By Carole Raphaelle Davis
A dog named Buck is dead. In July, weeks after he was rescued from an L.A. County shelter, his body was found in a sewage drain in Watts, an impoverished neighborhood in Los Angeles. Three women, local rescuers, are being blamed for his death and now, an on-line petition with over ten-thousand signatures is calling for two of the women to be arrested and prosecuted. Through social media, these women have been bullied mercilessly. They have been suspended by animal control officials from rescuing any more dogs, pending the results of an investigation. The outrage of the local animal rescue community has spread like a wildfire and has taken on the proportion of the Salem witch trials.
The threats on Facebook include admonitions to suffer, to be thrown into a prison yard, to be tortured in an animal research laboratory, to fry, to be thrown into a sewer to die, and to rot in Hell. They have been called monsters, murderers and other names that cannot be printed here. The people involved in this witch hunt have even called for the use of guns, have menaced the rescuers on the phone and have posted their home addresses on the Internet. Police reports and restraining orders have been filed.
Here’s a condensed history of what happened to Buck the dog: Audra Aldridge found Buck, stray, on the street on her way to work. Unable to bring him with her, she fed him, photographed him and brought him to the Carson shelter in L.A. County, where she knew she could monitor him while she tried to find him a foster or permanent home. The animal control officials did not allow her to formally rescue him because, they claimed, she hadn’t filled out the paperwork on all the other dogs she had rescued previously.
Bureaucratic red tape further complicated Buck’s rescue. It isn’t simple to get a dog off of death row in L.A..—you either have to be an individual with fewer than three personal dogs or you must be an “approved rescue partner” with the shelter system.
Desperate because she knew Buck could be euthanized, Audra asked for help from Milena Popovich. Milena, who wanted to help rescue Buck, had a connection with Lejla Hadzimuratovic, whose Bunny World Foundation was an officially approved rescue partner with the Carson shelter. Milena, convinced that the dog would be going to a good foster home after the rescue from Carson, filled out the paperwork for Buck’s rescue and then handed him over to Audra.
“I’m fully responsible for what happened,” said Audra. Once Buck was in Audra’s hands, she admits she handed him over to a series of people who behaved irresponsibly.
One of the many questions left unanswered about this botched rescue is why Audra didn’t simply board Buck temporarily. “It was the 4th of July,” Audra answered, “The boarding facilities were all booked up!” Her deadliest blunder, it turns out, was trusting undependable people with Buck’s care. The woman she had trusted to foster Buck wanted Audra to take the dog back after a few hours because he was “barking too much.”
“I had to go to work the next day,” Audra said. Not thinking she had an alternative, or simply not thinking, Audra then allowed a homeless man she barely knew to assume responsibility of Buck. Audra readily admits she only met him twice before she gave Buck to him. “That was the last that I heard of Buck,” said Audra.
Now Buck had gone missing. He had last been seen tied up somewhere in Watts, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Audra claims she went to Watts three times to look for Buck. “I was already getting death threats on Facebook,” said Audra.
They were threatening to kill my dog! My reaction was where was everybody when Buck needed help? These people are crazy, most of the people who are attacking me aren’t out there doing rescue. They have no idea what it takes to rescue a dog.
One of the people outraged at this bungled rescue is Claudia Hoffman, well-known for rescuing dogs in impoverished neighborhoods. “What happened to all the other dogs she pulled?” asked Claudia. “Where are they?”
Hoping to find the dog alive, several search parties were formed. Fliers went up. Rewards were posted with different phone numbers. Conflicts erupted over the money, dividing search camps. Fliers were torn down. The desperate search for Buck became a war. Whipped up into a frenzy, dozens of people contacted animal control officials to blame the three rescuers. They demanded that Audra, Milena and Lejla be prevented from rescuing any more animals.
In response to “overwhelming requests,” animal control officials suspended Milena, Lejla and Audra from rescuing dogs pending an investigation.
Lejla and Milena blustered into the Standard Hotel for our interview like into a boxing ring. Lejla, the ultra-feminine and multi-lingual Bosnian with long dark hair is the founder and president of the Bunny World Foundation. Milena, a striking and stocky Serb with a face like an eagle— is a boisterous ex-kick boxer turned candle entrepreneur. She also has a rescue organization—its name is worthy of a ringtone. It’s called Please Don’t Kill Me.
They came to the meeting well prepared, arms full of papers—evidence, ready to fight the suspension and accusations and clear their names.
“I was afraid of concentration camps, war, I knew Saddam Hussein’s sons,” said Lejla, “but these people are even more scary. These are supposedly the rescue people?”
Milena pointed out that not only were there telephone and Internet threats from other rescuers but there was a car with tinted windows that had been slowing down suspiciously in front of her candle boutique.
Thanks God I’m European, I’m strong,” said Milena in a thick Serb accent. “I’m Serbian. If I was weak, I be probably dead now! I used to be kick boxer champion in US! I won a tough man contest in 1987! I can take all these bitches down. I’m not afraid of anybody.”
Milena explained that she used to see Audra at the Carson shelter all the time, feeding dogs, taking pictures of them and crying. “All the time she was crying, ‘oh my God! They gonna kill this dog six am!’ I felt sorry for her and I wanted to help the dog.”
Milena is incensed that Audra didn’t ask her for help before handing Buck over to a homeless man. Milena claims she closed her business for eight days to look for Buck. She made fliers and offered a $3000 reward:
I was looking day and night in the Watts. I say if somebody shoot me I don’t care, I want to find the dog! They took my fliers down. There is a group of stupid women, they are nobodies—they never saw the Buck before…they say they went to talk to some guy. They offered $250 for information of the dead body. The went to the location, took pictures and they left! The dog was dead in a ditch!
I called Animal Control to pick up the body. After that, these witches, they threatened me. They said they are going to burn my business down, you bitch.
Lejla claims the different search parties looking for Buck were motivated by ego. “It was very sensational, like, look, we’re such good people,” said Lejla, “and then they just left the body in a ditch.”
Lejla divulged how animal control officials had warned she would “get in trouble letting people use her foundation to rescue dogs.” She was told to “stick to rabbits.” But L.A. County is so inefficient, she said, that even if Milena had applied to be an approved rescuer, it would take a year. “Why can’t I facilitate saving dogs’ lives? Tell me!”
The decisions meted out by animal control regarding rescuers are arbitrary, Lejla insists. “They seem to play favorites,” she said. “They spend an awful lot of time investigating non-events and at the same time are killing animals at an unacceptable rate.” She pushed further: “When they hand their decisions down from way up high on Mount Olympus, they just make it up and are playing God with animals’ lives and rescuers’ reputations.”
Derek Brown, Deputy Director at L.A. Animal Care and Control, claims that there were “concerns about Audra’s care of animals prior to suspension” and that they were “watching her carefully.” Brown said Milena was also investigated and suspended based on the volume of dogs and the question of whether the dogs were “going out of state to a questionable facility.” He also suspended Lejla’s Bunny World Foundation “because animals were going to facilities we wanted make sure were adequate and met our standards.”
Brown told me that the current investigation of Milena and Lejla is “all centered around Buck and will be completed in less than a year.”
Milena accuses the county of not only abetting her assailants but of causing more dogs to die. “Hundreds of dogs have been killed by them since they suspend me,” said a tearful Milena. “They stop me from saving dogs’ lives!”
Aaron Reyez, Deputy Director of South County operations remains tight-lipped about the internal investigation. “We are not going to play this out in public,” said Reyez. Nevertheless, private emails reveal that the investigation of Milena and Lejla are centered around the fact that dogs rescued under the Bunny World Foundation were later transferred to two other rescue organizations, Sunny Sky’s Animal Rescue in Washington State and The Barking Lot, in El Cajon, California.
I spoke with Steve Kirk, director of the El Cajon Animal Care and Control and asked if there was any issue there that would be harmful to animals. “No, nothing like that…we are not currently investigating them. We’ve been to The Barking Lot about sanitation and noise, nothing huge,” he said. ”
Nancy Stewart, manager of The Barking Lot, had no idea that they were being investigated by L.A. County. “We were never told that they have an issue with us; they never even visited our facility,” she said. “I don’t know where this is coming from. It would be hard for them to say they have facts if they’ve never been to our facility. It hurts the dogs.” Of Milena, Stewart said, “I think she’s been a very good rescue partner.”
Sunny Sky’s Animal Rescue , the other facility investigated by the county happens to be veterinary hospital run by Dr. Illina Berton DVM, in Puyallup, Washington. Dr. Berton believes all the fuss stems from a disgruntled ex-employee who filed an erroneous complaint. “She was bitten by a cat and was terminated because she was abusive to the animals and hostile to other workers here,” said Dr. Berton.
Dr. Berton told me that one other person had “filed a false report” and that the animal control inspection was insubstantial. “They found soap suds,” she said. “They had problems with the number of dogs that would come in at one time. They reported things that were completely untrue.”
Jason Wilson manages Metro Animal Services in Puyallup, Washington. “We don’t have a beef with Sunny Sky’,” said Wilson. “The allegations were about the treatment of animals and we decided we didn’t feel comfortable using them as a rescue partner. If they want to reapply and they adhere to our standards, I’m not opposed to rescue animals through them.” Apparently, animal services there did not find anything that would warrant further action.
Sunny Sky’s has since asked for an independent inspection and report by the local department of health. “When that comes back,” said Dr. Berton, “it will show that we’re awesome.”
So while county officials spend time and money evaluating small rescue organizations to see if they meet their standards, they have a gruesome issue of their own—the official number of companion animals killed in their facilities. It’s true that euthanasia rates can be blamed on a lot of factors, including the economic downturn, but for the year 2011-2012, the county statistics are grim.
There were 24, 591 cats and 17,736 dogs killed.
The irony is that L.A. County is investigating facilities that seem to have fewer violations than their own facilities.
At L.A. Animal services, which operates separately from the county shelter system, things aren’t any better for Milena and Lejla. They are suspended from pulling dogs there too pending the investigation conducted by L.A. County about Buck.
But while city animal services prevents Milena and Lejla (and others) from rescuing more dogs, the number of dead at L.A. city shelters continues to mount. The 2011-2012 body count is alarming. There were 9,056 dogs and 12,061 cats killed. You’d think they would want to facilitate as many rescues as possible unless they had absolute proof that animals leaving their facility were going to a worse one. The real question is; is the other facility actually worse for a dog than certain death at the city shelter? If it is, where’s the proof and why aren’t they being cited for violations?
Not only do the county officials have no proof, they don’t efficiently look for evidence. Like Keystone Cops, the city bureaucrats are taking the word of county bureaucrats, who are basing their investigation on hearsay. “The same person who pulled Buck from L.A. County had previously pulled dogs from L.A. City shelters under the Bunny World umbrella, wrote Brenda Barnette (head of L.A. animal services) as an explanation.
Internal emails between Brenda Barnette and Lejla attest to a contentious relationship—an imbalance of power—one side, Lejla’s, seeking clarification and help, the other, Barnette’s, terse and condescending. It’s likely that Brenda Barnette suspended Lejla and Milena based on the admittedly uncompleted County investigation.
Lejla and Milena have now lawyered up and to complicate matters for animal control officials, Lejla is a public figure—with Genesis Award nominated investigations into the illegal sales of rabbits in downtown L.A.—illegal sales happening right in Brenda Barnette’s jurisdiction.
Several network news stories aired on prime time featured Lejla confronting criminals selling sick and dying baby rabbits in downtown L.A.. One theory circulating in the rescue community is that it might be a little embarrassing to city officials that animal dealers are brazenly violating the law, abusing rabbits and other animals in broad daylight within walking distance of Brenda Barnette’s and the City Council’s offices.
So barring a top secret L.A. County undercover SWAT team operation in Puyallup or El Cajon, this investigation looks pretty flimsy. The conspicuous sink hole in the County’s investigation is that no L.A. animal control officials bothered to examine the mountain of veterinary records of dogs rescued by Milena under Bunny World Foundation.
Triana Wedemeyer, of Southern California Veterinary Hospital where Milena brings the dogs she rescues for medical care, claims she pays for all of the treatments that the doctor recommends. “Just in the last two years, she spent over $15,000, and if you go back five years, it’s way more than that,” said Triana. “I think she does wonderful work and adopts animals that people wouldn’t give a second glance to. I’ve never had her decline one estimate here. She’s willing to go above and beyond on animals that are in horrible shape.”
So while the carcasses of animals killed in our shelter system pile up, animal control bureaucrats are spending time and tax payer money in secret operations to investigate small rescue organizations. And for all that time spent, the investigation is inadequate. They seem to be shuffling enormous amounts of electronic data—back and forth between city and county—much of it complaints by crude and uninformed armchair activists sitting comfortably behind computer screens.
As they throw stones at small rescue organizations, animal control officials are operating out of the ultimate glass house.
The growing fury at Audra, Milena and Lejla has no purpose and animal control officials would be smart to ignore it and focus on the issues that matter. This anger ought to be redirected and used as motivation to help animals, not destroy people who love them and try to save them. But who can blame them for being so angry? They can’t rescue enough animals to even make a dent. It’s like all the rescuers are going to the water’s edge with a tea spoon, trying to empty out the ocean. They feel like they are drowning in blood; they are tormented by the desperate cries they hear. They are scrambling day and night, frantically searching for people willing to foster animals for even a day—animals who are scheduled to be killed within hours. They can’t sleep knowing there is a mass extermination happening right now.
But they’re blaming the wrong enemy—the real enemy is pet overpopulation. There are too many unwanted animals.
The real enemies are not the shelter employees. They are not Audra, Milena or Lejla. The real enemies are the callous and thoughtless people who buy animals as if they were a pair of shoes, only to dump them when they tire of them as if they were garbage. The real enemies are pet factories and puppy mills—the countless commercial dealers who abuse and neglect the animals they sell. The real enemies are the tens of thousands of backyard breeders who sell animals in parking lots or on the side of the road. The real enemies are the people who do not sterilize their pets. The real enemy is the lack of strict spay neuter laws across the land and here, the lack of enforcement of L.A.’s spay/neuter ordinance. The real enemy is the inefficiency of the animal control system. The real enemy is the lack of public funds to create subsidized foster programs and free spay/neuter for all pet guardians. The real enemy is poverty, ignorance and apathy.
Until we identify that enemy deserving an attack is our deadly pet overpopulation crisis, we will have a bottomless pit of dead pit bulls like Buck. Our animal control officials need to demonstrate the urgency of the pet overpopulation crisis and the importance of sterilization on the front page of their websites and in every press release. Our animal control officials need to stop sugar-coating what is really going on. Maybe if they filmed all the killing on a live web cam, people would finally spay, neuter and stop buying animals. Maybe people who didn’t know would step up to save their lives.
If only Buck had known how deeply some people cared.
Rest in peace, Buck, old fella, may your story inspire change.
Carole Raphaelle Davis is the author of “The Diary of Jinky, Dog of a Hollywood Wife” published by Andrews McMeel and available on Amazon.com and she is the West Coast Director of The Companion Animal Protection Society, a national non-profit organization dedicated to abolishing puppy mills and pet factory cruelty.
Carole’s website: www.caroleraphaelledavis.com