Has LA Animal Shelters’ Vegan Dog Food Debate Been Muzzled?

ANIMAL WATCH-On November 27, 2017, Commissioner Roger Wolfson (photo above, right), one of Mayor Eric Garcetti's appointees to the Los Angeles Animal Services' Commission, introduced his initiative to switch the entire city shelter population of lost, homeless, abandoned and stray dogs to a totally meatless diet.

This gained nationwide media attention and comments on both sides of a passionate public argument between those who believe a change to vegan dog-food can "save the planet" and those who maintain that dogs are anatomical carnivores and cannot live on plants alone. Now there is silence. Is it an impasse? Legal concerns? Can a new voice help? 

The vegan dog-food proposal was opposed by both General Manager Brenda Barnetteand LAAS Chief Veterinarian Jeremy Prupas in a written report and testimony at the meeting. In addition to discussing his personal and professional experiences in managing one of the nation's largest municipal, open-entry animal shelters, Dr. Prupas cited opinions and research of other experts in the fields of shelter medicine and nutrition, emphasizing, "None of these veterinary specialists thought it would be a good idea to feed shelter dogs a vegan diet." 

Commissioner Wolfson, sounding more like a candidate in a political debate than a city official trying to determine the animals' best interests, insulted and ridiculed Dr. Prupas, and demeaned his professional sources and conclusions. 

A lively “verbal-wrestling match” ensued with President Larry Gross, which resulted in Wolfson being allowed to preside over the discussion and introduce approximately 50 speakers, including a representative of the Mayor's Office, several veterinarians and activist Moby in support of the vegan dog-food proposal. 

Wolfson then argued with the Deputy City Attorney who said no vote could be taken on the report at that meeting because it was not “agendized” as an "action" item. His insistence on knowing how his fellow Commissioners intended to vote resulted in Commissioners Layne Dicker and Olivia Garcia announcing they would vote "yes," in defiance to the attorney's admonition that the outcome of the vote should not be disclosed in advance. 

VEGAN DOG-FOOD DEBATE CONTINUED 

At the continued hearing on December 12, Wolfson demanded to read an 18-minute speech from his computer, leaving only one minute per speaker for comment from the public -- the supposed reason for the evening meeting. He announced that he had prepared his speech before he knew there was a time limit but was going to read it anyway, despite President Gross' objections. At that time, after a tumultuous discussion by the Commission, a motion was approved for further research to be gathered for a study and the final discussion by the Commission at a future date. 

DEBATE HITS A LEGAL SNAG 

The Southern California Veterinary Association submitted a letter of concern early in the debate; and, on December 22, the California Veterinary Medical Association's attorney, Daniel L. Baxter, of Wilke, Fleury, Hoffelt, Gould & Birney, LLP, wrote to City Attorney Mike Feuer on this issue, stating, "As discussed below, the CVMA believes that the Vegan-Only Proposal is not only clinically contraindicated, but -- if adopted -- would constitute a clear violation of California law.” The letter provided detailed and well-documented opposition and concluded, "While the sentiments of the Vegan-Only Proposal are laudable ... the CVMA strongly discourages adoption of the Vegan-Only Proposal and will--if necessary--mount a legal challenge to the Proposal." (Emph. added.)  

PUBLIC RECORDS ACT REQUESTS UNCOVER OTHER ISSUES 

A California Public Records request on January 1, 2018, for emails and other communications on the vegan dog-food issue between the Commissioners beginning September 1, 2017, revealed that Roger Wolfson was in communication with various members of the Board in regard to orchestrating the speakers, his presentation and his anticipated success in changing the diet of the dogs by Commission vote. He also discussed the fact that he was receiving bids from various vegan dog-food companies. 

The Brown Act advises under "serial communications" that a Commissioner cannot discuss an issue prior to the meeting with other members in order to maintain transparency and avoid the appearance or possibility of influencing a decision.  The Assistant City Attorney publicly admonished the LAAS Commissioners earlier against communicating with more than one other Commissioner on the Board on a particular item. 

OFFICIAL COMMISSION E-MAILS RE VEGAN DOG FOOD ERASED OR HIDDEN? 

On April 25, 2018,  a concerning phone call from a member of the public alleging a questionable development in communication between certain Commissioners after March I, prompted another Public Records request to obtain recent e-mails and records, including any social media posts or emails to/from Commissioner Wolfson on his commissionerwolfson@gmail.com or any other email account used for Commission business, regarding the vegan dog-food issue.  

On May 4, the LAAS Custodian of Records provided Commissioner Wolfson’s answer:  

"I no longer keep any emails whatsoever from this account.  Everything from commissionerwolfson@gmail.com is automatically and immediately erased by my system.  I have none.

When reminded that the request included any account used to conduct any official correspondence during that period. On May 7, Commissioner Wolfson quickly responded: 

"Same answer as before.  I keep no emails at all.  It’s a philosophical choice about how I choose to live my life.

Commissioner Wolfson, who claims to be an attorney, is now a government official and decision-maker on policy for the City of Los Angeles. Does he expect the public to believe that he has installed a program to instantly and automatically delete all his e-mail communications? And why would one need to have such a program when it is much easier to simply close the account? 

If this is true, Wolfson appears to have admitted to criminal misconduct in either the deliberate destruction of City/LAAS records in direct violation of the applicable government records-retention requirements; or deliberately and knowingly denied the possession of public records that are responsive to requests for them; or both. 

CITY OFFICIALS' OBLIGATION TO RETAIN AND PROVIDE INFORMATION 

Members of the Board of Los Angeles Animal Services’ Commissioners are not only City officials but also identified in the City Charter as the “Head of the Department.” LA Administrative Code, Chapter 1, Sections 12.1 – 12.3 define “records” (including any type of communication), outline responsibilities, and describe retention requirements. 

OFFICERS AND DEPARTMENT HEADS. Each officer and the head of each City department shall:  

(1) Be responsible for implementing and maintaining within the particular department involved an efficient and cost effective (sic) records management program and shall preserve and protect records and information collected and retained in the regular course of City business

Records for which a retention period is not otherwise specified..."shall be retained for a minimum of two years." 

Similarly, Government Code Sections 34090 and 34090.5 set forth a minimum two-year retention schedule. Both appear to be violated by the immediate destruction of records, including e-mail communications related to the conduct of the City’s/department’s business. 

Given not only the refusal to produce e-mail that is alleged to have been deliberately, repeatedly, and routinely deleted, but also the failure to address the request for other communications (social-media records, etc.), it appears to the lay person that Mr. Wolfson has violated both the records retention laws and his obligation to produce responsive documents in accordance with the CA Public Records Act.   

 A NEW VOICE WITH HANDS-ON EXPERTISE 

Although Dr. Dena Mangiamele, DVM, MPVM, MFS, and former Chief Veterinarian for LA Animal Services, has commented only privately on the topic of a vegan diet for dogs, she was urged to participate early in the discussion, and she wrote to Dr. Prupas, supporting his position. 

Dr. Mangiamele has a long list of very impressive academic and professional credentials which can be seen on her website, www.doctordena.com.  

She is also a vegan triathlete and has just released a book on plant-based nutrition/lifestyle, "Dena's Fuel For Fitness, Moving from Animal-based Grub to Plant-based Fuel," as a nutritional guide and to share many of her personal (yummy) recipes and favorite recipes from other vegan authors/chefs. She says her motivation is not only to help those new to, or considering a transition to, a vegan lifestyle, but also to help readers discover other resources and continue to expand their recipe libraries. She said her goal is to create a great resource for health and longevity! 

Dr. Dena was the Chief Veterinarian for Los Angeles city animal shelters for four years prior to Dr. Jeremy Prupas. She also has experience in the administration and management of public animal shelters and has performed studies for large shelters on how to improve the welfare of impounded animals and staff.  (She describes her true-life experiences about the challenges of animal sheltering, in her memoir, “Stray – A Shelter Veterinarian’s Reflection on Triumph and Tragedy.") 

She believes there are many reasons why the training of a veterinarian, and actual experience in a public shelter, are essential in making decisions on diet and health for animals in this very stressful environment, with unknown health conditions of impounded animals and constant exposure to contagious diseases. 

"What pet owners feed their pets is a personal decision in conjunction with consultation with their veterinarian," she says, "but it is important to understand all aspects of the effect of food on animals, before making decisions on what best suits the needs of a shelter."  

She also shared many of the basic concerns of others about changing dogs in shelters to a vegan diet; such as:   

--Many vegan diets promote weight loss for dogs on the diet (most stray dogs impounded into shelters are low in weight and actually need to gain weight.) 

--Not all commercial vegan diets are approved by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) to ensure the product is nutritionally balanced, and not all vegan commercial diets provide products that are approved for different growth/life stages (puppy, nursing bitches, adolescent large breed dogs, etc.) 

--Once animals are adopted, pet owners may not be able to afford the high cost of these specialty diets and an abrupt dietary change for the new pet may result in G.I. upset, causing increased challenges with house-breaking, and frustrating new pet owners – which are some of the top reasons animals get returned to shelters. 

--Eating more whole foods causes an increase in fecal output - has anyone considered the extra kennel clean up and/or staffing to keep up with this? 

From a different perspective, Dr. Dena added, "However, I would like to see efforts in transitioning the shelter staff to a plant-based diet. Healthier staff means less sick days, fewer injuries, and more energy to complete their important and physically and emotionally demanding job of caring for animals in the shelter. And, they can teach their children about the benefits of the plant-based lifestyle which means they are lowering animal consumption for generations to come." 

ROGER WOLFSON'S SUDDEN SILENCE 

Roger Wolfson has recently been absent from more Commission meetings than he has attended and when present, he is frequently late. Activists have appeared in groups to speak during general public comment, several demanding that the date of the final vote be announced, or a vote be taken immediately. Wolfson did not appear surprised at their presence but has not been so empowered that he makes any demands. He has asked meekly at several recent Commission meetings when the vegan dog-food research study will be completed and the item rescheduled. Assistant City Attorney Dov Lesel responded on each occasion that his office is still in the review process. 

It is time to move on and accept that impounded animals will not be transformed by merely a change in diet. Most of them have already suffered the trauma of abuse, neglect, abandonment or serious illness and/or injury. The shelter veterinary experts need to make decisions for which they are hired and paid to restore the well-being of these animals as much, and as quickly, as possible. And the public needs to be assured that there are resources for the best way possible to find new lifetime homes, not just shuffle them into temporary situations from which they often are recycled to the shelters. 

And, hopefully the legal experts in the City Attorney’s office can take an active interest in shedding light on the void of information, make the decision on whether public opinion or veterinary expertise will decide the vegan dog-food issue, and guarantee that public records are retained and made public, so we can ensure that the LAAS department head (the Animal Services' Commission) is acting in the best interest of our animals -- vegan or not.

 

(Phyllis M. Daugherty is a former City of LA employee and a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.