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Getting it right in L.A.

Improvements to city’s low-income spay/neuter program are worth the wait

 Los Angeles residents were not taking advantage of the free spay/neuter certificate program because they didn't know it existed.

I’ve managed the HSUS Pets for Life (PFL) program in East Los Angeles since January 2012, and from April of that year through August 2016 I also served as a volunteer commissioner of the Department of Animal Services for the City of Los Angeles (LA Animal Services). My dual roles gave me the opportunity to shape the policies and protocols that I championed while I served on the commission. For example, I knew that the City of LA had implemented a free spay/neuter voucher program years ago that allowed pet owners to have their pets altered for free by participating veterinarians, but when I learned the details, I realized that the city was failing to get the vouchers into the hands of the people who needed them most.  

In 1985, the city of LA wanted to make spay/neuter easier for low-income senior citizens by providing them with free spay/neuter certificates when they licensed their dogs, but the service was available only after verifying their income. In 1991 this program was expanded with discount coupons that reduced the price of a surgery by $20 and could be obtained by any resident, regardless of income. These coupons came in booklets distributed to local rescue and animal advocacy groups. Pet owners seeking spay/neuter services would connect with these groups and get the $20-off coupon from the booklet. Residents would take their pets and coupons to participating veterinarians for reduced-cost sterilizations.

It was relatively simple and a good idea in theory, but the department often found evidence of some rescue groups abusing the coupons by “doubling up” (giving a resident two discount coupons for one animal) or giving coupons to people living outside of the city. In 2008, LA Animal Services followed the advice of the city controller’s office and created an online portal system to gain more control over the discount coupon program. All coupons would be processed through a portal—but the portals would be housed only at city shelters. When people went into a shelter to obtain one, they had to show a photo ID to confirm they were city residents. The portal system took two years to complete and, in 2011, the coupon booklets were removed from all rescue and animal advocacy groups. In addition to the discount coupons, the city had also created a free spay/neuter certificate in 2000, which residents could receive after showing proof of income. If residents met the criteria, they could receive a certificate to cover the full price of a spay/neuter surgery. These, too, could be obtained only at the city shelter.

With the creation of the free spay/neuter certificate program, the city fund set up to cover these surgeries began to grow, but a swelling balance was not a good thing. Since pet owners were forced to go to city shelters to obtain certificates, low-income residents were not able to utilize the program. Language barriers, not having transportation, not being citizens of the United States, not having permanent housing—all of these issues played a part. But a primary reason residents were not taking advantage of the opportunity was simply that they were not aware that the certificate program, or the city shelter, even existed.

This is where my experience with Pets for Life really benefited my role as a commissioner. Data collected through PFL shows that 85 percent of residents who live in underserved communities—areas that lack animal services—have never contacted the local shelter or animal services agency. They either don’t know these resources exist or they have had a negative prior experience and don’t trust the systems that are in place. If residents have no idea that shelters or animal control even exist, how in the world would it occur to them to go there to pick up a free spay/neuter certificate? If residents are afraid of getting in trouble with animal control— or, worse, having their animals taken from them—why would they risk it the trip?

My first year on the commission I had to get my feet wet and learn how the meetings worked. Sitting on a board and having to tolerate angry animal advocates screaming at us during public comment was a bit unnerving at times, but having worked for a state senator for five years, I was used to racist comments and threats—so I quickly learned to accept it and keep my eyes on the prize: getting free spay/neuter certificates into the hands of low-income residents. I was surprised to learn that we had officers only responding to calls, not doing any proactive door-to-door engagement with city residents to check licenses, as LA County Animal Services had done for many years. I knew that was the first thing I had to start pushing for.

I requested that officers use some of their time for door-to-door licensing enforcement. The intention wasn’t to punish residents whose pets were unlicensed, but to engage and inform residents of two things: that a spay/neuter ordinance passed in 2008 required that, with few exceptions, all pets over the age of 4 months in the City of LA were required to be sterilized; and that, if they could not afford the cost of spay/neuter surgery for their pets, certificates for free spay/neuter were available. In September 2013, an animal licensing team was created. It saw a 33-percent increase in licensing in less than a month, but the officers were not allowed to provide spay/neuter certificates in the field—they could only advise residents on how to apply for them. Due to the licensing team’s success, the mayor supplied additional funding to hire 12 canvassers to continue the work, but they were still unable to provide the free certificates in the field, and there was still a proof-of-income requirement. During every meeting, I reiterated that we needed to find a way for the licensing team to deliver certificates at people’s doorsteps. Otherwise, I pointed out, we would only be making money off of the backs of people living in poverty by citing them for not sterilizing their pets when the cost of surgery alone is unaffordable for many Angelenos.  Additionally, even if certificates were made readily available, the proof of income would continue to be a barrier for many.  

Although it took a while, I finally got results with my push to make free spay/neuter certificates available in the field and to remove the means-testing process so the program was more accessible for pet owners. The department changed policy in March 2016, approving a self-identification affidavit as the only requirement to receive a certificate. This helped ensure that all low-income residents, including those who were undocumented or homeless, could obtain a free spay/neuter certificate simply by signing an affidavit. No longer did residents have to provide proof of residency and proof of income (it is close to impossible for undocumented or homeless pet owners to obtain these documents).  

That motion gave momentum to my next initiative: to have the door-to-door licensing teams provide certificates in the field at people’s doorsteps. The city’s information technology team created a simple app that could be downloaded on the licensing canvassers’ smart phones. The canvasser enters the resident’s name, address, phone number and some basic information about their pet, then prints the certificate on a handheld device, similar to what the Department of Transportation uses for parking tickets. The certificate is printed on sticky paper that can be stuck to an 8½-by-11-inch form from LA Animal Services, which the resident takes to a participating veterinarian for a free sterilization.   This motion passed in July.

Although it took over four years to get these motions passed, I cannot express how incredibly grateful I am to the department for eventually getting these important policies in place. It speaks volumes to the values and ethics of not only LA Animal Services but of the city as a whole. It says that LA is a city that cares about all pet owners, regardless of where they’re from or how much money they make, and that it wants the best life for them and their pets. People living in poverty and in underserved communities often have a hard time accessing resources, and these two policies make that challenge a little less difficult. There are always more policies we can implement that would increase access to services for people living in poverty, such as transportation and basic veterinary care, both key components of the Pets for Life program; however, getting the free spay/neuter certificates into the hands of pet owners was a critical first step.

What type of spay/neuter assistance does your city’s animal control department provide for low-income pet owners? Does it provide any type of subsidized services at all? If not, how could you engage your elected officials to try and create a program similar to what the City of LA has created?


About the Author

Alana Yañez is the Manager of Pets for Life (PFL), Los Angeles for The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). She helped establish the program’s expansion to Los Angeles in January 2012 and with the rest of the PFL L.A. team provides much needed spay/neuter, veterinary care and pet wellness resources to underserved areas in East Los Angeles. In addition to her role at The HSUS, Alana has had the privilege of serving as a commissioner for the Los Angeles Animal Services Board for the past four years.