & Marine Department,” he said.

Paula Armstrong, who this week acknowledged that she was aware of Stevens’s transfer, didn’t express the same hopefulness that Stevens did, as she lamented the fact that the posting to find his replacement is lacking in one important area.

“The job description for the new manager of the facility says nothing about having some kind of animal knowledge or anything like that,” she said. “You can’t be a normal manager; you’re dealing with lives.”

Despite the Armstrongs’ being let go as volunteers– no longer able to bring some comfort, exercise, love and adoptability to so many dogs– they did manage to walk away from the situation with something positive– Jax, a 2-year-old German shepherd/husky who the couple says was destined for an early death at the shelter. Despite his having been assessed as possessing an undesirable temperament, Jax has officially been adopted into the Armstrong family of husband, wife and three cats.

Photo by Cory Bilicko | Signal Tribune
On Tuesday afternoon, (from left) Paula and Alex Armstrong, who reside on the peninsula in Long Beach, walk Jax, a German shepherd-husky whom they recently adopted from Long Beach Animal Care Services, where they had volunteered since April. The married couple say Jax, whom they describe as lovable and friendly to strangers, surely would have been killed had they not fought to adopt him.

The above is the first of a two-part story on Long Beach Animal Care Services.