LOS ANGELES - The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has started rolling out one of its most ambitious projects to date, a $25 million push to save tens of thousands of dogs and cats that would be killed in shelters or on the streets of Los Angeles County.
The most high-profile element of the project is a free spay-and-neuter clinic in South Los Angeles, where a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday kicked off the effort in the poverty-riddled area where strays run in packs. More broadly, the project aims to get all the dogs in the populous region of Southern California spayed or neutered, boost adoptions, help people keep pets if money or behavior becomes a problem, aid animal rescue groups with transportation expenses, and move animals from overcrowded shelters to those where adoptions are more likely.
It's the one of the most expensive projects ever undertaken by the New York-based ASPCA, a 148-year-old nonprofit that's one of the largest humane societies in the world. The $25 million is designed to last about five years, but the campaign will take longer.
"We are going to be in Southern California until the job is done," ASPCA President and CEO Matt Bershadker said.
The group focused on a region where about 173,000 animals a year enter shelters and just over half are adopted. The rest are killed. The target area encompasses all of Los Angeles, Los Angeles County and the cities of Long Beach, Burbank, Pasadena, Upland and parts of Downey.
The most visible part of the program is the spay-and-neuter clinic the ASPCA will run at the Chesterfield Square Animal Care Center in South Los Angeles, an area that stretches over 50 square miles and encompasses about 750,000 people. It is divided into several neighborhoods, including Watts.
Every sterilization surgery, vaccination, microchip implant and flea-control treatment at the clinic will be fully paid if the dog's owner lives in South Los Angeles.
"The ASPCA is schooled at doing high-volume spay and neutering, and it is going to do it in a part of the city with the highest need," said Brenda Barnette, general manager of Los Angeles' animal control department.
The clinic won't officially open to the public for a few more weeks as vets finish sterilizing shelter animals. But when brothers Christian and Ivan Molina showed up Saturday with their pit bull Hercules, workers made an exception.
Hercules was aggressive enough to scare neighbors, wasn't fixed and had a skin condition. The brothers turned him in because they couldn't afford the procedures, Christian Molina said.
The clinic fixed Hercules to help eliminate his aggression and gave the dog a cone to keep him from scratching. The brothers, who were told how to treat his skin condition, said they were glad they still had their dog.
The ASPCA plans to sterilize 4,000 dogs and cats this year and many thousands more each year after that, Bershadker said.
"We went to South Los Angeles because it has one of the lowest income rates in the county," he said.
Neighborhoods are crowded and strays run in packs, often attacking children and their pets and leaving the kids afraid to play outside, said Lori Weise, founder of Downtown Dog Rescue.
"This is about one thing - need," Weise said. "We will work with anybody whose goal is ending suffering and saving lives."
Marcia Mayeda, director of animal care and control for Los Angeles County, said she appreciated the ASPCA's commitment to the area.
"With all the animals that are coming into the Los Angeles area, there is a lot of life that needs to be saved," Mayeda said.
Bershadker said one of the main reasons the society took on the project was the strength of the animal welfare groups already at work in the area. Best Friends Animal Society, a coalition of 60 rescues and other local groups, and the Humane Society run animal-saving efforts in Los Angeles.
The project is on top of other ASPCA efforts in LA. In the last 16 months, the group has awarded $1.1 million in grants to local pet organizations.
The new program took a year to build but can be changed if needed, Bershadker said.
"We are only restricted by our imagination and funding," said Barnette of Los Angeles animal control. "I think it's going to be fun to see where they go in the next few years."