Cooperation and compassion is the antidote to LA’s toxic soup by Ed Boks

Ed Boks and Today Show
Ed Boks advocating No-Kill on the Today Show

Before arriving in Los Angeles, people told me that this city represents the “acid test” for animal welfare reform.  LA, I was informed, is home to the most active, assertive humane community in the country.

In a February 9th public meeting in North Hollywood I noted what I had already observed of this acidity during my brief tenure and I encouraged activists to work together to rise above the rancor.  Some felt I was too negative at a time when I should have simply set forth my vision and goals for Animal Services (LAAS).  However, in light of e-mail debates and news articles that have emerged since then, I think I may have actually understated the situation.

A case in point is the Animal Defense League – Los Angeles (ADL-LA, or simply ADL). I reached out to the ADL on several occasions since coming to L.A., sometimes over the objections of the local authorities, who warned they cannot be reasoned with. I personally opened every door in LAAS to the ADL, as I have to all responsible activists. I have invited them to inspect our data, our shelters, and our processes. I have asked them to investigate for themselves the allegations made against LAAS employees and volunteers. In good faith, I withheld nothing from them.

Having been able to successfully work with the vast majority of activists – including hostile ones – in other jurisdictions, I believed the ADL had the best interests of the animals at heart. I believed they could set aside their focus on the past to work with the larger humane community to make the present and future better for all of LA’s animals. I am disappointed to have learned otherwise, at least for the time being.

ADL, primarily in its “Stop the Killing” e-mails, has taken to treating LAAS as if there is no difference between the department we are trying to reform today and the one they have criticized for several years. As a long time animal welfare advocate and professional, I can take the criticism. I’m a big boy and I’m used to it, even if I don’t like being lied about. But I’m not sure what ADL thinks it can accomplish by going after department staff, other City staff and department volunteers with gratuitous attacks of dubious veracity. It’s as if they can only function like a cluster bomb, spewing insult, injury and collateral damage upon anybody within range without any regard to the stated goal to stop the killing.

I want to use this space to set the record straight about a few of the inaccurate statements featured in many ADL messages.

Ed Boks and Nathan Winograd
Nathan Winograd pleaded with Ed Boks to help New York City Animal Care & Control because he [Nathan] “didn’t have the guts”
According to ADL, I promised to stay on as Maricopa County Animal Care & Control’s Executive Director for five years. That is true.  I did not want to leave Maricopa County to move to NYC.  It took New York City over a year to recruit me to move there.  I turned that position down several times.  It was only when no one else would step up, and after many national animal welfare leaders, including Nathan Winograd, persuaded me to take the position that I asked Maricopa County to let me do both.

Ed Boks and Matthew Scully
Matthew Scully was enlisted by NYC to recruit Ed Boks to AC&C of NYC

Maricopa County agreed and I spent two weeks in Arizona and two weeks in New York each month for the last six months of 2003 running two of the largest animal control departments in the country simultaneously. If Maricopa County had asked me to leave, as ADL alleges, why would they support sharing me with NYC for six months?  And why would NYC try to persuade me to take the position for over a year if I was doing such a bad job in Arizona?

After six months of double duty, I felt confident that I had a good enough team in place in Arizona that I could comfortably take on the NYC challenge full time. And, to be quite candid, I also felt this move would help provide a better forum for raising the no-kill discussion to a place of national attention. I thought I could help more animals, and I think I did.

ADL also states that I left Maricopa “in receivership.” That ridiculous allegation demonstrates that they neither understand what receivership is, nor how government agency budgeting works.

During my final year in Maricopa, many of the life saving programs I still advocate, were designed to be funded from donations. Fund raising was a new concept for this government agency and these programs were instead funded for several months from the department’s regular funds. To keep these important programs going, we spent down our regularly budgeted department funds, creating a cash flow crunch for a short while. Once the controller was directed to transfer the money from the donation funds to our operational accounts we were made whole. Government agencies do not go bankrupt or go into receivership.  The donations I raised made the department whole.

In fact, as director of Maricopa County’s animal control program I successfully ended a decades old deficit based budgeting process with 24 cities and towns. I replaced it with a full cost recovery contract with each municipality increasing AC&C’s revenue by more than $4 million annually!

When I did decide to leave Maricopa County, I left with:
1. A Chairman of the Board (of Maricopa County Supervisors) Award “in recognition of outstanding leadership as the director of Maricopa County Animal Control Services.”
2. My first Life Time Achievement Award presented by In Defense of Animals “for an extraordinary life of compassion, commitment and achievement dedicated to ending animal homelessness and providing compassionate care for homeless animals.” I received this award the same time my partner, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, was recognized for his groundbreaking work in Maricopa County’s anti-cruelty efforts.
3. A national award for excellence from Alley Cat Allies for my work in transforming the way Maricopa County cared for feral cats, and
4. A National Association of Counties (NACo) Achievement Award for designing, developing, implementing, and managing Maricopa County’s Management Institute that trained hundreds of County supervisors, middle-managers, and executives in better management practices. This Institute was sited by Governing Magazine as a significant factor in Maricopa County being recognized as the “Best Run Municipality in the United States” in 2004.

Ed Boks and Mayor Villaraigosa
Mayor Villaraigosa asked Ed Boks to leave NYC to help the City of Los Angeles

ADL recently stated that they “now know (I) was asked to leave” New York City Animal Care & Control. Let me be clear on this point. The only person to ask me to leave New York City was Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in Los Angeles. In early December, 2005, after being offered the LAAS job by Mayor Villaraigosa, I met in a closed session of the Board that oversees AC&C in NYC. I had never committed to more than two years in NYC and I advised the Board that I would not be seeking an extension of my contract because I had another opportunity I felt important to pursue.

Ed Boks and Tom Frieden
Dr. Tom Frieden noted the “amazing turn around in NYC” under Ed Boks leadership

Not wanting to leave NYC in a lurch, I recommended my friend and former colleague in Arizona and New York, Mary Martin, to replace me. If I had done such a terrible job in NYC, as the ADL alleges, and was asked to leave, then why would the Board comply with my recommendation that she replace me? Why did the Chairman of the Board, who is also the City Health Commissioner for NYC, go on public record expounding the “amazing turn around in NYC” under my leadership and follow up with a letter of recommendation? And why was I invited back to NYC on January 31st, 2006 to receive my second Lifetime Achievement Award specifically for my work in NYC at an event attended by AC&C Board of Directors and Department of Health officials?

My decision to leave NYC was a strategic decision to help promote the no-kill message into a national dialogue. NYC and LA now have two of the strongest no-kill voices in the nation running the two highest profile animal control programs in the United States!

Unable to appreciate the big picture, ADL recently fixated on the notion that there must be something amiss because I suggested a five-year plan to achieve no-kill while we are already more than two years into the five-year time period former Mayor Hahn promised for achieving no-kill.

In addition to my experience as an animal control director and pastor, I also have experience in organizational development and strategic planning. Five-year plans are a well-known and acceptable means for moving an organization forward. Five-year plans provide management time to assess the trends and successes of programs, and to make appropriate adjustments. Almost anyone can create an Olympic “no-kill moment,” especially in smaller, easier to manage communities. But I am interested in developing long term, sustainable no-kill programs for large communities like L.A., NYC, and Arizona to serve as examples to both large and small communities across the United States. To establish credibility, I have always under promised and over delivered.

For instance, I facilitated and implemented a five-year plan in Maricopa County and New York City. Two years into both plans we had already achieved many of our five-year goals. I believe I left both communities in good shape and in good hands. I am proud of the work my successors are doing, and I do not think it reflects poorly on my tenure. There was, and is, continuity of leadership and philosophy. If the trends established during my tenure in NYC continue, NYC is well within range of achieving no-kill within the next couple of years.

Before leaving NYC, I requested a City audit of the department for two reasons: 1) To highlight the significant progress since the last scathing audit conducted before my tenure started, and 2) to chronicle how woefully under funded AC&C is in NYC and to call attention to what happens when a City under funds a department year after year.  In point of fact, NYC is currently using my success in NYC as a reason to reduce the budget. That is outrageous and I am hoping NYC residents will let the Department of Health know how they feel about this tactic. Will some try to use the NYC audit to embarrass me?  Probably, but quite frankly, I don’t care, as long as it if highlights the critical need for more adequate funding for that department!

As director of both agencies I take full responsibility for any audit findings on my watch. But, despite any findings good or bad, this much is sure, I left both organizations more sound than when I arrived.

Regarding Mayor Hahn’s five-year no-kill goal, I cannot speak for what went on in L.A. before I arrived. However, I can say that there wasn’t a no-kill plan in place when I arrived.  I am beginning to build one now using trends established over the past five years.  I am being conservative when I say it could take five years to fully implement our stepped-up programs. It is always my intention and practice to move much more quickly than stated goals.

In fact, already in January ‘06, LAAS achieved a 25% decrease in euthanasia compared to January ’05. In February, we achieved a 33% decrease in euthanasia compared to February ’05.  We are already achieving significant results.

Finally, the ADL complains that the statistics in Maricopa County and New York City during my tenure were not all that good. I’m not sure where the ADL gets their numbers, but the official statistics from both communities demonstrate significant progress. In NYC we achieved 125% increase in adoptions (and this does not include nearly 7,000 New Hope placements) and a 30% decrease in euthanasia.  Maricopa County became the number one pet adoption agency in the world with nearly 22,000 adoptions annually during my time there, and the euthanasia rate fell to a 27-year low.

Ed Boks and Maricopa County BOS Award
Chairman Fulton Brock presented Ed Boks The Chairman’s Award for Outstanding Leadership

Maricopa County is one of the fastest growing communities in the United States. It is larger than 17 states, home to 24 cities and towns. Its population was growing at a rate of 4% annually while I was there. That represented a community the size of Berkeley moving into greater Phoenix every year. Despite this huge influx of pets and people, Maricopa County saw a decline in the number of animals euthanized during my tenure from 22 per 1000 residents to 9 per 1000! The national average at that time was 17.

With respect to NYC, Animal People Newspaper reported that “For most cities in most parts of the U.S. 5.0 is for all practical purposes the threshold of achieving no-kill animal control, as on average about five animals per 1,000 humans will be too severely injured, ill, or dangerous to save. New York City is unique in having by far the highest human population density in the U.S., with only about half the U.S. per capita rate of pet keeping. This reflects the predominance of high-rise apartment house living.

The no-kill threshold for New York City is accordingly about 2.5–and the city is almost there, having cut shelter killing almost in half during the 18-month tenure of current Center for Animal Care & Control director Ed Boks.

San Francisco, a distant second in human population density, crossed the no-kill threshold in 1994, and continues to reduce shelter killing by finding ways to save ever more of the animals who would have no chance elsewhere due to lack of resources for treatment and rehabilitation.

At the present rate of New York City progress, however, New York could become the most successful U.S. city at saving animals’ lives in one more year–or less.” end quote.

These numbers tell a story. They say loudly and clearly that I don’t have to apologize to the ADL or anyone else for the work I do. I work in constant collaboration with hard-working department employees, volunteers, rescuers and the animal-loving public. We’re all striving to do better for the animals, and we will continue to do so every day from now on.

But what may be more important is how grossly inaccurate the ADL has been in assessing the work of LAAS staff and volunteers over the past five years.

How exactly does LA compare to other CA communities and NYC?
The year denotes the census year:

San Francisco 2.5 2004
New York City 2.6 2005
Los Angeles 5.2 2004 
LAAS numbers based on 3.9 million population
San Diego 5.9 2004
SF Bay area 7.1 2003
Silicon Valley 8.5 2003
Los Angeles 8.7 2003 City and County Combined

Sacramento 13.4 2002
Lodi, CA 13.9 2002
Today’s National Average 15.5
San Bernardino 18.5 2002
Riverside, CA 24.3 2002
Modesto 30.5 2004
Victorville, CA 28.6 2002
Bakersfield, CA 33.3 2003
Fresno, CA 80.0 2002

Visalia, CA 81.1 2002

What concerns me, as the new guy on the block, is why nobody seems aware of the fact that over the last five years LAAS reduced dog and cat euthanasia 45.7%. LAAS significantly reduced dog and cat euthanasia every year since 2002 (17.7%); 2003 (10.3%); 2004 (17.3%); and 2005 (11.1%). It should be noted that the smallest improvement years, as significant as they were, were while the ADL was most vehement in their attacks against LAAS. What could have been achieved without their interference?

I am certainly not suggesting that it is time to rest on our laurels or that we should be content with 5.2 (which represents 20,561 dogs and cats in 2005). Quite the contrary! But these numbers do suggest we are winning the war against pet euthanasia and that now is the time to press the battle to the gate!

But the war is not with LAAS staff and volunteers, as the ADL suggests. That is to miss the point altogether and to prolong the war at the expense of the animals. The battle is against community wide ignorance and complacency. The only way LA can win this battle is by our working together. The animals deserve that; LA deserves that, and I’m hoping the ADL will finally acknowledge that and decide to help LAAS help LA’s animals!