Scarlet, Deakin, Fudge, Nugget and Shyla are in the prime of life and pretty good-looking to boot, but their puppy-making days ended for good Tuesday in the back of a big blue van in Sylmar.
Nine dogs and a cat named Smokey marched up the stairs of the Lucy Pet Foundation's mobile spay and neuter clinic, unaware of what they were in for in the parking lot of Pet Supreme. Lucy, the Chihuahua whose picture is on the side of the bus, stood by for moral support.
And here's the story:
Actor Dick Van Patten, a guest on "The John Davidson Show" in 1981, struck up a conversation with the drummer in the show's band. Like Van Patten, Joey Herrick was an animal lover, and the two men lamented the quality of commercial dog food. Out of that conversation, they later founded the Natural Balance pet food company. When Herrick moved on from the company in 2013, he decided to sink some of the money he'd made into — sorry, but what else can I call it? — his pet cause.
"Eighty thousand dogs and cats are put to sleep each week in the United States," said Herrick.
The numbers used to be much higher, but they're still too high for Herrick. He got a first-hand look at the overpopulation problem several years ago when his family took in a stray they spotted near their home in the Thousand Oaks area.
Lucy, a malnourished Chihuahua with tire marks on her back, turned out to be pregnant. The Herrick family found homes for all five pups in her litter, but lots of dogs and cats aren't nearly as lucky.
"The whole point of spaying and neutering is to slow the influx of animals into shelters," said Herrick, whose foundation had a float in the Rose Parade featuring rescued dogs. The shelters can't find homes for all of them, Herrick said, and they're put to sleep.
In the city of Los Angeles, more than 3,000 dogs were euthanized in city shelters between July 1 and Jan. 31.
"Eighty-one percent of our dogs make it out alive and are either returned to their owners or adopted," said Brenda Barnette, the city's animal services director.
But that still means a lot of unhappy endings, often because owners couldn't afford or didn't want to pay for spaying or neutering, which can cost a few hundred dollars.
For the pit bulls and pit bull mixes that showed up on Tuesday, the procedures were free, thanks to a grant from the Jason Heigl Foundation, which offered the city funds to provide free spaying and neutering of pit bulls in Sylmar and Pacoima, where an overpopulation of the breed is filling shelters.
In Sylmar on Tuesday, six of the dogs getting fixed qualified for the free service. There was also a poodle mix, and there were two Chihuahuas brought in by Kristin Rizzo. She was working on a forthcoming documentary called "Give Me Shelter" when she met and adopted Fudge and Nugget at a Baldwin Hills shelter, saving them from being put down.
"I've had to euthanize a dog after it licked my hand, and I've had to euthanize entire litters. It sticks with you," said Dr. Karen Halligan, who used to work for the SPCA in Los Angeles and later for what she called high-kill shelters. "I didn't last very long because I couldn't take it."
Halligan hooked up with Herrick's nonprofit, and on Tuesday in Sylmar, she donned green scrubs and went to work on her patients in the surgery center at the back of the van. She and Herrick said one of their goals is to educate the public about the many benefits of getting pets fixed.
"A lot of people think, 'Oh, if they neuter my male, it won't be a good guard dog,'" Herrick said. But, he noted, protection dogs can be far more distractible when they aren't neutered. "All you've got to do is walk a [female] dog by, and the pit bull will completely forget about guarding the house."
He said spayed and neutered animals are generally much healthier, with huge reductions in testicular and ovarian cancer.
I'm not a big fan of pit bulls, but Herrick and Halligan said if they're raised properly, they're good pets.
Eddie Trinidad, who bathes dogs at Pet Supreme, said he wanted a Great Dane, but someone needed a home for a 2-year-old pit bull named Zara. Trinidad's father said no way, but they decided to give it a try and Zara won them over.
"She's sweet," said Zara. "The poodle mixes are the worst," he said of his grooming experiences, because owners assume they're docile and don't properly train them.
Trinidad brought Zara to the clinic to see if she'd been spayed. Dr. Halligan took a look, smiled and said, "She's good."
Donya Bell brought in two pit bulls she'd rescued, one that was abandoned and nearly dead in the Mojave Desert and another that she nursed back to health after it appeared to have been dragged behind a car, according to a vet.
The Lucy clinic will be in Sylmar two more days this week and three days next week, with spay/neuter fees of $40 for cats and $50 to $80 for dogs other than pit bulls — an amount that doesn't even cover the cost. Herrick said his goal is to expand the nonprofit and have replica vans in all 50 states.
If you'd like to get your pet fixed, or adopt Smoky the cat, the mixed poodle or Donya Bell's rescued pit bulls, call the Lucy Pet Foundation at (855) 499-5829.