Betty Denny Smith

The Betty Denny Smith I know

Gail Christensen 

An ardent young animal rights activist observing the Los Angeles scene today may take a dim view of animal welfare here. So many homeless dogs and cats and overpopulated shelters. To those innocents I can only say: You should have seen it before Betty Denny Smith stepped up to the plate.

I was a radio newscaster when I read that a woman had been appointed to head the largest animal control agency in the nation, L.A. County Animal Control. I immediately contacted her office to set up an interview for my public affairs program. My hopes soared as I listened to her outline her plans to reform "catch and kill" shelters. First order of business: The department was now called "Animal Care and Control. 

A few weeks after the interview aired, I was surprised when Betty called and asked me to join her staff as Public Information Officer. I jumped at the chance. My major responsibility was to promote pet adoption and owner responsibility. I began producing educational pamphlets and we introduced and promoted pet adoption days, often with celebrity participation. 

At that time, most of the other animal control departments -- from the large L.A. City Animal Regulation Department to smaller municipal shelters-  fit the description of "catch and kill."  So you can imagine how those agency heads responded when Betty began opening spay/neuter clinics at all six  shelters. Their objection, of course, was the additional cost of veterinarians and animal health technicians.  Her counter argument was the cost of allowing the pet population explosion to continue.   

It may be hard to believe, but the other outspoken opponents of the clinics were powerful veterinary associations. They held press conferences to attack Betty for taking risks with the health of animals. What they really objected to, of course, was the low cost, which cut into their profits and could (and did) ultimately force them to lower their own fees

Undeterred, we held our own press conferences, and I booked Betty on local news and talk shows. It needs to be understood that the words spay and neuter were not part of the language back then. Fortunately, these very public battles exposed people to the problem and the words spay and neuter became more and more familiar. 

Betty made many radical changes at the overcrowded shelters. Decompression chambers were out, spay clinics were in. All incoming animals were now inoculated against contagious diseases. One or two officers from every shelter became humane educators, giving presentations at local schools. Supervisors at each shelter were required to build and support an active volunteer program, which quickly began to increase the number of pet adoptions. 

After five years, Betty left the department. She barely took time to catch her breath, and her dedication continues to this day. Right out of the box, she formed a coalition of her former opponents, animal control directors from agencies throughout the county, to promote and subsidize spaying and neutering. I wrote and produced eight PSAs with TV, film, and sports celebrities. Many of them were men. The idea was to combat the typical macho reaction to the thought of neutering male animals. Our campaign theme was Pet Overpopulation: There's Nothing Sexy About It. Local TV channels aired the spots regularly, and in time HSUS took them on and distributed them to shelters all across the country.

Today shelter adoptions are common, celebrities proudly pose with their shelter pets, spaying and neutering is widely practiced, and fewer and fewer pets are having litters. The battle is far from over, but credit for so much of this progress has to go to one woman -- Betty Denny Smith -- whose courage, foresight, and quiet determination set all of this in motion. Everyone who has been blessed by her efforts should send her a thank you note. I've suggested it to my dog.


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