The 5-year-old dog named Bruce had already suffered by the time he was housed in a Los Angeles city kennel.
In May 2021, a bare-chested and barefoot man arrived at the South L.A. shelter with the brown and white dog by his side. The man demanded that the dog be euthanized. After his request was denied, he pulled out a box cutter and slashed the dog’s neck in front of horrified city employees.
Bruce spent the next seven months at the shelter as investigators sought charges. He trembled in his kennel and looked scared, according to visitors, but remained off-limits to volunteers for regular walks or yard time because of the ongoing criminal case.
Los Angeles Animal Services for years kept dogs who were seized in abuse or neglect cases confined to their kennels, barring them from exercise with volunteers, according to documents and interviews.
Already, understaffing and crowded shelters have led to long wait times for many dogs to get walked. But until recently, the department’s practices around so-called evidence dogs left those animals further neglected by denying them the socialization that could help their rehabilitation, animal activists say.
Even when it was clear that the evidence dogs did not pose a threat or demonstrate a pattern of aggression, the volunteers, whom the department relies on to exercise and adopt out animals, were told not to handle them.
Animal Services changed its practice in June, notifying staff that volunteers could start walking the animals, provided there are no safety concerns.
Annette Ramirez, who has served as Animal Services’ interim manager since February, told The Times that the switch was an “opportunity for improvement.”
The reversal took place after advocates complained to city officials and after The Times sent questions to the department about evidence dogs.
Evidence dogs had been largely off-limits for volunteers to walk because — unlike other animals at the shelter — the dogs aren’t the property of the city, according to Animal Services officials.
“We’ve gone back and forth around evidence dogs for quite some time,” Ramirez said at a Board of Animal Services Commission meeting in late August, explaining the new practice.
Ramirez told The Times that the department has “a responsibility to safeguard and protect these animals that have come to us. And we also have the responsibility to protect the public, the staff and the volunteers within our facilities.”
Some evidence dogs were kept away from volunteers over concerns that an owner could come to the shelter and grab the dog while it was being walked, Ramirez said.
There have been “plenty of break-ins” at shelters in which owners have stolen their dogs back, she said. The shelters also don’t want an evidence dog — which might be awaiting a hearing after attacking someone — getting in a fight with another dog or hurting someone, she said.
At some L.A city shelters, evidence dogs are segregated from the dogs available for adoption or kept behind a locked door.
At the West L.A. shelter, workers call the area where evidence dogs are held the “dungeon” because the room is so dark.
“Evidence dogs have, historically, gotten the short end of the stick,” said one shelter volunteer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
Attorney Marla Tauscher, whose practice includes animal control law, questioned whether the city has violated a California law requiring an adequate exercise area for animals who are confined.
“If you or I did that, we would be in trouble,” Tauscher said of keeping a dog in a kennel for an extended period.
Animal Services spokesperson Agnes Sibal said the city’s kennels provide adequate exercise space for the animals.
Despite Ramirez’s announcement about allowing evidence dogs to be walked, multiple volunteers told The Times that the dogs are not showing up in the department’s new walking system.
Sibal said the dogs do show up and suggested volunteers seek training from the department on the system, she said.
Bruce had a six-inch laceration to his neck in the attack, which was first reported by CityWatch. A veterinarian at the shelter saved him, according to an internal report.
Three months later, an Instagram video showed Bruce and a sign on his kennel saying he couldn’t be walked. “He just sits in this concrete cell,” the post read, describing the dog as “just done.”
The Los Angeles district attorney’s office charged the man who slashed Bruce’s neck with two felony counts, and the dog was adopted out last December.
Animal Services and law enforcement agencies can seek holds on animals, but Animal Services decides whether evidence dogs can get exercised by volunteers.
“We do not determine the manner in which an animal is housed including whether the animal should remain in isolation,” Ricardo Santiago, a spokesperson for the district attorney’s office, said in an email.
Holds are placed on animals for variety of reasons, including dog attacks or owner cruelty. Evidence holds can last days, months or years.
Although the department’s practice officially changed in June, some evidence dogs were walked in the past. Some volunteers told The Times that they took out evidence dogs on occasion and that the rules weren’t clear.
At the same time, Animal Services staff don’t always record when they walk shelter dogs.
Sibal said the department couldn’t detail how many evidence dogs are at the shelters annually because the figures vary. In late June, there were 15 evidence dogs at Animal Services, she said.
Shira Scott Astrof, founder of the Animal Rescue Mission, wants the city to put dogs involved in abuse or neglect cases in foster homes.
“Any dog that goes into isolation in a loud shelter, they have no idea what’s going on,” Astrof said. “[If] they’re coming already from a situation that most likely involved abuse or neglect, their fear is going to get worse, they’re not going to eat, and they’re going to deteriorate.”
Ventura County Animal Services has long treated evidence dogs the same as those in the general population, director Jackie Rose said.
Evidence dogs get walked by volunteers, often during hours when the shelter is closed to the public. Sometimes they are fostered by trained volunteers, Rose said.
“There’s no one cookie-cutter answer to manage dogs,” Rose said. “We look at every animal as an individual and try to look at what’s best for them.”
In Colorado, the Denver Animal Shelter allows dogs held in cruelty or neglect cases to be fostered because it’s a “far less stressful environment than the shelter to recover or rehabilitate,” said Emily Williams, the director of communications and marketing for the city and county of Denver.
The Los Angeles Board of Animal Services Commissioners in 2014 discussed allowing volunteers to handle evidence dogs, and the department drafted new rules.
But the change never happened because of safety concerns for volunteers and staff, former Animal Services general manager Brenda Barnette told The Times last month.
“We never had enough staff and qualified volunteers to exercise the safe available dogs and also the potentially dangerous, so we gave the available dogs priority,” Barnette said.
Even evidence dogs that aren’t labeled aggressive can face long shelter stays. Diva, a 1-year-old, tawny-colored dog, was brought to South L.A. in March 2021 by LAPD officers investigating a dog abuse case.
She left the shelter in May 2022, and workers who saw Diva said they were worried she was deteriorating in the kennel. Her records noted that she was “bouncing off the walls” and spinning “nonstop.”
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At one point, a veterinarian approved her for volunteer-led walks. It’s unclear if she was walked, and there no records of walks in the following months.
Cash was deemed in February not to be dangerous, but a dispute over his ownership kept the case going. He remained off-limits for walks because of concern over his behavior, the department spokesperson said.
Cash’s notes state that he growled and gave a “hard stare” when he first arrived at the shelter.
Sibal, the Animal Services spokesperson, said staff handled Cash on a pole device, which can be used when employees don’t feel safe around a dog.
Courtney Moran, who adopted Cash, said she has not seen any aggression from the dog.
Moran, who lives in Agoura Hills with her partner, Alex Zarris, described Cash as “terrified” when he left the shelter in June. He was startled by noises such as the crinkle of poop bags.
Now he regularly cuddles with the couple, plays with their friend’s Yorkshire terrier and happily chases lizards and rabbits.
“It’s just been such a turnaround,” Moran said.