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 Los Angeles, CA, 3/23/2006

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New Animal Services head takes on critics
By Dana Bartholomew, Staff Writer

First there was quiet, a lull before the battle. Then came salvos from animal-rights activists lambasting the latest head of the Los Angeles Animal Services Department.

But unlike a long string of embattled predecessors, Ed Boks came out swinging.

He fired up a blog. He hit the radio. He locked horns with critics and waded deep into mud slung at him and his department.

Most importantly, after three months on the job, the fifth general manager in five years claims to have cut the number of dogs and cats killed at city shelters by one-third.

"If you don't blow your own horn, someone's going to use it as a spittoon," Boks, 54, general manager of the department, said during a recent visit to the West Valley Shelter in Chatsworth.

"There is so much that's right about the department. It doesn't need changing - what we must do is let the genie out of the bottle. I want to set the soul of this department free."

The flamboyant manager who'd lowered animal deaths as head dogcatcher in New York City and greater Phoenix was hired Jan. 3 by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to replace Guerdon Stuckey, fired after a storm of protest by animal-welfare activists.

Stuckey and Animal Services employees were the target of extreme animal activists investigated for smoke-bombing Stuckey's apartment and other acts of vandalism against department workers.

Boks was undeterred. The smooth and dapper former preacher fond of quoting Ghandi quickly set out to spare all but the most sick and dangerous unwanted pets.

He did this, he said, with a "Plus-One, Minus-One" directive: Each of the city's six animal shelters must adopt out at least one more pet than on the same day last year, and destroy at least one less.

In January, the death rate for dogs and cats at city shelters dropped 25 percent compared with the same period in 2005, department statistics show. In February, the number of euthanasias plummeted 33 percent, while adoptions rose 11.5 percent.

"So far, I'm impressed," said Charlotte Laws of Valley Glen, founder of Directors for Animal Welfare, a coalition of 36 neighborhood council and community representatives. "He's completely reached out to the community.

"He's got a mission plus a program. Stuckey, the former general manager, didn't do half as much in a year."

Boks hopes to rebuild - and rebrand - the city's shelter system with a blur of new services with such names as "Big Fix," "Felix" (Feral Education & Love Instead of X-termination) and "New Hope."

The makeover calls for eight shelters to be constructed by next year, including a $13 million expansion of the West Valley Shelter, an $11.6 million East Valley Shelter to open in Van Nuys and a $12.2 million Northeast Valley Shelter to open in Mission Hills.

For Boks (pronounced Bokes), city pounds will be relics of a bygone era, and shelters will be turned into "community centers" where at-risk kids join seniors under his new Animal Services slogan: "Teach love and compassion."

Some program goals: Free spay and neutering to needy pet owners; trap, neuter and release for feral cats; extra care for sick animals; grooming for shaggy pound pets; foster homes for suckling critters; free "senior" pets for senior citizens; and round-the-clock access to city shelters for animal-rescue groups.

To help accomplish this, Boks is seeking to boost his annual budget from $18.5 million to $25 million and to hire an additional 178 workers - this despite a $300 million budget shortfall facing the city.

Now that Boks has reached out to rescue groups and redesigned the department Web site to include department statistics and goals, some say his next step is to develop a comprehensive no-kill animal plan.

"No-kill is not just about shelters," said Scott Sorrentino, co-founder of Rescue and Humane Alliance, a North
Hollywood-based coalition of 53 animal-rescue groups.

"The entire community needs to be involved if we are serious about reducing pet overpopulation and ending the killing of healthy and treatable animals in our city."

Boks said Animal Services is serious - and that in the past five years his department has reduced dog and cat euthanasia by 46 percent, from 37,000 animals killed in 2001-02 to 20,000 in 2005-06. The number of animals admitted to city shelters dropped from 62,000 to 47,000 during the same period.

Boks intends to beat such cities as San Francisco, with no-kill animal goals, to make Los Angeles the first no-kill animal city in the nation.

"Euthanasia is a form of disease that suggests we're a sick community," Boks said. "There's something wrong with a community that kills dogs and cats.

"That's why I'm so fond of quoting Ghandi: 'The best way to evaluate any community is how well it treats its animals."'

At first, critics of Animal Services remained silent.

But then stories began to circulate about Boks' record in running shelters in New York and Maricopa County, Ariz. Alternative newspapers took aim at his euthanasia statistics, finances and so-called "window of transparency."

Some accuse Boks of a larger-than-life ego and of bringing his "Ed Boks Show" - and hyped-up promises - to Los Angeles.

"Do I think he's capable of doing great things? You bet," said Judy deHaviland of Animal Alliance, a rescue organization. "Do I think he needs to be watched? You betcha."

The Animal Defense League, Los Angeles, which has been charged with harassing Animal Services workers while protesting on behalf of animals, officially remained neutral - but then aired unattributed criticism of Boks on its Web site.

Thus began a war of blogs between Boks and the ADL-LA.

"The sad thing is, we're all hoping to stop the senseless slaughter of dogs and cats and other animals in this city," said ADL-LA co-founder Pamelyn Ferdin, who has demanded a written protocol from Boks on his plan to reduce euthanasias. "We're not sure that Ed Boks is the one to do this.

"The freezers are just as full of dead and homeless and lost animals, the corpses are piled just as high ... Nothing has changed."

Countered Boks in his blog: "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.

"I'm not sure what ADL thinks it is accomplishing by going after department staff. ... 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."

For some shelter workers, the jury is still out on the city's most targeted manager.

"I still don't have a feel for him," said one Animal Services employee. "Everything he says is fantastic. I hope it works. If not, it'll all fall apart and we'll be back to where we started."