“I always wanted to be in a leadership role in a large animal-welfare organization,” said Melanie Wagner, Long Beach Animal Care Services’ recently appointed acting bureau manager.

A month after being hired in May as LBACS’ shelter supervisor, Wagner’s boss, bureau manager Staycee Dains, left to take on the challenge of sorting out the troubled Los Angeles shelter system. Wagner stepped in as interim director and dug in before Day One.

Animals have always had intrinsic value in Wagner’s life. She grew up in Niagara Falls, New York, where her elementary school teacher mother and chemist dad had a wildlife rehab center for wolves and mountain lions, and Wagner often came along. Both parents were actively involved in the National Audubon Society. Wagner herself holds a doctorate in leadership and change—her dissertation addressed using dogs to develop empathy in disaffected youth and prevent violence.

And she was named after Melanie Safka, who had the 1970s hit “Brand New Key,” arguably about roller skates, and also recorded a song called, “I Don’t Eat Animals.”

Wagner said that she got her first epiphany of the human/animal bond when she was a young volunteer in a nursing home. Her friendly black cat, Rajah, would tag along.

“Rajah loved everyone,” Wagner said. “There was a grumpy old man there—Rajah jumped in his lap, and the guy just lit up and started telling stories about life on the farm. I was trying to get through to this guy for six months! It sparked my passion.”

Now, she’s a certified dog trainer who has also served as education director at spcaLA and as the executive director of Kitty Bungalow, a rehab for street cats.

Wagner and I discussed how she’s fusing passion with purpose as the interim shelter director.

If your wish comes true and you become our shelter’s official leader, what do you hope to change or develop?

One of our current challenges is spay and neuter. I want to make it clear that our Home First adoption program, where animals are adopted out before they’ve been spayed or neutered, was absolutely critical during COVID. The majority of shelters went in that direction, even if they didn’t want to, to get animals out of kennels. We are now out of COVID crisis mode, so now, the goal is to sundown the Home First program and build up our access to spay/neuter. That’s going to take a long minute. We’re working on responsible solutions so that we can get back to only adopting spayed and neutered pets. We’re building up relationships with spay/neuter organizations and outside clinics, but we need transport. Before you all yell, “We’ll drive!” we need to set up a program for that. I ask the community for patience and support.

What’s working well at LBACS?

We have a fabulous, outstanding volunteer base; a foster base; rescues and veterinary hospitals that work with us on a regular basis; and our staff, all trying to save lives. What makes Long Beach really special is that we have shifted to a Compassion Saves model, which has its own set of challenges, but the ultimate goal is to save as many lives as possible. We can assume that 90% [of animals we take in] are adoptable, and no pet is euthanized with a treatable illness.

Blond woman in pink shirt and gray pants sits on bench next to white pit bull with brown ears and patch on back, who sits on grass.
“We have a fabulous, outstanding volunteer base.” Volunteer Kathy with Dottie. Photo by Dee Glick

What about the red-listed animals [pets that have a limited time at the shelter before they’re euthanized]?

Usually, they’re on the red list for a bite history, or the kennel deterioration is so bad—to the point of losing their minds—that it’s unfair to house them long-term. They may be great dogs out of the kennel, but it isn’t sustainable or compassionate to house them in a municipal shelter. We put those animals on the list so that people will be aware of them and respond to the need for rescue.

LBACS has increased its staff to include adoption, foster and outreach coordinators and a dog behaviorist, but there still are more animals than can be comfortably housed. Why is this?

At the moment, we’re in a national crisis of higher intake and lower adoption. We’re seeing unprecedented trends this way. Even with our increase in staffing, it’s still not enough because of these trends.

The city’s mandatory spay/neuter and “backyard breeding” laws seem to lack enforcement. Do you plan to put this on the agenda?

Backyard breeding is a large contributor to shelter overpopulation, and we need to find more efficient ways to prevent that from happening. I’m working with [LBACS Animal Control field operator] Dave Linn for some ideas.

What are the most emotion-wrenching aspects of shelter management?

The hardest part is watching how our staff and volunteers give so much of themselves day after day and then don’t always see happy endings. It gets very discouraging when you’re spending so much time and love on cats and dogs and you just want to see them go home. But the happiest part is watching the staff and volunteers see an animal go home and lead a life. People matter in this field, and investing in animals means investing in people, too.

How do you shake the angst from your fur after a long day of challenges?

That’s a really important question—it plagues the entire animal field. It’s really hard to shake off your work, but it’s essential that we do it. For me, that looks like activities—kayaking and paddleboarding with my partner and my dogs, rock climbing, and going out with friends—eating, drinking, and being an extrovert. I also am a bit of a nerd, so I like playing with my cats, reading comic books, and playing Pokémon.

Any closing words?

I believe that Long Beach is a really special place. We have a city that cares about its animals a lot and a community of people who genuinely care about that human/animal bond. That support is what makes our shelter so special.

You can meet Wagner at Friends of Long Beach Animals’ Hot Paw’gust Night event on Friday, Aug. 18, at the EXPO Arts Center in Bixby Knolls. Details are available here.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include that Wagner holds a doctorate in leadership and change.