Around the County

Finding justice in the stacks

September 11, 2014

Martha Jimenez has used the Law Library to fight legal battles from L.A.'s eastside to Zacatecas, Mexico.

Perhaps no one knows how to use the Los Angeles County Law Library better than Martha Jimenez.

Since her college days at UCLA, the 45-year-old community activist has been taking advantage of the public facility in L.A.’s civic center to research an array of legal topics, from environmental regulations and landlord-tenant laws to city planning issues and Mexican civil procedure.

“This is like the international safe haven to address issues,” Jimenez said.

In the 1990s, she used the library to fight back when the Mexican government tried to take her grandparents’ house by eminent domain. Jimenez researched the relevant statutes and procedures and her family filed suit. In the end, they emerged victorious over the then-governor of Zacatecas.

“The governor did not know how to write his court document,” Jimenez said. “It was here that I learned that process.”

More recently, Jimenez used the library to protect her local community of City Terrace on the eastside from becoming a waste storage site for the City of Santa Clarita and a private trash hauler. After researching environmental regulations, she appealed to the City of L.A. and the Sanitation Districts of L.A. County. Again, she won.

“I empowered my community and collected 5,000 signatures,” Jimenez said. “We organized and said, ‘You cannot come into our community.’ And they stopped.”

Jimenez is one of an increasing number of self-represented litigants who’ve discovered the L.A. Law Library, said Sandra Levin, the library’s executive director. Since taking the position 19 months ago, Levin estimates that daily attendance has risen about 50%, from 200 to 300 people per day.

“I told my board that my goal is to come with a request to replace the carpet because we wore it out,” Levin said.

Hiring a lawyer simply isn’t an option for a growing segment of the population, Levin said. She and her librarians want to bridge the resulting gap in access to justice.

“There’s a real crisis right now in our society and our courts because many people are faced with legal issues and can’t afford representation. Most average citizens don’t know where to turn,” Levin said, adding that about 70% of litigants in family law cases now do not have attorneys “and the numbers are growing in basic civil cases, too.”

Over the past few years, the library has made significant upgrades, including a reorganized reference desk and computers, a renovated exterior and a new training center. “It looks totally different than before,” Levin said.

To improve outreach, Levin is offering classes and workshops taught by library staff, attorneys and nonprofit organizations. Topics include how to clear criminal records, researching with online legal databases, preparing for family law trials and how to file for a legal name change. All are provided free or for a small fee, ranging from $10 to $35.

Her reference staff handles the front lines, where people come in with all sorts of legal problems. Among the most common are evictions, divorces and child custody matters. Others, like the man who sued a boating company after being left out at sea for 12 hours, require digging a bit deeper into the public collection, the second largest in the United States after the Library of Congress.

Levin recalls two parents who came in because their child’s school wouldn’t allow them to visit during the day. “They wanted to see the school in operation and check on their child,” Levin said. “The librarians here helped them find the statute that says that you have a right to go into a public school to see your child.”

Ralph Stahlberg, the head reference librarian, remembers one homeless man who filed a lawsuit against the police for taking his belongings. “He came here and got resources,” Stahlberg said. “He fought it and won.”

Neel Agrawal is the research librarian in charge of the global law collection. He said small business owners often show up seeking assistance with the complex legal requirements regarding exporting products, trade routes and other concerns that large businesses typically hire law firms to handle.

Librarians direct their patrons to books written for non-lawyers or, if a visitor is more sophisticated, to more complex reference books. Still others need advice on the basics, like how to address a judge (“your honor,” rather than “sir” or “madam”.)

While unrepresented litigants have been on the rise, the trend was spotted by the State Bar of California back in 1997. In response, the California Commission on Access to Justice was created “to explore ways to improve access to civil justice for Californians living on low and moderate incomes.” Later, the Judicial Council of California—the state’s policymaking body for the courts—formed a Task Force on Self Represented Litigants. In 2004, the task force issued a Statewide Action Plan for Serving Self-Represented Litigants. Central to the plan was the creation of courthouse self-help centers to provide one-on-one assistance with family law and eviction cases.

Business is booming. According to Superior Court spokesperson Mary Hearn, more than 200,000 “incidents of service” have been provided annually during the past few years at centers across the county, including in Santa Monica, San Fernando and Van Nuys. The law library, meanwhile, collaborates with them to identify what kinds of services are most needed.

“The courthouses are wonderful but they have limited scope,” Levin said. “They offer a pretty wide range of family law issues and some landlord-tenant issues, but beyond that there isn’t much assistance.”

Nonprofit organizations like Public Counsel and Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles also help people who can’t afford an attorney, but still can’t meet the enormous demand.

The law library also serves people who aren’t facing litigation, as well as those who can afford an attorney. Understanding legal rights in advance can resolve or prevent costly court battles. Levin gives the example of a worker who believes she may have been sexually harassed, but isn’t sure. One hour of research at the library could prevent an unnecessary fight that might damage the person’s career interests.

“Someone has to teach people how to understand their rights, represent themselves in court and do legal research,” Levin said. “That’s what we do.”

The sweeping exterior renovation of the downtown Law Library was completed in 2012.

Posted 8/14/14

Rescuing a real Trooper

August 27, 2014

Seven months after being found wounded on the street, Trooper gets his first rider.

The 17-year-old gelding was in horrendous shape when sheriff’s deputies found him staggering along a rural residential street in the high desert city of Lancaster.

The malnourished, dark-chocolate brown horse had been shot six times. He had wounds on his forehead, neck, right shoulder and ribs. The deputies immediately summoned workers from the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control, who rushed him to the local animal care center and saved his life. They named him Trooper.

Several weeks later, as Trooper continued his recovery, George Rief walked through the shelter’s door. He’d been dropping by for years, looking for horses to adopt for a rescue operation he ran with his wife in neighboring Kern County. When he spotted Trooper, his heart sank.  “He was in a real bad way,” Rief said. But that would soon change.

Trooper is an extreme example of a nation-wide surge in abandoned, abused and neglected horses that has put a strain on local shelters. Since 2008, L.A. County animal care employees have rescued an average of 125 horses per year—far above the usual numbers. Just this week, the Board of Supervisors voted to spend $350,000 for a 10-stall, open air horse barn in Agoura Hills, where there’s a strong market for horse adoptions. The barn will serve as a way station for malnourished, sick and injured horses while they recover and await adoption. It also will double as an evacuation facility in case of wildfires and other disasters.

Horses are expensive to keep, and that’s the problem. Food and basic care cost upwards of $2,000 per year, with boarding adding another $300 to $1,000 a month. When the recession hit, some owners couldn’t handle the outlay, said Marcia Mayeda, director of the county’s animal care and control department. Compounding the problem, demand at horse auctions dropped because of changes in federal laws and regulations that banned the slaughter of horses for meat. Previously, horse meat could be processed and shipped to countries like France and Belgium, where it is a traditional part of the diet.

“That dried up a place for owners to dispose of their horses—not that I’m in favor of that, but it contributed to why we’re now getting the horses,” Mayeda said.

The department accepts individual horses for a fee of $60 or $250, if the horse must be picked up.“There’s no need to abandon horses,” Mayeda said. “They can take them to a shelter and we’ll rehabilitate them and find them a home.”

The county finds homes for nearly all its horses, although some require behavioral training to make them suitable for adoption. In rare cases in which there’s an untreatable condition, animals are euthanized. However, even malnourished, sick or injured animals often make full recoveries and can become riding horses for new owners,  said Mayeda, a horse owner herself. Older or less fit animals still find homes as “pasture pets.”

“Even if they are a little arthritic and can’t be ridden any more, people will adopt them to be companion horses for animals they already have at home,” Mayeda said. “Horses are herd animals; they don’t like to be alone.”

George Rief didn’t want that fate for Trooper.

When he showed up at the Lancaster shelter three years ago, he was breaking his wife’s rules. He’s not supposed to go there alone because of his soft spot for ailing horses. “It’s like Home Depot; I’m not allowed there myself, either,” George joked. But when he saw Trooper’s condition, he called wife Clarene and recounted the tragic story. She was happy he went.

The couple first became horse owners because of Clarene’s childhood love of the animals. What started as a hobby evolved into a small-scale rescue operation. Over a period of eight years, the couple adopted 11 horses from the Lancaster shelter.

“At any given time they’d have 10 horses down there—eight of them would be great and two of them were bags of bones,” George said. “So we’d get the two bags of bones and bring them home.”

Clarene continued to nurse Trooper’s wounds, as their veterinarian monitored his progress. A farrier went to work on his hooves, which had grown to twice the length they should have been because of neglect. After seven months of rehabilitation, Trooper was doing so well that he accepted a rider.

“Everything healed up nice,” George said. “He’s as gentle as a lamb and easygoing—loves to be around people.”

The Riefs kept Trooper for a year while they waited for the perfect family to adopt him. He was never for sale, George said, but it took time to find someone who met their unofficial test: “If I don’t like them, my wife don’t like them or the horse don’t like them, they don’t get the horse.”

Finally, last December, a woman seeking a companion horse for her mare passed the test. George Rief has visited Trooper a couple of times in his new home, where he loves to take baths and recently passed a veterinary exam with flying colors.

“He’s getting fat,” Rief said. “I think she’s overfeeding him but I don’t care. He’s just enjoying life.”

Posted 8/27/14

An even grander place to play

August 14, 2014

The hard hats were pink, like Grand Park's benches, and the groundbreaking was kid-powered.

If you build it, they will play.  At downtown’s Grand Park, that has been the lesson so far when it comes to kids’ amenities.

From the park’s big, cartwheel-friendly lawns to its spouting splash pool, the wildly popular 2-year-old gathering space has been jammed constantly with children. So far, though, it has lacked one of the most fundamental attractions—a place for children to slide, climb and swing.

That’s about to change. This week, the park broke ground on a 3,700-square-foot, $1 million play area that’s intended to make Grand Park even more of a kid magnet.

Designed with a fanciful forest theme by Rios Clementi Hale Studios, the park’s designers, the fenced play area will anchor the park segment known as Block Four, between Broadway and Spring Street, near City Hall and at the opposite end of the park from the splash pool and fountain.

“Grand Park strives to live up to its mission to be the ‘park for everyone’ in ways that engage, surprise and delight,” said Lucas Rivera, the park’s director. “Now with a children’s play area, we hope to exceed the expectations of even our smallest guests.”

The playground is expected to be completed by this November. That’s not a moment too soon for downtown’s residential community, which has become increasingly family-oriented and reliant on Grand Park for green space.

“I’ve been waiting for it,” said artist Lola Gayle, who was knitting in the park on Tuesday with her 9-year-old daughter, Milo Sandgren, as her 3½-year old son, Kian Sandgren, played in the water.

“How many years has Grand Park been open now? Let’s do it!”

In foreground, Lola Gayle relaxes with daughter Milo. Alyssa Ochoa grabs a quiet moment on the bench at left.

Park officials said the play area was in the park plans from the beginning, but had been postponed because of limited funding.

The playground is being jointly funded by First 5 LA, which is providing a grant of $500,000, and by Supervisor Gloria Molina, who is matching that amount with Proposition A/Los Angeles County Regional Park and Open Space District money.

Aimed at children aged 12 and under, the play area will include a 20-foot-high hardwood tree house with platforms and roller and tube slides. The area also will have berms with rock-climbing handles, a rope climber and a tunnel, and curved hardwood benches for parents and caregivers. Mature sycamore trees will frame the space and provide shade.

Though the playground is expected to take up only a small portion of the 12-acre park’s lawns, its supporters predict a big payoff.

“Grand Park serves, in essence, as L.A.’s Central Park, and one big piece that has been missing is a children’s play area,” said Jennifer Pippard, interim director of First 5 LA’s community investments department.

“We want to be about promoting physical health and good mental health and social interaction, and play areas like this provide those kinds of opportunities.”

Artist Gayle said the play area will make life easier for the growing constituency of young families who have populated downtown Los Angeles in recent years. She said that when she moved in 12½ years ago with her husband, also an artist, families with children were few and far between. “It was just dog parks,” she recalled.

Now, she said, at least five families in her building have kids and Grand Park provides an essential downtown gathering place.

“It’s brilliant, it’s a sense of community,” Gayle said. “I’ve met some really cool moms here.”

The park clientele’s diversity—economic, social, racial and otherwise—also is a big draw, she added.

As Gayle spoke, the sound of families chattering—in English and in Spanish—filled the air, along with the universal language of squealing wet kids. Some parents had driven to get to the park, while others, like Alyssa Ochoa, arrived via public transportation.

Ochoa said she first heard about Grand Park when she was staying at the Union Rescue Mission with her daughter, Nylah Green.

At first glance, they were underwhelmed.

“There was no playground, so I was disappointed,” Ochoa said. Then 2-year-old Nylah discovered the splash pad, and the park became one of their favorite attractions.

They have since moved to a women’s shelter in South Central but, whenever they travel downtown to pick up some free diapers, they make it a point to drop by Grand Park as well.

“When you don’t have any money,” Ochoa said, “you have to find something that’s free.”

The playground design features a tree house and tube slide. Image/Rios Clementi Hale Studios

Posted 7/30/14

Not just a drop in the bucket

July 9, 2014

The Pacoima Spreading Grounds will be able to store more stormwater. Photo/Architect Magazine

When it comes to quenching the water needs of a thirsty region, seemingly modest or far-flung efforts can come together to make quite a splash.

Witness a dozen local projects, from Agoura Hills to south Gardena, that just received an infusion of state grant funding totaling $23.4 million. Each initiative has a singular focus—creating bigger and better groundwater supplies in Pacoima, for instance, or installing curb screens in Calabasas to keep debris from flowing from city streets to the ocean.

But collectively, these endeavors add up to something greater than the sum of their parts: an integrated approach as diverse agencies come together to advance the kinds of water projects that will do the most good across the region.

As California’s drought makes headlines and prompts consideration of mandatory conservation measures, several of the projects have an extremely timely aim: retaining as much stormwater as possible to boost the region’s drinking water supply. Others focus on improving water quality, while some combine water initiatives with community recreation and beautification efforts.

Together, they’re the wave of the future, as the Los Angeles region looks beyond its Mulholland-era history and imagines a new approach to the next 100 years.

“It’s a new paradigm, a paradigm of cooperation and collaboration,” said Mark Pestrella, chief deputy director of the county’s Department of Public Works, which is overseeing the grant projects as leader of the Integrated Regional Water Management coalition in greater Los Angeles.

“There are 500 small water agencies in L.A. County alone, and probably six major water agencies, all talking to each other, reaching out to the communities that we serve and identifying projects that have the biggest community benefit,” Pestrella said.

The $23.4 million in Prop. 84 grant funding  that was formally accepted by the Board of Supervisors this week is just one such infusion over the past decade. Since the collaborative water management model went into effect in California in 2002, nearly $100 million has been awarded to water resource agencies in the county, Public Works Director Gail Farber said. The state grant funds, she added, “go a long way towards ensuring a more sustainable water future for L.A. County.”

The endeavors awarded the grant funds approved this week include:

  • The Pacoima Spreading Grounds Improvement Project, where new and updated equipment and improved stormwater storage will yield enough new drinking water to supply 42,000 Los Angeles residents for a year. Plans also are under consideration to create a park or open space on the grounds of an adjacent channel.
  • Development of a second phase of Marsh Park in the Elysian Valley neighborhood near the L.A. River. The new design will convert industrial land into an open space park that also happens to collect and treat stormwater.
  • Restoration of a 34-acre “flood retention basin” in the Upper Malibu Creek Watershed area.
  • Design and construction of a 1¼-mile recycled water pipeline in south Gardena.

And, with California’s drought front and center, more help may be on the way soon. The state later this month is expected to issue a new round of grant funding devoted exclusively to drought-fighting projects.

An ambitious slate of 14 L.A. County projects seeking more than $28.8 million in funding has been submitted, with an emphasis on water recycling and replenishing groundwater. The overall goal of the drought-related projects is building the local water supply and reducing dependence on imports.

Posted 7/9/14


L.A.’s cool summer hotspot

May 30, 2014

Memorial Days's salsa fest set the stage for a fun-filled summer in Grand Park.

A crowd of 4,000 showed up to Grand Park for a salsa festival on Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer. The dancers were sizzling, but the park is just getting warmed up— in the coming months, many more fun times are planned for downtown L.A.’s newest public space.

Park programming director Julia Diamond said she tries to cast a wide net when planning events.

“We go for a broad spectrum so that we can cater to a lot of different interests,” Diamond said. “We want people to have varied reasons to come into the park.”

The summer schedule includes three large events with smaller happenings that will take place on a regular basis. The first biggie is the 4th of July Block Party. After attracting 10,000 last year, Diamond is expecting closer to 25,000 in 2014. The event’s footprint will grow to match her expectation; several adjacent streets will be closed to accommodate the throngs. There will be DJs, live music, food and, of course, fireworks—but this year they’ll be shot from the roof of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion so all of downtown can see the show.

After that, the next big date is July 26, when the park will celebrate National Dance Day with top performers in a variety of styles, plus a wet dance party in the park’s ever-popular splash fountain. Then, the final summer offering comes on September 28 when the Music Center presents “Universe of Sound: The Planets.” A huge tent with planetarium-style visual displays will be the setting for an interactive musical experience in which attendees will be able to conduct and play their own music as 132 live musicians perform Gustav Holst’s The Planets.

If you can’t wait until July, other fun is just around the corner—the first of four Sunday Sessions will take place this weekend, on June 1. The event will bring some of the top electronic dance music artists in SoCal to perform in a family-friendly environment so party people of all ages can get their groove on. And for those who want to create the beat themselves, “Drum Downtown” events offer percussionists of all skill levels a chance to beat the skins with guidance from pros. Equipment will be provided.

For the daytime crowd, “Lunch a la Park” brings a rotating cast of L.A.’s best gourmet food trucks on Wednesdays and Thursdays. After the workday, Grand Park’s Bootcamp can help work off any double bacon kobe sliders in which you may have indulged.

But sometimes families may just want to chillax at the end of a long summer day. The “Movies in the Dark” series hearkens back to the days of the double feature and adds games, contests and trivia competitions with prizes to the experience.

Not all events have been posted on the park’s website yet, so the best bet for those who want to attend is to keep tabs on the calendar or follow the park’s Facebook page.

It may sound like a lot of stuff will be going on, but Diamond says that the park has actually scaled back the number of events.

“We’re trying to get out of people’s way a little bit,” Diamond said. “We want people to use Grand Park just as a park.”

Diamond said the young park is starting to build solid regular attendance. The hot months of the summer are among the busiest, with the splash fountain offering a sweet way to beat the heat—and a safe place for kids to cavort while their parents kick back and sip iced lattes under palm trees atop the hot pink furniture.

Another major attraction is how photogenic the park can be. Between the Arthur J. Will Memorial Fountain, city hall and the gardens of blossoming flora from around the world, Grand Park has generated plenty of shutterbug enthusiasm, as can be seen on sites like Instagram, where its official account has more than 6,200 followers.

But Diamond hopes that when people leave they take more than snazzy snapshots with them. She wants Grand Park to become a place of nostalgia for Angelenos, a place they will remember years from now.

“I want to be in people’s memories at the end of the summer when they put that sweater on for the first time,” Diamond said. “I want them to remember that a high moment came at Grand Park.”

Kids play while parents take 5 at the park’s popular splash pad.


Posted 5/30/14

Kindle-ing interest in reading

May 15, 2014

Keeping step with its visitors, the L.A. County Library is launching an eReader pilot program.

Before Los Angeles County Librarian Margaret Todd boards a plane, she often asks her staff to “surprise” her by uploading some titles to her Kindle. For Todd, relying on the expertise of librarians is like consulting staff recommendations at a bookstore before choosing her next read.

Some library users will soon have a chance for a similar experience when the county’s new eReader Pilot Program begins rolling out. Come June or July, hundreds of Kindle Paperwhite devices—complete with preloaded titles in a variety of genres—will be made available to patrons as easily as taking out any book on the shelves.

“We are trying to learn and grow with our customers,” says Migell Acosta, the library’s assistant director and spokesman. “It’s a way for us to test how our customers want to read their books.”

While numerous public libraries have adopted eBook lending programs for customer-owned devices, Los Angeles County libraries are joining a much shorter list of libraries nationwide that lend eReaders. In 2011, the Sacramento Public Library system became one of California’s earliest adopters of a large-scale eReader program, using the  Nook  device instead of the Kindle. Acosta says Los Angeles County chose the Kindles because of a tool that allows for easy loading of material and automatic loading of additional titles in the future.

Initially, 705 devices will be made available in 24 libraries throughout the county’s First and Fifth supervisorial districts. Later this summer, three libraries in Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s Third District are expected to join the pilot program, with 190 devices distributed to the Topanga, San Fernando and Agoura Hills libraries.

L.A. County Librarian Margaret Todd says nearly 900 Kindles will be available at selected libraries.

According to librarian Todd, the cost of each is $250, including $80 for content. The devices are primarily being paid for with county funds, with some help from private donations.

Todd says the price is now competitive with the cost of stocking traditional books. “If a kid checks out seven of our books and loses them, they’d have to pay us more than what the Kindle is worth,” she says. The devices have no WiFi and are locked to prevent downloading titles directly from Amazon.

The library plans to treat the devices like traditional books, with two exceptions: They must be returned to the lending library and they cannot be put into book drops because of the potential for damage. Borrowers under 18 must have the same parental permission currently required for borrowing audio and video materials.

Each Kindle comes loaded with 100 public-domain titles selected by Amazon. In addition, each will include 10 to 15 genre titles in more than 30 categories that include biography/memoir, popular nonfiction, urban/street lit, romance and young teen fiction. The reading rosters also include entire book series because library visitors tend to want to borrow them all at once. These include the popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings.

As with traditional books, Kindle titles are being selected by the county library’s collection development department, which chooses books for the whole district and are not tailored to any one neighborhood.  In that way, collections can easily circulate from library to library, officials say.

To load the devices, library spokesman Acosta says the collections department must consider the Amazon’s eBook price for each title, which can vary like stock prices. “For example, there was a book that won a Pulitzer Prize and the price spiked from $9.99 to $25.99.  If a book gets signed for a movie deal, then we see the price spike,” he says.

San Fernando Library manager Hilda Casas is excited about the new program. She says the Kindles will serve as additional available copies of popular books and can be adjusted to larger print for customers who need it.

But in the end, a book is a book, Casas says.

“Some people prefer paperbacks, some people prefer hard copies, some prefer an eReader,” she says. “We’re trying to make that option available.”

Posted 5/15/14

Your name here?

March 19, 2014

County officials will soon launch an adopt-a-bike path program, complete with recognition signs.

Attorney Steve Hansen makes no apologies for getting under the skin of government bureaucrats. “If I annoy people,” he says, “it’s for good reason. I only nag about stuff that’s justifiable.”

Most of his nagging has centered on the county’s bike paths, particularly the San Gabriel River Bikeway, which begins in Azusa and ends in Seal Beach. An avid, high-mileage cyclist, Hansen’s been riding it for nearly three decades. His dad, at age 78, still gets out there on his bike four times a week.

For years, Hansen has been firing off emails complaining about everything from the bikeway’s underpass dangers to its undulating asphalt to potential crime problems along the 28-mile route. Many of those bluntly-worded missives have filled the in-box of Allan Abramson, a senior civil engineer in the L.A. County Department of Public Works, who, among other things, oversees bikeways.

He calls Hansen, who heads a community advocacy group in Lakewood, “a gadfly.”

“On certain things, he’s very reasonable,” Abramson says. “In some things, there’s a certain semblance of unreasonableness.”

But late last year, Abramson says, the gadfly hit on an idea that made sense. “A winner,” Abramson calls it. (“A no-brainer,” in Hansen’s words.) He suggested that the county start an adopt-a-bike path program along the San Gabriel River Bikeway, modeled after popular state highway programs, complete with signs recognizing those who’ve adopted a stretch to keep clean.

Steve Hansen, the cyclist behind the new plan.

Hansen says a bike club with which he was riding “thought it would be cool to have their name on the path. It was an advertising thing, for a good cause.”  Public works officials liked the idea so much that they decided to expand it to dedicated bikeways throughout the county. They’ll be promoting the program, scheduled to be launched in the weeks ahead, as a way for organizations and individuals to support health, recreation and “active transportation” in their local communities.

Abramson acknowledges that the program probably wouldn’t have happened without Hansen’s agitation. “I’m comfortable giving him credit,” Abramson says.

Under draft requirements of the adopt-a-bike path program, organizations, businesses and individuals who want to participate must commit to collecting litter, sweeping and trimming vegetation along the path at least four times a year for a minimum of two years. There’ll be no costs to the adoptees. Vests, hardhats and trash bags will be supplied by the county, along with the program’s biggest draw: recognition signs that would be placed at each end of an adopted stretch.

Throughout the county, numerous segments of the 100 miles of bike paths maintained by the county will be up grabs—from the foothills to the sea.

Abramson says some details of the program remain to be worked out, including the county’s potential right-of-refusal when it comes to certain groups or individuals who might apply. “You don’t want to say on a sign that ‘the American Neo Nazis adopted this,’” Abramson explains.

He says the county also opted not to make painting over graffiti part of the program. “If gang members saw people spraying over their gang insignias, they could be in peril,” Abramson says.

As for Hansen, who’s been on cycling adventures throughout the world, he says he’ll continue riding the region’s public officials to make sure they keep making improvements on his home turf.

“I’ve been riding that path since 1986,” Hansen says, “and I know where all the problems are.”

Posted 3/19/14

Scratching a $33,413-a-month itch

January 29, 2014

Fleas used to wreak havoc at county shelters. Now donated spot treatments are spelling relief.

We all have our baggage. Take the 70,000-plus dogs and cats that arrive each year at Los Angeles County’s animal shelters. Think they come alone? Think again.

“Ohhhhh,” laughs John Gonzales, a former animal control officer who is now president of the nonprofit Los Angeles County Animal Care Foundation.  “Ticks and fleas.”

“All it takes is for one dog to show up with a couple and within 20 minutes they all have them,” says Gonzales, whose organization supports the county shelters through fundraising for spay-and-neuter programs, pet adoptions and other animal welfare initiatives.

“And then if you adopt the animal out, even if you give him a quick bath, people will come back complaining that not only does their new pet have fleas, but their whole house is infested. It’s not a pleasant situation. And that’s not including what the poor animal goes through.”

That scenario used to play out with dispiriting frequency at county shelters, where intake workers rarely had the time or budget to do more than spritz flea spray onto the itchier-looking arrivals, and where managers periodically had to call pest control companies in to treat the kennels.

“The ticks were especially hard to get rid of,” says Animal Care and Control Director Marcia Mayeda, ”because they can jump off the animals and hide, even in the crevices of broken concrete.”

For the past three years, however, the county has been deploying a secret weapon, donated through the Foundation from a pet products manufacturer.

“Now, when animals are brought in, they get a physical, vaccinations and a spot treatment of flea medication,” says Mayeda, crediting a $33,413-per-month, in-kind gift of Frontline Plus by the Georgia-based Merial Corp.

“We still obviously clean and disinfect our kennels daily but we no longer have to bring in people to treat them for ticks and fleas.”

The product donation, which is not unusual between manufacturers and pet advocacy organizations, is part of Merial’s “Partners in Protection” community outreach program to shelters and veterinarians.

Nikkia Starks, director of consumer marketing at Merial, says the program has connected with more than 50 shelter clinics across the country to help protect pets from fleas, ticks and heartworm disease while educating shelter staff and pet owners on the importance of preventative pet health care. The Los Angeles County gift, she adds, is among its larger ones.

Though some municipalities have agreed to tout Merial’s products in return for their donations, the county’s use of the product carries no such conditions. Rather, Gonzales says, Merial donates supplies of Frontline Plus to the Foundation, which then passes it on to the county’s seven animal shelters. “We’re kind of the middle man,” he says.

The foundation’s nonprofit status, he adds, offers the manufacturer a tax break without obligating the county to serve as a marketing partner. Mayeda says Merial approached the county in 2011 with the offer. Recognizing the brand, she in turn took it to Gonzales, she says.

Such spot treatments—so called because the pesticide is applied on a spot of skin at the back of the animal’s neck so the pet can’t accidentally ingest it—typically keep pets flea-free for up to 30 days at a time, but tend to be pricey. Frontline Plus, for instance, retails in pet stores for up to $18 per dose.

“We never used it before because we couldn’t afford it,” says Mayeda. “But our flea and tick problem has gone from an ongoing concern to pretty much nonexistent, and it has made a big difference in the overall health of the animals, and in customer service as well.”

Posted 1/23/14

Saving animals by the numbers

January 23, 2014

Better data can lead to programs to save the lives of kittens, like this one in a new Mission Hills “nursery.”

Furry pet faces never fail to tug heartstrings, but when it comes to animal welfare, numbers don’t lie: Last year, some 79,150 cats, dogs and other pets ended up in Los Angeles County animal shelters, and fewer than half of them made it out alive.

That, believe it or not, is actually good news. Five years ago, the euthanasia rate in county shelters was 65%. But while most people know that pet adoptions and spaying, neutering and licensing are all acts of kindness, nothing drives home the point like the hard facts.

That’s why the county Department of Animal Care and Control has gone online with its statistics.

“Our biggest hope is that people will see these numbers and realize not only that the department is doing great work, but also that this really is serious. Spaying and neutering and keeping pets secured so they don’t end up in shelters is really important,” says Betsey Webster, chief deputy director of Animal Care and Control for the county.

“These animals end up with us as a result of human behavior. Some people just don’t understand, but some of it also is just irresponsible ownership.”

Department Director Marcia Mayeda says the new stats pages, which went up in late December, were on her to-do list for a long time, but couldn’t be implemented until the department upgraded its 13-year-old web site. Though animal control data have always been a matter of public record, until now, people had to call or email the department and request them.

“Other agencies put their statistics online, but we wanted to do more than just put up spreadsheets,” says Mayeda. Working with the county’s Internal Services Department, her team spent about six months turning its raw numbers into colorful graphics and pie charts that demonstrate the scope and the challenges of animal welfare in the county.

For instance, Mayeda offers this disturbing data point: Only a quarter of the nearly 30,000 cats that ended up in county shelters last year escaped euthanasia, and only one in 100 was returned to an owner.

“The No. 1 reason why an animal dies in our shelters,” she says, “is because it’s a feral cat.”

For dogs, on the other hand, the picture is much more optimistic. Only about 35% of the county’s 41,500-plus shelter canines had to be euthanized last year.

“When I started in 2001, our euthanasia rate for dogs was about 66%,” says Mayeda, noting that 60% is still the national average. “But we’ve made tremendous inroads. We’ve worked closely with more than 200 animal rescue groups. We do pet transport, where groups will take 30 or 40 dogs at a time to other parts of the country where there’s a demand for adoption.

“And we’ve gotten a lot more volunteers in the last 10 or 12 years, who have helped us with finding pets homes through offsite adoptions. A lot of people don’t want to go to shelters because they’re afraid it’ll be too sad for them, so we’ll take 10 or 20 dogs to a PetSmart, and people will come and adopt them. All of it has really pulled down our euthanasia rate.”

Marc Peralta, executive director of the Best Friends Animal Society in Los Angeles, which has worked with the City of Los Angeles to reduce the kill rates of healthy, treatable animals in its shelters, applauded the county’s efforts. Good animal control data, he says, can literally mean the difference between life and death for lost, abandoned or homeless pets.

Though some shelter animals will inevitably be put to sleep—vicious dogs, for example, or pets who are too old, ill or feral to be feasibly adopted—many end up being euthanized merely because public shelters have limited space but are forbidden by law to turn any stray away.

“In Los Angeles’s city shelters, one of the first things we noticed was that something like 6,000 of 13,000 cat euthanasias were neonatal kittens,” says Peralta. The baby cats were too young to be spayed or adopted, he recalls, but the city shelters weren’t equipped to provide intensive bottle-feeding to that many kittens without badly neglecting their other charges.

So last year in Mission Hills, Best Friends and the No Kill Los Angeles animal welfare coalition jointly opened a neonatal kitten nursery.

“We thought, if we can get those newborns to two months, who doesn’t want to adopt kittens?” That initiative alone, he says, has saved thousands of cats from euthanasia. “All that was based on data from shelters,” he says. “It helps us know where to point the guns.”

Mayeda says the department is hoping over time to deepen their online statistics, which currently focus on overviews and shelter-by-shelter outcomes in the county’s six regional shelters. Those numbers in themselves are eye-opening—pets in the county’s Agoura shelter, for instance, are about twice as likely to be adopted or returned to their owners as are pets in the much-larger Downey shelter.

But Mayeda says she also wants to drill down on the feral cat outcomes so that the public better understands the urgency of the problem.

“A lot of people will say, ‘There’s this cat in my yard and I don’t mind putting out food, but she keeps having kittens and they get hit by cars or beaten up by tomcats.’ Well those people mostly don’t want to spend $300 to take that cat to a veterinarian and have it spayed, but a feral cat is like a raccoon—you can’t really adopt it.”

In fact, she notes, the county offers discounted services for senior and low-income pet owners, and animal welfare groups such as the Spay Neuter Project of Los Angeles will spay or neuter a “community cat,” as they call feral felines, for as little as $25. But many people are unaware of those services and believe that a trip to a vet is the only option.

“So people end up bringing it to the shelter, where our only option is to euthanize it.  But if they were to see the numbers, and if there were, say, a big push for free or low-cost spaying and neutering and a program they could go to, well, that would be one less cat that we’d have to put to sleep.”

In the meantime, Webster and Mayeda say, pet owners can take advantage of the vaccination, licensing and microchipping services offered at shelters countywide. Currently offered on various weekdays at the shelters, the services will gradually shift this year to alternate Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Click here for the current microchipping schedule, and here for information on the new Sunday clinics.)

“Microchipping is mandatory in unincorporated Los Angeles County,” Webster points out. “But it’s also great because an animal that is microchipped can make it home without entering the shelter at all.”

These kittens, and many others, are up for adoption at the Baldwin Park Animal Care Center.

Posted 1/8/14

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