When Harbor Animal Care faced a food crisis in August, volunteer Jan Bunker logged on to Nextdoor to claim donations.
“Hello, animal lovers! Below Harbor Shelter in San Pedro, rabbit food and hay for both rabbits and guinea pigs are completely out,” Bunker wrote.
Her posts received a flurry of responses, and strangers handed out hay – a necessity for rabbits and guinea pigs, which can die quickly if they go without food.
For Bunker and other critics, the lack of food was an example of how the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services ignored the smallest creatures in its care.
Volunteers do most of the work of feeding and cleaning the cages of the thousands of rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters that come through the Los Angeles shelter system, many said.
According to volunteers and advocates, the small mammal is struggling with the lack of staff in the city.
Bunker and seven other volunteers at the Harbor shelter requested help in an August letter to Annette Ramirez, the interim general manager of Animal Services.
“It appears that the volunteers are used exclusively to clean the rabbit room and [city staff] The message said “Not set”. If no volunteers come, the animals do not appear to be screened for water, pellets, or hay. Most mornings, volunteers are the first to ask to open the door and turn on the lights to feed the hungry animals.”
The letter also referred to hamsters’ “out of control” condition, including “frequent escape” and “pregnancy due to difficulty in distinguishing between the sexes”.
Volunteers at three other Los Angeles shelters also said the care of the small mammals rests largely on their shoulders. They described spending their own money on lettuce and cilantro for the animals and driving to Petco for last minute supplies. Other times, they had to rely on animal rescue groups and donors for necessities, such as cages.
“I’m pissed,” said Bunker, 74, an artist, piano teacher and voice who volunteered for four years at the Harbor shelter. “We are the only ones who take care of them.”
Animal Services spokeswoman Agnes Seibal said the department does not require volunteers to purchase supplies for animals. She said employees have the ability to order food through vendors.
When asked about the staff’s role in dealing with the small mammals, Sibal said they were involved.
“LA Animal Services staff provide care for the animals throughout the day, while feeding them, cleaning cages and daily monitoring of the animals,” she said.
Bunker disputed Sibal’s assertion, saying that Harbor had no staff assigned to oversee the small mammals.
Bunker said city employees told her on Friday that she could not return to the shelter until she re-signed a form outlining the rules for volunteers.
Department officials did not immediately respond to questions about Bunker.
With about 300 employees, the department relies heavily on volunteers to feed the animals, walk the dogs, supervise adoptions, do laundry and more.
The absence of employees hampers this system. On September 17, Juan Rivera, director of volunteer programs, asked volunteers to attend after the COVID-19 outbreak at Harbor and West Valley shelters.
“The number of employees from both locations has been reduced by 20 for at least six days and up to another 9 days until [staff] You begin to test negative,” Rivera wrote in an email to volunteers.
city protocol Employees are allowed to self-quarantine for 10 days if they have been exposed in the workplace to a person with COVID-19. The policy states that employees are not required to be tested during the quarantine period.
In some animal shelters, staff may be assigned to supervise the rooms of the small mammals, but volunteers said the staff is rarely seen in those areas.
“There’s a feeling, well, if you don’t, they won’t be taken care of,” said one small mammal volunteer, who like others asked not to be identified to speak freely about conditions in the shelters. “Without us, without volunteers…the animals would surely die.”
Sibal, an animal services spokesperson, said that when “volunteers inform staff about an issue, it is addressed by supervisors and staff.”
At the harbor shelter, the hamsters were moved to a separate room after volunteers sent their letter to Ramirez.
One morning, Bunker was greeted by screaming as she leaned into cages with guinea pigs. She was there to clean the cages.
She threw out the dirty newspaper and used water and vinegar to mop the floors and walls of the rabbit cage. I replaced the carton and straw mats, refilled the water bottle, and put the lettuce in the cage.
During the year through August, the department took in nearly 700 rabbits in all of its shelters, a 52% increase over the same period last year. Statistics on guinea pigs are not available on the city’s website, but rescue groups estimate there are more than 80 in shelters – much more than in previous years and an indication that people are bringing back adopted animals early in the pandemic.
“All the animals taken under the city’s protective mantle need to have their basic needs met,” said Claire Badner, a volunteer with LA Guinea Pig Rescue, who visits the city’s shelters once a week. “Staff training for small animal care is insufficient.”
She said she witnessed occasional breeding – the males and females were mistakenly placed in the same cage – in the small mammal’s room. She shared a photo, taken in August by a volunteer at the West Valley Shelter, of what appeared to be larvae in a cage for guinea pigs.
Volunteer Queenie Chen who runs Instagram page highlighting small animalsIn a publication, it was alleged that four-meter hamsters were mercilessly killed shortly after their birth.
In one case, according to Chen’s Instagram page, volunteers found a “forgotten” hamster in a box under a box in a storage room at a West Valley shelter.
Chen refused to be interviewed. Sebal did not respond to a question about the allegations.
One morning, a Times reporter visiting the Small Mammal Room at the Chesterfield Square Shelter in south Los Angeles found the lime green ceiling and walls covered in a visible layer of dust and fur.
The walls were lined with cages of rabbits and guinea pigs. Other cages rested on the floor due to lack of space. The notes posted by volunteers on the cages indicate the last time they were cleaned.
Dr. Gayle Roberts, a veterinarian at a private practice in Irvine, said animal services have a reputation for being “limited on their resources” and understaffed.
Roberts sees about 10 rabbits a week that have been taken from Animal Services for spaying and neutering. You also see animals from shelters that need medical care.
Two male rabbits from animal services who were kept in the same cage—wrong, because they would be fighting to the death—recently entered. Someone had a torn ear. She said the other’s eye was pulled out hard.
“Dealing with a rabbit requires an experienced person,” she said. “You really have to know what you’re doing.”
Alison Simard, a spokeswoman for Councilwoman Paul Kuritz, who chairs a committee on animal issues, said Kuritz’s office is working on a report that addresses small mammals in shelters.
The council member, a candidate for city superintendent, held two meetings this summer following a Times article about conditions for dogs in city shelters.
Harrison Wollman, a spokesman for Mayor Eric Garste, said the mayor’s office is working with Animal Services to bring in new employees and place a budget request for additional staff next year.
Wollman said this summer that the city’s COVID-19 sick leave policies are being reviewed. On Friday, he said he had no update on any policy changes.
This story originally appeared Los Angeles Times.
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