CityWatch, July 22, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 58
RETHINKING LA - Jeff Bridges received an Academy Award nomination for his role in John Carpenter’s 1984 film “Starman” where he played an alien who concluded his visit to Earth by noting that humans “are at their best when things are worst.” Time after time Angelenos have proven this to be true.
When a Metrolink train crashed head-on into a freight train in Chatsworth, residents self-mobilized and gathered supplies and food to support the firefighters and public safety officers at the scene. Hopping backyard fences, they worked around the clock, meeting a need that needed to be met. They didn’t have to be asked.
Three years earlier, when a Metrolink train derailed on the Glendale/LA border, it was the Costco employees who were the first responders, self-organizing themselves and local residents to initiate the rescue operation. As the professionals showed up, the locals shifted to a support role and partnered in the rescue operation. They didn’t need instructions.
When fire ravaged Griffith Park in 2007, residents in surrounding neighborhoods were given evacuation orders but traffic was so backed up that many had to simply walk out of the hills. Strangers opened their doors and offered refuge, helping the displaced neighbors connect with their loved ones or find shelter for the night. It took five hours for the Red Cross to arrive at the Marshall High evacuation center and by then the volunteers had everything under control, including accommodations for animals. They didn’t worry about traffic, they simply showed up on bikes and on foot.
The Station Fire of 2009 threatened the Sunland-Tujunga community, prompting locals to mobilize as the authorities debated jurisdiction. LA’s Animal Services was just one of the City of LA’s departments that waited for authorization while locals used social media to spread the word, organizing equestrians to evacuate the large animals that stood on city land but were breathing county smoke. They didn’t worry about jurisdiction, they simply worried about lives.
Angelenos are resilient, innovative, and full of surprises. Time after time they step up spontaneously to demonstrate that LA is at its best when things are worst.
In fact, Angelenos have a strong record for getting involved without waiting for the worst to happen.
Angelenos serve as LAPD Reserve Officers, supporting the LAPD and lightening the load so that the department can operate more effectively. The Fire Department is supported by Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) volunteers who are trained to provide traffic control support, evacuation shelter management, and emergency medical care.
Unfortunately, when times are worst, the City of LA’s bureaucracy can also be at its worst, serving as an obstacle to the spirit of volunteerism that is celebrated in times of quiet but can discouraged in times of crisis.
Consider the current budget scenario, one that has seen city department staffing levels decimated and service commitments reduced to minimal levels. One would think that this is the time that city departments would welcome support and assistance from the community, yet that is not always the case.
The City’s Animal Services Department, an essential element of LA’s emergency preparedness, has been on shaky grounds for years, struggling to fulfill its public safety, animal health, and pet adoption mandates.
Time after time, emergencies such as the Northridge Earthquake and the Station Fire demonstrate the importance of anticipating the need to care for animals in times of crisis yet Animal Services is soft on its commitment to integrating with the LA’s emergency services network.
From the simple care of cats and dogs during an evacuation to the coordination of large scale transportation for horses and livestock, time after time it’s the locals that demonstrate a commitment to results without hesitation. Using everything from ham radios to twitter accounts to communicate, it’s the volunteers that share information, enlist help, locate secure staging grounds, and transport, feed and shelter the animals that are a part of our community.
Folks such as Paul Darrigo consider this type of behavior to be the foundation of a compassionate society and he can trace his volunteerism back to the day he rescued an injured dog, transporting it to the hospital after Animal Services failed to show.
Darrigo recognized then that Animal Services was limited in its ability to handle public safety issues, animal health concerns, shelter operations, and pet adoptions. In the spirit of self-mobilizing volunteerism, he went to work.
LA’s Reserve Animal Control Officer (RACO) program was dormant for years until Darrigo started visiting neighborhood councils throughout the city, enlisting support and soliciting funds to pay for the training and the uniforms of the reinstated RACO program.
One would think that this type of support would be celebrated at Animal Services, but the department seems to be on a rocky road that has seen General Managers come and go, the kill rate go up 30% in the last three years, and the City Controller schedule an audit to address her concerns of accountability and oversight.
Meanwhile, Darrigo continues to push for the opportunity to take on a volunteer project manager role that would include communicating with neighborhood councils, educating the public, raising funds, and coordinating the efforts of the multitude of volunteer rescue operations in the city. Unfortunately for Darrigo, and for the community, Animals Services has resisted his efforts.
This insulated behavior could be dismissed as a departmental reaction to recent charges of personnel issues that allegedly include theft and fraud.
Animal Services now joins Building & Safety, the Housing Department, and the Housing Commission as city agencies that are under investigation for allegations of wrongdoing. General Manager Brenda Barnette attributes these incidents to the failure of officials previously responsible for the department. Barnette was hired last year and claims to be engaged in a “robust and aggressive investigation.”
Darrigo considers the “department under attack” scenario as an even greater opportunity to be of service and says “The simple foundation of our government is civic responsibility and accountability and all I want to do is to support the Department of Animal Services.”
In a city of four million people, Darrigo believes that the real opportunity is in behavioral shifts that come from education, communication, synchronization and empowerment. He points to the actions of Angelenos during the recent Carmageddon threat and the success of water conservation efforts as evidence that the people of LA will do the right thing if empowered and educated. Darrigo says “One of the simplest ways to lighten the load on Animal Services would be to prevent the large number of feral animals and stray animals that challenge the department’s capacity.”
“It costs $150 to $250 to euthanize an animal,” he continues, claiming that “spaying and neutering costs less and educating the public is free. It makes no sense to ignore the real opportunity to engage the public and work on preventative steps that rely on volunteers.”
Darrigo’s most recent attempt to support Animal Services by promoting the City of LA’s “No-Kill” commitment at the upcoming Neighborhood Council Summit at City Hall was rejected without commentary by Barnette in a terse email that read “Thanks for your offer to represent the Department in the community. I'm going to decline your offer at this time.”
Barnette did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, understandable in the current audit conditions but also indicative of the insulated behavior that critics claim is a pattern at Animal Services, one that transcends the ongoing rotation of management.
The drama at Animal Services takes place in a city that is surrounded by a multitude of organizations that specialize in animal rescues.
Tippi Hedren’s Shambala Preserve is home to 60 lions, tigers, leopards and cougars. Animal Advocates take care of injured wildlife that includes squirrels, possums, coyotes, foxes, deer, skunks and possums. Parrots First adopts injured birds and complements its efforts with education programs.
The Kitty Bungalow Charm School for Wayward Cats socializes feral cats and prepares them for adoption, and in doing so, calls it like they see it. “The cat overpopulation is not a cat problem, it is a people problem caused by uneducated and sometime irresponsible pet owners who abandon their cats or do not have them sterilized, causing a proliferation of cats being born on the street.”
In a city that is in the midst of a budget crisis, and in a department that is in the midst of a management crisis, it seems fair to suggest, as Darrigo does, that Animal Services should focus on its public safety mandate and simply invigorate the RACO program so that volunteers can address “the people problem” that will lighten the load on Animal Services.
“You’ve got a lot of people ready to volunteer but we live in a litigious society that has immobilized our city,” says Darrigo, “resulting in a bureaucracy that sees the avoidance of liability as an improvement over assuming risk and taking care of business.”
Humane societies are judged by the manner in which they care for their animals. Responsible city governments are judged based on their oversight and operation of municipal agencies in the delivery of services. Great cities are judged based on their ability to engage the population as partners in the management of municipal affairs.
Los Angeles, in its operation and management of the Department of Animal Services, has an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to humane behavior, to responsible city government, and to recognizing its volunteers as the heroes who are at their best when things are worst.
(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net .)