Changing pet owner attitudes means fewer stray animals on the streets of Boyle Heights

Pets For Life volunteer Dalia Nava with Symba (wearing a red leash) and Hope. | Frank Mendez

By Ana Facio-Krajcer[

When Dalia Nava was offered the opportunity to have her dog, Symba, neutered for free through a program in Boyle Heights, the 19-year-old college student hesitated. She was reluctant because she had heard pets would gain weight and become permanently depressed after the surgery.

But the staff at Pets for Life, operated by the Humane Society of the United States, debunked those myths. They explained to Nava the benefits of neutering and spaying cats and dogs, and the importance of solving animal overpopulation in Boyle Heights and East L.A. and other poor communities. In fact, Pets for Life, which operates out of a bright lime green building at the corner of 1st. Street and Evergreen Avenue, has been responsible for spaying and neutering more than 3,300 pets in the area during the past two years, helping reduce the number of strays and changing attitudes about animals, according to those who work in the organization.

Nava not only had her male dog neutered but she became a volunteer and advocate for the program. “Fixing a dog is not depriving them of anything,” said Nava, an aspiring veterinarian. “If we don’t fix them, you’re going to end up with more stray dogs on the streets.”

Strays on the streets of Boyle Heights and East L.A. have significantly decreased, according to Pets for Life and residents, since the PFL staff began its outreach work two years ago this January, walking the streets and going door-to-door offering information about the free services.

“Because we don’t force people, because we don’t judge people and because we let them come to the conclusion on their own time, on their own terms, they end up becoming huge advocates and that is why our numbers are so great,” said Pets for Life manager, Alana Yañez, whose program offers free vaccines, dog training, information as well free pet neutering and spaying for residents in the 90023 and 90033 Zip Codes.

The large number of pets from the two area codes that have been surgically sterilized through the PFL program has resulted in a decrease of animals ending up at the city’s shelters and consequently on the streets.  The number of strays taken into city animal shelters from the 90023 and 90033 Zip Codes fell to 1,277 last year from 1,743 in 2011 – a drop of more than 26%, according to records from the city’s L.A Animal Services department. The PFL program began operations in Boyle Heights in 2012.

“Certainly this reduction in intake is great news,” said Brenda F. Barnette, general manager for L.A. Animal Services,  through e-mail. ” In the communities where there are accessible spay/neuter services, support for pet owners and community education, we can predict and see this trend.”

The nation-wide program was brought to Boyle Heights and East L. A. because of the lack of existing pet care services for low-income residents and large number of stray animals. The poorest neighborhoods have the highest number of stray animals because many of the residents cannot afford to spay or neuter their pets, and the litters these pets produce end up on the streets, Yañez said. While 80% of pets nationwide are spayed or neutered, only about 20% of the animals are fixed in poor communities, according to statistics from the Humane Society of the United States.

“It’s only economics,” Yañez said. “It’s not because they don’t care about their pets. It’s because they just can’t afford it.”

Dalia Nava’s mother, Catalina Jacobo, 40, said compared to her native Jalisco, Mexico, it is more expensive to care for pet in the U.S. Her family’s five dogs in Jalisco were not fed store-bought dog food but table scraps and had more land and space to roam.

“Here it’s more expensive to keep a dog,” Jacobo said. “Here people live day to day, spending what little money you have only on what is necessary. Anything for the dog is left for later.”

In addition to low incomes, pet owners in Boyle Heights and East L.A. don’t have much access to veterinary clinics and services. Boyle Heights pet owners must travel to Lincoln Heights or the City of Commerce for the nearest vet.

“The whole point of the program is to make sure we ease suffering in the streets and keep animals from being relinquished to the shelters. That is our main focus,” Yañez said. “Whatever barriers our client is facing, we make sure the animal gets fixed and gets the services it needs to stay in the home.”

Yañez and her small staff work on this objective by offering Spanish translation and transportation for pet owners who have agreed to have their pet neutered or spayed. Many of the pet owners that Yañez and her staff deal with in Boyle Heights and East L.A. don’t have cars, and for most, a visit to the veterinarian is their first.

Sonia Perez, a PFL community organizer does a lot of hand holding and comforting in Spanish when she transports residents to the veterinarian to have their pet spayed or neutered. “We want the pet owner to have a positive experience at the veterinarian,” Perez said.

Rosy Martinez said getting her one and a half year old Chihuahua mix dog, Tyson, neutered through the program was a good experience. Martinez of Boyle Heights said she appreciated Perez driving her and her dog to the clinic. Martinez said she had put off getting Tyson neutered because of the cost.

“We thought about the surgery but it would have cost us, so we decided to save money to have the surgery sometime in the future,” Martinez said.” We even thought about letting him have puppies but then we heard about the free services and decided to neuter him instead.”

Martinez, Jacobo and Nava, all Boyle Heights residents, said they have noticed less dogs on the streets over the last year. Many of the stray dogs they had seen would sometimes end up dead on the streets after being struck by motorists.

“You don’t see that as much as before,” Jacobo said. “I think it’s because people are taking care of their dogs with their (PFL) help. The organization has helped the community a lot. With the free services, you don’t have to have a lot of money to take care of your dog.”

Perez, the PFL community organizer and eternal animal lover, has seen a change when she walks the streets distributing information about the free services the program offers to pet owners. A stray she found while walking the pavement in East L.A. became her dog Chino, a beige mixed mutt.

“For me, what I want the most is the well being of dogs and cats,” Perez said. “One of the most important things for me is that I want people to understand that dogs have feelings just like us. They feel just like we feel. All you have to do is look into their eyes.”

Ana Facio-Krajcer has covered nearly every beat – including crime, city hall, ethnic communities, and education – as a reporter at several California newspapers and has contributed reporting on major national stories as a freelance reporter for the New York Times.

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