A shout-out for workers at the short-staffed Long Beach animal shelter

If you’re not exactly electrified by TIME’s choice of Elon Musk as its person of the year, here’s a worthy alternative: the staff at Long Beach’s animal shelter.

Long Beach Animal Care Services (LBACS) is woefully understaffed, and it’s also bursting at the seams with animals. Shelter manager Staycee Dains said that there are more than 15 vacancies that Parks and Recreation is working on filling. That many hires requires much time and likely a 24-roll case of red tape.

We have, thankfully, filled two animal control-officer positions—they’re internal, leaving opportunities for promotion,”  Dains said. “Positions we’re still looking to fill are four in rehoming—we’re interviewing now—and the three full-time animal-care positions that were added.”

Dains said that the shelter is eliminating animal-care part-time positions in favor of having three reliably full-time workers.

“That’ll be a team of five,” she said. “Then, we have clerical positions to fill. We’ve submitted all the things we need to submit for that recruitment to begin. It’s only the last five or so years that the city has prioritized animal care, and there’s always some catch-up between the aspiration and the reality. The city works very hard to do that.”

woman in black jacket with hair pulled back smiles behind a black mask. An orange and a black bag sit on her brown desk, which has other items on it.

Shelter manager Staycee Dains is working on filling vacant positions at the shelter to provide care for the animals that continue entering the shelter.

The waiting period has been a challenge, though. A couple of key employees are out on injury; volunteers, who are in short supply as well, frequently fill in the blanks for the staff as well as social the animals, make sure their housing is clean, and constantly post them for adoption.

How volunteers work the real magic for shelter pets, plus see cats for adoption in Long Beach

It was, in fact, Dee and Gary, a couple of the volunteers, who suggested an article about the shelter staff members. The two of them spoke on the part of all the volunteers when they said that they’re at base members of the same team and that a shout-out to staff would be a much-welcomed morale booster.

Since the pandemic and other job opportunities presented for some of the workers thinned down the ranks, staff members have moved among job assignments like players on a chessboard, going above and beyond in the same way that ants carry more weight than less dedicated or even “normal” humans could handle.

“It’s stressful on everybody, in all areas of the facility and out in the field,” said David Linn, field-operations supervisor for the shelter. “The calls are priorities, and sometimes we can’t get to them as quickly as they’d like.” On the day Linn interviewed for this article, he said that they only had two animal-control officers for Long Beach and the four contract cities: Signal Hill, Seal Beach, Los Alamitos and Cerritos.

At about 15 employees short, the LBACS staff has thus been managing five cities’ worth of stray and deceased animals, phone calls, emails, adoptions, rescues, kennel cleaning, feeding, socializing, cataloging, medicating, performing medical procedures, and anything that’s been overlooked. They definitely deserve at the very least a shout-out.

Team med

Members of the shelter’s medical, field operations, adoption and animal-care teams all expressed their frustration with the staff shortage but also enthusiastically talked about their jobs, their teammates and, of course, the animals.

bearded man with glasses and mustache and a telescope on his shoulder holds a small black dog.

“They’re our priority, day and night,” said Omar, a registered vet technician, shown here with Charlie. Omar chose shelter medicine as a career because he wanted to use the 15 years of skills he’d mastered in animal emergency and surgery “to help animals that don’t have parents to take care of them.” Photo courtesy of Long Beach Animal Care Services.

“That’s the most rewarding part of my job—taking care of these animals that are helpless and homeless,” he said.

Omar said that the medical team has outgrown itself over the years as the services the staff provides increase in number and breadth.

“Burnout and compassion fatigue are constant risks of our job. and they affect each one of us in varying degrees at different times,” said Dr. Natasha Wood, the shelter’s chief veterinarian. “Our staff is passionate about the work we do, but many of us struggle profoundly with the understaffing, the constant overcrowding of animals, and the overwhelming emotional and physical demands of the job.”

“We definitely need a lot more RVTs [vet techs] and doctors and assistants to provide proper coverage to the number of animals we have at this time,” Omar added. “Even five years ago, we didn’t provide all the services we do now. We want to do more saving and more nursing care, and we need more hands, more feet. For every technician, we have about 50 animals, and we provide very detailed services.”

Omar and the rest of the medical team are likewise grateful for the volunteers, who frequently help out by bringing animals they’re familiar with to the clinic, particularly if there aren’t enough staff around to do it.

“We can’t be everywhere at every time, and we get a lot of feedback from them, too,” Omar said.

The most difficult part by far of a medical team member’s job is, as anyone could imagine, is euthanasia. The medical team’s priority is preventing pain, and sometimes, that means peacefully ending a life. Med team members also have to cope with the emotions that accompany putting an animal to death.

“Some animals are suffering, and we want to show them a lot of respect before they go,” Omar said. “We’re a close team. We hold very high morals here, so we wouldn’t do anything that we weren’t comfortable with or we don’t think is right. We take classes here that help us out with our emotions, and we do little outings to decompress—teatime, to Starbucks.”

The team also has to deal with feedback from the public, some of it harsh.

“We try to brush it off, but it hurts, too,” Omar said.

Animal care team—keeping the order

Cleanliness and order in a kennel are necessary to maintain healthy animals, and that’s what the animal care team makes sure happens. The members exemplify tireless teamwork. On any day, anywhere from one to four of them—at least one team member has a day off during any shift—cleans out and completely sanitizes over 250 kennels and enclosures and gets them ready before the official day begins, or as close to it as possible. They also give fresh food and water to the dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, reptiles, and birds—they’ve had chickens, ducks, pigs and, once, a swan—who live in the kennels. Contract workers have been hired to help with the load, and of course, volunteers also help clean kennels, change litter boxes, pick up poop, wash dishes, and snuggle and socialize, the latter quite willingly.

fuzz-face dog in kennel looks outward.

When they’re stretched for space, the team often gets creative. This is sweet Russell, an elderly fellow who wound up in a kennel in the animal care team office. Russell’s available to adopt, by the way—he’s 14 years of adorable, and his ID is A668245.

The animal care team, said lead Heidi Poe, is the main provider for the daily care and enrichment of all the shelter animals. Team members complete intake procedures for “anything that comes in the front door,” be it stray or surrender. Each worker has a background in animal care, loves animals, and chooses shelter work in order to do more for them.

man in uniform and mask brings in large green and plaid doggie beds

Animal care team member Christian High brings in the piles of dog beds that were donated by the public. Teammate Belinda Estrada said, “I wish I could have more animals at home, but I can’t, so these are my animals.” Even if she got even one of her own, shelter animals would still be “hers,” and everyone’s.

Poe was an animal care officer before she became head of the animal care team. Because she’s a senior enforcement officer, she can still be grabbed off the floor in case of necessity. She chose shelter work because of a combined love for animals and law enforcement as well as an inspirational moment from the small screen.

“I’d been watching ‘Animal Cops’ on the Animal Planet network,” Poe said. And I was like, oh, I can do that, I think! I’ve loved animals my whole life, and I like law enforcement, so I thought, hmm, I could do both.”

As thin as the team is spread, the members love what they do. Estrada and High like helping injured animals and reuniting them with their families, and Poe gets up close and personal with the cats.

“I clean cat rooms every day, and some are in isolation,” she said. “Many of them are mangy and filthy and scabby, and I clean them every day. I watch them get better and better, and then maybe a month later, I look and—hey, who’s this? Oh, it’s that cat I helped, but now he’s all clean and all healthy. And then they get adopted or sent to a rescue, and that’s very rewarding!”

Most difficult for Poe is that the animals don’t get the full treatment they deserve because of lack of staff. But it’s volunteers to the literal rescue again.

“We come in and finish before we open—we barely finish,” High said. “The volunteers save us time—they clean out the kennels, they wash bowls, they do the laundry—especially Deré, who comes four or five days a week. He brings us supplies, makes all the cat-litter boxes—about 1,000 a week—and fixes broken things.”

Out in the field, inside the facility

It’s a mutual admiration society between staff members and volunteers. Field operations supervisor David Linn echoed Poe’s praise.

“In the shelter, we have a lot of animals to clean and care for, and that takes all day with the staffing we have now,” Linn said. “Prior to the staffing issue, the staff members were able to spend time with the animals—take them out, interact with them. Thank God we have the volunteers to help.”

Linn supervises the field officers, special investigations and clerks who answer the flood of calls during shelter hours. Under Linn’s supervision, Officer Kevin Law and other officers keep track of what’s going on in every part of the shelter. Law does dispatch, field investigations and special investigations, and he, too, is affected by the staff shortage.

man in officer's uniform and black mask sits in front of several video screens and computer monitors, at a desk

Among animal control officers’ responsibilities is checking the multiple monitors for different areas of the shelter grounds. “[Stress comes from] the obvious reason of us being understaffed—more shifts, more hours,” he said. “Just because the staffing is short doesn’t mean that the call load lessens regardless of how many people are here.”

Law said that it’s always rewarding if officers manage to help animals in distress, return them to their humans, and help the owners find resources and outlets so they can keep their pets instead of turning them in to the shelter. Linn said, however, that because of the number of cities in their service area and the priorities of the calls coupled with the limited number of staff members to answer the calls, responses might seem slow or nonexistent.

Call priorities as described by Linn are as follows: A low-priority call involves a deceased animal not blocking traffic; wildlife watch, for example, a sea lion on the beach that isn’t ill; or an off-leash dog in a park, unless the dog is aggressive. These calls get the first available officer after any higher-priority calls have been addressed. Priority two calls involve an animal in danger, and priority one calls are answered when a human is in danger. Lower-priority calls take longer to service.”

“We’re doing the best we can, given the circumstances we’re in,” Linn said. “I think people tend to believe that, because we’re a quasi-law-enforcing agency, we have the same amount of staffing as the police department or the fire department. We can’t respond as quickly as we want to, and the logistics are challenging.”

Juggling priorities and logistics seems a difficult task.

“It can be,” Linn said. “And we don’t have red lights and sirens!”

The call center: “Constantly running and running and running”

“I feel like our customer service isn’t as good as it can be because we’re really rushing and people are waiting longer on the phone and outside,” Rebecca Johnson said. “By the time they get to us, they’re already unhappy. It’s hard on the staff—it’s hard to keep a smile on your face.”

Rebecca Johnson is the call center supervisor, in charge of the office and desk clerks and overseeing operations and training. Johnson started work at the shelter 25 years ago as a field officer. She moved to special investigations and then adoption management. She moved to her present position after the pandemic put the kibosh on in-person adoptions and events, which she had coordinated.

Photos of her pets past and present plaster the wall behind Johnson’s desk.

“I’ve always had [pets],” she said. “I like working with people and animals—animals especially. I also found it exciting being out in the field and in the truck. The most rewarding thing for me is seeing an animal that comes in, very shut down and not trusting, and seeing what a little bit of companionship and friendship will do, thanks to the volunteers. I like to see them opening up and getting adopted.”

On the other hand, people who relinquish their pets to the shelter sadden the staff.

“I try not to judge, but when an animal’s brought in by a family who can’t keep them anymore, it’s heartbreaking,” she said. “Companionship and love—that’s all they want. The sad thing is when you see it taken away from the animal.”

Handling phone calls in English, Spanish and other languages as well as explaining priorities and procedures present their own challenge.

a woman stands near two other seated women at cluttered desks

Managing countless phone calls is a challenge in itself.

“You’re constantly running and running and running,” Johnson said. “And people get angry, too. We want them to know that part of the reason we’re doing adoptions and things by appointment only is to protect the staff here. If we had more staffing, it would run more smoothly, but if we get sick, there won’t be anyone here to run this place. There won’t be people here to do the administrative work let alone care for those animals in the back. If the medical team gets sick, what happens? People just need to understand that we’ve got to be careful. We want to have people here to adopt, but we want to do it safely and carefully.”

Rehoming team: What it’s (mostly) about

The best part for anyone at the shelter is—aside from pets returning to their homes—seeing a cat, a dog or a rabbit finding their fur-ever home. Kathy Roddy, the remaining member of the rehoming team until the positions fill, came to her position from the volunteer ranks. She’s been there for eight years and loves each successful result of the entire shelter team.

woman in wool cap and medical mask and a T-shirt that says "LBACS Street Team" stands in front of a whiteboard with text on it and a pawprint decal.

“The most rewarding aspects are placing our amazing animals with loving families,” Roddy said. “There are a lot of animals here, but even if we can change just one life, it makes it worthwhile.”

Roddy said that the most difficult aspects of being short-staffed both for her and the employees and volunteers who are pinch-hitting, is the overwhelming task of keeping up with emails and phone calls, making appointments, and taking every precaution to be sure the adoptive homes are good ones.

“It’s tough when you’re here alone, even with help from [clerk] Rene and others,” she said.

That’s what the staff uniformly wants the public to understand: It’s been tough for everyone. They ask for patience while the hiring process continues.

“We want to help you as best as we can,” Poe said. “We’re just trying to balance making sure the animals get fed, that they’re safe and healthy, and also helping the public out front. It’s fun, we love it, but we’re tired, and it’s exhausting.”

The shelter may be short on staff, but there were too many of them to interview here. These individuals also deserve at least a shout-out: Dr. Wood, Dr. Enciso, Dr. Lee, Dr. Brunskill; vet assistants Clara, Daniel, Abigail, Andrea; vet techs Monique Tiffany, Megan; office assistant Christine Amaya; shelter operations supervisor Christine Kucenas (get well soon!); animal control officers Alfred Magana, Lindsey Law, Louise DuBois, Roderick Egans; license inspector Cheri Costigan-Bowler; clerks Rene Royer and Mary Doelger (who retired the day of the interview after many years of holding a receiver against her ear and wincing); and other staff Luis, Ronald, Michael, Erin, Winford, Trent, Martin, Stephanie, Nelson, Brian, Reddy, Vanessa, Ebellin. Richard, Deborah, Danielle and a bunch of contract workers. Best wishes for a better year ahead.

To help Long Beach Animal Care Services succeed in its mission to help every pet in the best possible way, attend the Jan. 5 volunteer Zoom meeting and find out how you can help.

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Kate Karp is the Pets Columnist for the Long Beach Post covering the world of animal activism, pet adoptions and lots of cute cats. She’s called Long Beach home since 1994 and has written for the Post for about 10 years. Kate’s day job is as a copyeditor, which she discovered a love for during her 30-year tenure as a teacher. She describes the job as “like taking the rough edges off a beautiful sculpture.”