Maria Pacho has seen her share of stray dogs and cats roaming the streets of Boyle Heights. She cringes every time she sees them wandering in search of food, water and shelter.
“It hurts me to see all the strays on the streets. Why are they here? Where do they come from?” asked Pacho.
The life-long resident of the eastside community was raised with pets and says at home, they were treated like members of the family.
“We definitely need more responsible pet owners in Boyle Heights.”
Laura Ramirez agrees. She frequently drives from Orange County to visit her mother at the Wyvernwood Gardens Apartments in Boyle Heights where she grew up.
“I just want to get out of my car to rescue these dogs every time I pass one on the streets,” said Ramirez.
Dogs and cats have formed a bond with their human counterparts for countless years. It is estimated that 62 percent of U.S. households have at least one pet in the family, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).
Studies show between five to seven million companion animals enter one of the approximately 5,000 community animal shelters each year, and of those, only two percent of cats and 15 to 20 percent of dogs are returned to their owners.
But the stray pet issue is not unique to Boyle Heights. Although it’s impossible to determine how many stray dogs and cats live in the country, estimates for cats alone range up to 70 million, according to the ASPCA website.
This is seen as a growing problem by many like Ramirez, who is now engaged in bringing awareness and referral services to the issues residents experience as pet owners.
This year, Ramirez created Barrio Mutts, a Facebook page that helps provide community members with information on where they can find much-needed resources such as low-cost or free vaccinations and spay and neutering locations and events.
She launched the page after noticing the high volume of strays and the limited resources available for pets in Boyle Heights, compared to other L.A. neighborhoods she’s lived in.
“There are no veterinary services or [major] pet supply stores. I want to change that,” said Ramirez.
Her assessment of the situation is supported by Brenda Barnett, general manager for Los Angeles Animal Services.
According to Barnett, the North Central Animal Care and Control Center, which services Boyle Heights, receives the second largest number of calls of any other shelter in the city. And the majority of those calls are to report strays in the neighborhood.
It has been several years since Los Angeles Animal Services has provided dog catching services, Barnett explains, opting instead to use spay and neutering programs and education to control the number of strays in the city.
Currently, L.A. Animals Services will come out to pick up strays that are reported by residents, but like many government agencies operating during a recession, they too have been hit hard by budget cuts.
“Calls are going up while staff has been reduced. How can we do more with less?” asks Barnett. “We’re trying to take a scientific approach to the problem. We meet monthly to discuss strategies and to get a feel for what’s happening out there,” she added.
When an animal is impounded by a shelter, it is typically examined by staff veterinarians, vaccinated and its temperament is assessed. If it is suffering, or poses a threat, it is euthanized. Impounded animals are then held for five days to give pet owners an opportunity to recover their animal, and then are put up for adoption.
In order to bring resources and services to communities who lack them, shelters are now entering into partnerships with private organizations such as PetSmart Charities and the Best Friend Animal Society.
“We’re trying to forge an alliance with other organizations to help control animal overpopulation. We didn’t create the problem, but we are trying to solve it,” said Barnett.
Another organization that has recently brought its services to Boyle Heights is the Humane Society of the United States, through its Pets For Life program. The program has hosted pet training classes at Hollenbeck Park each Saturday since February to help educate local pet owners on how to handle their pets.
“We help train owners how to deal with problem dogs who may feel fearful, or suffer from anxiety, or may be hyper,” said Robert Sotelo, community outreach organizer and dog trainer.
One of the biggest problems Sotello encounters are dogs that are aggressive, or are otherwise unable to interact with other dogs because of other issues they may be experiencing.
“We don’t turn away any dog,” said Sotelo. “If I get a dog that may cause problems, I’ll do private, at-home training visits until it can be re-introduced into the public sessions.”
Pets For Life plans to bring free spay and neutering services to Boyle Heights along with providing water bowls, leashes, collars and pet medicine to residents. Although classes for the month of September are full, new classes will open in October.
Ramirez feels programs like Pets For Life is what the community needs. Through Barrios Mutts, her Facebook page, she’s been able to share details about programs like these with local residents.
Last month, Ramirez hosted ‘Strut Your Mutt,’ a contest that brought out pet owners and their dogs to the Boyle Heights Farmers Market (see photos here).
With only a small following to date, Ramirez has big ambitions for Barrio Mutts and hopes to one day open a rescue shelter in Boyle Heights.
Free vaccine clinic hosted by Pets for Life
Saturday, Sept. 29 at 10 a.m.
415 South Saint Louis St., Los Angeles, CA 90033
*If you would like to volunteer, meet at Hollenbeck Park, Saturday, Sept. 15 at 11:45 a.m.
To learn more about Pets for Life, call (888) 837-3193 or visit their website here.
Like Barrio Mutts on Facebook.
Gus Ugalde is a print journalist and Boyle Heights native. He is a graduate of both Salesian High School and East Los Angeles College. With writing as his passion, he has had over 500 stories published at several publications throughout Southern California.