L.A. Animal Services staffer says he regrets remarks about striking dogs

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Los Angeles, California June 22, 2022- Dogs wait to be adopted in a cage at the Chesterfield Square Animal Services Center in Los Angeles. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)
Dogs at the Chesterfield Square Animal Services Center in Los Angeles. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

A top Los Angeles Animal Services staffer who oversees the city's dog-walking program said this week that he regrets recent comments he made about striking dogs and has never harmed animals.

Juan Rivera, director of volunteer programs, told employees at a recent meeting that he is scared of large dogs, but small ones can be managed because he can strike them, according to a former volunteer who said he was made aware of Rivera’s comments.

When asked this week about the remarks attributed to him, Rivera expressed regret.

“I would never hurt an animal and have never mistreated one in my life. While my comment was only about self-defense, I regret my word choice and understand they gave the wrong impression," Rivera told The Times.

Rivera started working at Animal Services in April, according to a LinkedIn profile that was taken down shortly after The Times asked the mayor's office about the profile and Rivera's lack of experience with animals.

Rivera is a musician and has experience in the arts, education and healthcare, according to the profile.

The department largely relies on volunteers to exercise dogs and carry out a wide array of other work at animal shelters. The Times reported last month that some dogs aren’t walked for weeks or months at a time and that Animal Services is facing a severe staffing shortage.

Media scrutiny of the shelters has exacerbated tensions between Animal Services staff and some volunteers, who can face dismissal if they publicly disparage the department.

Rivera's comments about the dogs were made public by Claudio Kusnier, who volunteered for three years at the West Valley shelter until his termination this week. Kusnier called in to a meeting of the Board of Animal Services Commission one day after his termination and relayed Rivera's remarks.

Kusnier told The Times he was terminated by Rivera for reasons that he disputes and called himself a "whistleblower."

Harrison Wollman, a spokesman for Mayor Eric Garcetti, said the mayor has "zero tolerance for any behavior that is violent toward animals, and his staff is working with Los Angeles Animal Services leadership to ensure the situation is properly addressed."

Wollman said Annette Ramirez, Animal Services' interim general manager, was aware of Rivera's comments before they were made public at this week's board meeting.

"She immediately notified a supervisor for further investigation," Wollman said.

When asked if Rivera faced any discipline for his remarks, Animal Services spokeswoman Agnes Sibal said the department doesn’t comment on personnel investigations. She also declined to comment on Kusnier, calling it a personnel issue.

Councilmember Paul Koretz is scheduled to hold a second hearing on conditions at the city's animal shelters as soon as next week. Ramirez said at the first emergency meeting called by Koretz that the department has sufficient staff to run four shelters but operates six.

The lack of staff and an influx of animals is stressing the department's system of relying on volunteers to walk and exercise dogs, staff and volunteers say.

As head of volunteer programs, Rivera must ensure that volunteers are trained to handle large dogs and to safely get them out of their kennels, Kusnier told the Times.

"How can he perform those duties if he is scared of large dogs?” Kusnier asked.

Susan Berin, who volunteers at the city's West Valley animal shelter, said Friday that “it’s very demoralizing” to see volunteers being suspended or terminated, because it means there are fewer people to walk dogs.

She declined to weigh in on Rivera's comments but said department staff have protections that can keep them from losing their jobs, but volunteers don't have similar safeguards.

“Who is on our side?” Berin asked.

Rivera told The Times that he works at Animal Services "because of my love for animals and my desire to help bring them a better life, and I'll continue to do everything in my power to ensure our volunteers are treating our animals with compassion."

He helped organize a pet adoption at Dodger Stadium and asked for 100 volunteers to come for the daylong event, according to an email sent to the volunteers. Ramirez told this week told Animal Services commissioners that it was the department's most successful mobile event of the kind, with 62 dogs adopted.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.