Small mammals face neglect at L.A. shelters, volunteers say

When the Harbor Animal Care Center faced a food shortage in August, volunteer Jan Bunker logged on to Nextdoor to solicit donations.

“Hello animal lovers! Down at the Harbor Shelter in San Pedro we don’t have rabbit chow or hay for rabbits and guinea pigs,” Bunker wrote.

Her contribution received a wave of reactions, and strangers provided hay – a necessity for rabbits and guinea pigs, which can die quickly if they don’t have food.

For Bunker and other critics, the food shortage was an example of how the Los Angeles Animal Welfare Department overlooked 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 LA’s shelter system, several said.

The small mammals are struggling with staff shortages in the city, according to volunteers and advocates.

Bunker and seven other Harbor Home volunteers reached out to Annette Ramirez, Animal Services’ interim general manager, for help in August.

“It seems that volunteers are used solely to clean the rabbit room and [city staff] are not assigned,” the letter said. “If no volunteer comes, the animals are apparently not checked for water, pellets or hay. Most mornings, the volunteers are the first to ask for the door to be unlocked and the light turned on so the hungry animals can be fed.”

Jan Bunker visits the rabbits and guinea pigs in one of the small mammals' rooms in the municipal harbor home.

Jan Bunker looks after rabbits and guinea pigs at the harbor home in San Pedro.

(Dakota Smith/Los Angeles Times)

The letter also noted a “runaway” hamster situation, including “frequent escapes” and “oscillations due to difficulty distinguishing sexes.”

Volunteers at three other LA shelters also said caring for small mammals is largely their responsibility. They described spending their own money on lettuce and cilantro for the animals and driving to Petco for last-minute supplies. Other times they have had to rely on animal rescue groups and donors for necessities like cages.

“I’m angry,” said Bunker, 74, an entertainer and piano and voice teacher who has volunteered at the Harbor Shelter for four years. “We’re the only ones taking care of her.”

Animal Services spokeswoman Agnes Sibal said the department is not asking volunteers to buy items for animals. Employees, she said, have the option to order groceries through vendors.

When asked about the role of staff in small mammals, Sibal said they are involved.

“The LA Animal Services staff take care of the animals throughout the day, during feeding, cleaning the cages and monitoring the animals on a daily basis,” she said.

Bunker disagreed with Sibal’s claim, saying Harbor had no staff assigned to monitor small mammals.

Bunker said she was told by city officials on Friday that she could not return to the shelter until she re-signed a volunteer rules form.

Ministry officials did not immediately respond to questions about Bunker.

With about 300 employees, the department relies heavily on volunteers to help feed animals, walk dogs, supervise adoptions, do laundry, and more.

Staff shortages cause this system to falter. On September 17, Juan Rivera, Director of Volunteer Programs, asked volunteers to come to the Harbor and West Valley shelters following a COVID-19 outbreak.

“We have 20 employees at both locations for at least six days and up to 9 more days until then [staff] starting to test negative,” Rivera wrote in an email to the volunteers.

City protocol allows employees a 10-day quarantine if they are exposed to someone at work who has COVID-19. The policy states that employees do not have to be tested during the quarantine period.

At some shelters, staff may be assigned to monitor the small mammal rooms, but volunteers said staff are rarely seen in these areas.

There’s “a sense that if you don’t, you don’t care about them,” said one small mammal volunteer, who, like others, asked for anonymity to speak freely about conditions at the shelters. “Without us, without volunteers there…animals would definitely die.”

Sibal, the spokesman for Animal Services, said that when “volunteers report an issue to staff, managers and staff address it.”

At the harbor home, the hamsters were moved to a separate room after volunteers sent their letter to Ramirez.

On a recent morning, Bunker welcomed squeaks as she leaned into cages with guinea pigs. She was there to clean cages.

She threw away the dirty newspaper and used water and vinegar to wipe the floor and walls of a rabbit cage. She replaced the cardboard and straw mats, refilled the water bottle, and stuffed lettuce in the cage.

A guinea pig sits in a cage at an animal shelter.

A guinea pig at the Chesterfield Square Animal Services Center in south Los Angeles.

(Melissa Gomez / Los Angeles Times)

For the year ended August, the department received nearly 700 rabbits at all of its shelters, a 52% increase over the same period last year. Statistics on guinea pigs aren’t available on the city’s website, but rescue groups estimate there are more than 80 at the shelters — far more than in previous years and an indication of people bringing back animals adopted early in the pandemic.

“All animals that are admitted under the city’s shelter must have their basic needs met,” said Claire Badener, a volunteer with LA Guinea Pig Rescue, who visits the city’s animal shelters about once a week. “The training of the staff in the care of small animals is insufficient.”

She said she saw random broods in the small mammal room – males and females mistakenly placed in the same cage. She shared a photo taken by a volunteer at West Valley Animal Shelter in August showing maggots in a guinea pig cage.

Volunteer Queenie Chen, who runs an Instagram page that highlights small animals, claimed in a post that four litters of hamsters were euthanized shortly after they were born.

In one case, according to Chen’s Instagram page, volunteers found a hamster “forgotten” in a trash can under a box in a storage room at the West Valley Animal Shelter.

Chen declined an interview. Sibal did not respond to a question about the allegations.

On a recent morning, a Times reporter visiting the small mammal room at the Chesterfield Square animal shelter in south Los Angeles spotted the bright green ceiling and walls covered with a visible layer of dust and fur.

Rabbit and guinea pig cages lined the walls; other cages stood on the floor for lack of space. Notes attached to the cages by volunteers indicate when they were last cleaned.

dr Gayle Roberts, a veterinarian in private practice in Irvine, said Animal Services has a reputation for being “limited by its resources” and understaffed.

Roberts sees about 10 rabbits a week brought in for spaying and neutering by Animal Services. She also sees animals from the shelters that need medical attention.

Two male rabbits from Animal Services put in the same cage – a mistake as they will fight to the death – came in recently. One had a torn ear; the other’s eye was badly gouged out, she said.

“It takes an experienced person to handle a rabbit,” she said. “You really have to know what you’re doing.”

Alison Simard, a spokeswoman for council member Paul Koretz, who chairs an animal-related committee, said Koretz’s office is working on a report that will look at the small mammals in the shelters.

The councilman, a candidate for city controller, held two meetings this summer after publishing an article in the Times about the conditions for dogs in the city’s animal shelters.

Harrison Wollman, a spokesman for Mayor Eric Garcetti, said the mayor’s office is working with Animal Services to hire new staff and develop a budget request for additional staff next year.

Wollman said this summer that the city’s COVID-19 sick leave policies will be reviewed. He said Friday he had no update on any policy changes. Small mammals face neglect at L.A. shelters, volunteers say

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