Dogs crammed in shelter kennels get a moment in the sun


Shelter dogs out for exercise have to be calm around people and can’t chase ducks or squirrels. They must make a great first impression. Photoc credit: Kerstin Zilm.

After days stuck in narrow concrete kennels, a dozen huskies, shepherds, and pit bull mixes roll around in the grass at Lake Balboa Park. 

Volunteer Kerstin Tula’s companion is a handsome, black, 58-pound mixed-breed with a white spot on his snout. 

“His name is Iceman, he’s been in the shelter since June 2023,” Tula says as she puts an orange bandana with “adopt me” printed on it around the dog’s neck. “I hope someone sees him on the walk, or I’ll make a video to get him adopted because he’s a great dog.”

The City of LA’s six animal shelters house about twice as many dogs as they were built for. 

The city is not planning to build more shelters, and is instead trying to limit the number of stray animals in LA. They offer spay-and-neuter discounts, and in April, the LA City Council put in place a moratorium on new dog breeding licenses

But their primary strategy to clear space in the shelters is to step up public adoptions and foster care. That’s where pack walks come in: Shelter volunteers take a group of dogs to a local park to offer exercise and a little TLC while showing off the dogs’ loveability – which can be hard to discern for potential adopters visiting the prison-like environment of the shelters.

The volunteers take lots of videos for social media and photos to replace the dogs’ mugshots on the shelters’ websites. The pups look so much cuter frolicking in the grass than cowering behind the mesh of their kennel cells.

On a recent East Valley pack walk, Kerstin Tula snuggles Iceman, who rarely leaves his crowded kennel. Photo by Kerstin Zilm.

Sergio DeLeon, volunteer liaison from LA’s East Valley shelter, calls the park outings a networking opportunity. 

“We've had people that have seen us out in the pack walks, and they'll actually follow us back to the shelter to do the adoption,” he says.

The need is urgent.

At a rally at LA City Hall in March, animal activists called shelter conditions “disgusting and embarrassing,” and claimed that dogs are put on a list for euthanasia when they don’t do well in playgroups. The term “no-kill shelter” is misleading, the activists said. 

To be considered no-kill, a shelter has to find homes for at least 90% of their animals. According to the city’s own data, LA shelters had a so-called save rate of 93% for dogs last year. Still, they euthanized almost 1,000 pups. 

Megan Ignacio of LA Animal Services is evasive when confronted with claims that animals are killed for space. “It's a very small population of the animals that you're mentioning,” she says. Ignacio says staff looks at whether dogs are healthy or biting anyone before they are euthanized.

Ignacio admits that some animals lash out because they’re suffering physically and mentally in overcrowded shelters. He adds, “[It] is not humane and acceptable for us to be keeping them in these conditions.”

Out on the pack walk, park visitors fawn over the adoptable dogs as they splash in a creek and stop next door at the restaurant near a golf course. Kerstin Tula films Iceman gobbling down a hotdog and a burger patty. He thanks her with wet kisses. Then they head to the final highlight of the day: a bath at the local pet store.

Volunteers take the dogs for a bath so they are clean and look better when shelter visitors come to look for an animal to adopt. Photo credit: Kerstin Zilm.

The dogs are all clean and tired when they come back to the shelter. Some volunteers return their companions to the kennel with tears in their eyes. 

One gets in line for adoptions. Chris Perez says he fell in love with Princess, a terrier-pit bull mix he walked two months ago. First, he fostered her. “But she's not going anywhere. I'm here today to adopt her and make it official,” he says.  

Iceman’s time in the shelter also quickly came to an end. He was adopted shortly after the walk and will be trained as an emotional support animal for survivors of human trafficking.

Meanwhile, more than 1,400 dogs are still waiting.



Kerstin Zilm