Department of Animal Services: 153 Years of Animal Care

June 29, 2016
1936 Humane Department

By Steven Feldman, DVM Veterinarian III Animal Services

The story of our Los Angeles Department of Animal Services goes back to the Civil War era of 1863 when the population of the city was rapidly increasing.  The need arose for the Mayor to appoint a Pound Keeper and create a public pound.  Since the drinking water of Los Angeles was drawn from the L.A. River, laws were enacted to restrict livestock from the river proximity.

The Public Pound Keeper in 1871 was required to provide and maintain a corral for impounded animals at his own expense.  The City Marshall and his deputies delivered the stray animals to the Pound Keeper, who charged boarding fees if the livestock were reclaimed by the owner.  After 6 days, the unclaimed animal (only livestock were specified) was advertised and could be sold.

The first one-year dog  licenses were sold by the City Marshall in 1872, $1.50 for males and $3.00 for females.  Also in that year hack drivers (horse buggy drivers) had to buy annual licenses and were fined $5 to $25 for an unhitched  horse.

From 1907 to 1909 the Humane Animal League had a contract with the city and had a 1.5 acre lot and “pound” near Santa Fe and Ninth Streets.   They boasted a great increase in licenses and inspectors went door to door collecting the $2 license fee.  

The first Humane Animal Commission was established in 1909 and marked the beginning of the Department by utilizing a Humane Animal Inspector and a staff of nine Deputies and a Clerk.  This action was necessary due to the horrible pound conditions and thousands of sick and mangy dogs running the streets.  Fights with the “dogcatchers” who used their nets to catch the strays were commonplace.  House-to-house collection of dog licenses fees brought in much revenue to the city and over 4,000 of the 5,000 dogs which were collected were destroyed .  However,  this drastic action diminished further euthanasia greatly and the number of licensed dogs increased.

Finally, in 1925, the Department of Humane Treatment of Animals was formed with 5 Commissioners, a General Manager, a Secretary, and 20 Inspectors.   In 1929 the department  got a new name-- The Humane Department.  The Ann Street Shelter, just east of Chinatown by Spring Street,  was built in 1928 and was the state-of-the-art animal shelter in its time.   Ann Street cost $60,000 to build and boasted a tiled bath for dogs and cats and an airy stable.   The City actually owned this facility,  unlike all the previous rented “pounds”.  The early shelters were on Porter Street,  46th and Alameda, Blake Avenue, and in Harbor City.   Ann Street served the public outstandingly for 60 years until it was replaced by the North Central Care and Control Center on Lacy Street in 1988!  

At the tail end of the Great Depression two additional shelters were opened.  The first Valley Shelter on Oxnard St.  in Van Nuys opened in 1936.  It had acreage to house large animals but was under scrutiny for overcrowded dog cages.   In 1936 the West Los Angeles Shelter  on Granville Avenue—the second city-owned shelter—opened,  but was demolished in 1950 to make room for the combustible garbage incineration facility that the city established in its place.

Rabies was prominent in epidemic proportions throughout California in the 1930’s.  In 1931 $5,885 was appropriated to the Humane Department to round up stray dogs.  Then in 1937-38, sadly, thousands of stray dogs were euthanized to control rabies.  During the first six months of 1937, 363 rabid animals had bitten 318 persons in Los Angeles.  Eight Inspectors, 2 Kennelmen, and three trucks were added to handle the situation,  and the Dept.  then had a total of 56 on staff.  By 1940 only 38 cases of rabies were found in Los Angeles.   However, in 1948 there was a report of five rabid dogs in a 3-month period in the Reseda-Van Nuys area.

Starting in 1948, permits were issued to commercial and some private establishments to ensure that animals were being maintained and exhibited in a humane manner.  L.A . was a vanguard in the nation by developing the permit system. 

To curve the overpopulation of dogs,  spayed dog licenses were sold beginning in 1940.  The City Council enacted a leash law for dogs in 1944, a triumph over the failed attempt to pass that law eighteen years prior.

In 1947 the name of the department changed from the Humane Department to the Department of Animal Regulation so as not to confuse the municipal agency with the many  private humane organizations in existence.

In South L.A., the SPCA facility at 3612 Eleventh Ave. was acquired by the city in 1949 and became the Southwest Branch Animal Shelter.  The Valley Shelter in North Hollywood on Sherman Way was opened in 1950 and replaced the Oxnard Street Valley Shelter.  The second San Pedro Harbor Shelter, City owned,  was completed in 1951 and replaced the older rented structure in Harbor City.

A policy was approved in 1950 by a vote of the general city population to allow unclaimed animals to be released to medical research laboratories.   The court dismissed an injunction the next year which tried to block the move.   The citizens of Los Angeles rescinded this policy later in 1981.

In 1954 there were 137 persons working for the Department,  and finally a full-time veterinarian was hired.  The City required all dogs to be vaccinated for rabies in 1956 and by 1958 the state law requiring rabies vaccinations was enacted.  Licensing and rabies vaccinations went hand-in-hand to protect the dogs and also the citizens from this deadly virus.

The new Missouri Ave. West Los Angeles shelter costing $170,000 opened in  1960 and filled the ten-year void of coverage for the beaches and the Westside.  Then in 1961 the animal collection vehicles  were repainted from gray to yellow to make them more visible.

The second Valley shelter, The West Valley Shelter, was opened in Chatsworth in 1970 and cost $600,000.  It was the first shelter to have a pasture for horses and would be totally air-conditioned, kennels and offices alike.  Shortly after its opening, the West Valley Shelter survived a horrific valley earthquake and was able to participate in emergency operations.

Los Angeles boasted the formation of City-run spay and neuter clinics at the Ann Street shelter in 1971 and the Valley Shelter and South LA spay-neuter clinics opened in 1973. 1975 brought new procedures to help abate neighborhood barking dog nuisance problems.

Beginning in 1971, the annual St. Francis of Assisi Award was designated to a meritorious champion of animal humane work who was recognized by the mayor in a ceremony at City Hall.  In 1972 two animal control officers were assigned to providing humane education to LAUSD elementary school students.

Ann St., South Central, Harbor, and East Valley shelters were in dire need of replacement, and the West LA Shelter needed an addition,  but a 10.3 million bond issue measure unfortunately failed to get ballot approval in 1973.  It would be 30-plus more years before those new shelters would get funded.

The Animal Airlift program in 1976 allowed 961 wild animals to be relocated from the City to the Angeles National Forest.  By the end of the 1970s the veterinary staff in the City shelters were vaccinating dogs and cats for the common contagious diseases and were using pentobarbital euthanasia in place of the Euthanair decompression chamber.  The Harbor Shelter and South LA shelter s were updated with new veterinary hospital units. The animal control officers used to carry handcuffs in case a citizen became unruly, but that practice became prohibited in 1979.

In 1988 the North Central Shelter on Lacy St. in Lincoln Heights was completed ,  and Ann Street was finally shuttered. The spacious new building had a large animal barn, a spay-neuter clinic,  and a large multipurpose training room. 

Some of the first legislation in the nation to deal with dangerous dog and barking dog problems was implemented in the department  also in 1988.

The 1990s and early 21st century brought many changes to Animal Services.  Radical animal activists would wreak havoc on the department and called for the City to achieve a “no kill” policy; a succession of short-lived General Managers would be appointed.  There was a trial policy in 1991, soon discontinued,   which mandated that pit bulls could not be adopted and had to be euthanized.

The Hayden Bill of 1999 was a state bill initiated by critics of the tumultuous conditions in the aging Los Angeles shelters.  The law increased the number of days an animal must be held and mandated a holding period for relinquished and community (feral) cats.  Veterinary treatment was required for all pets.  The challenge to hold more animals for longer periods was met by the department in with the passage of the $154 million  Prop. F Bond in 2000.

In 2006 the North Central shelter would get many new outside runs and a behavioral wing,  and the West Valley Shelter would undergo a radical expansion.   Beginning in 2007, impressive new shelters would replace the 50-plus-year-old East Valley, Harbor,  and West Los Angeles structures.  The Northeast Shelter would be completed,  but the recession prevented its opening.  The overcrowded  South Los Angeles main shelter and the Annex  would move to Chesterfield Square in 2012.  

 By 2016,  Animal Services staff would expand to 312 full-time and 29 part-time workers.  The department that had its beginnings over 150 years ago has become one of the most excellent municipal animal regulatory agencies in the world.

The progression of LA City animal shelters: [NOTE, dates and locations of all shelters preceding Ann Street are approximations].

1883:  Los Angeles  and 1st Sts./1st street in the riverbed

1889: Small board hut above covered bridge in the riverbed by Kuhrts St. Bridge (Main St Bridge?)

1892: 9th Street and the Riverbed

1894: Arroyo Seco by Santa Fe Bridge

1908: Santa Fe and Ninth Streets

1915:  2447 Porter Street

1916-17: 46th (or 48th) and Alameda Sts. (1870 E. 46th St.)

Prior to 1920: Harbor City, location unk.

Prior to 1928: 1829 Blake Ave

1928: Ann Street, 215 W. Ann St.

1941:  West Los Angeles , 2000 Granville Ave.

1936: Van Nuys, 14737 Oxnard St.

1949: Southwest Branch (Eleventh Ave)

1950:  N. Hollywood , 13131 Sherman Wy. (The 2nd Valley shelter)

1951: Harbor Shelter, Battery Ave., San Pedro

1960: West LA Shelter, Missouri Ave.

1970 West Valley Shelter, 20655 Plummer St., Chatsworth

1988 North Central Shelter,  3201 Lacy St.,  Lincoln Hts.

2000: South Central (on site of former 11th Ave. bldg..)

2006: Additions to North Central and West Valley

2007: East Valley Shelter,  14409 Vanowen St., Van Nuys

2009: West LA, 11361 West Pico Blvd.

2010: Harbor, 957 N. Gaffey Street , San Pedro

2013: South LA/Chesterfield Square, 1850 W. 60th St.