Interior designer Erika Brunson had a lifelong affection for animals. She was famous for picking up strays and adopting them, as well as rounding up feral cats outside her West Hollywood office, getting them spayed or neutered, and returning them to the streets.
“If I have a problem in my office, I like to find a solution and not a Band-Aid,” she observed in 2013. She took the same approach to spay and neuter, purchasing and equipping a spay and neuter van and taking it to neighborhoods that were underserved by veterinary care.
Erika—whose devotion to animal welfare was supported by her husband of nearly 53 years, Robert Brunson—found a kindred spirit in Dr. Gary K. Michelson, founder and co-chair of Michelson Philanthropies, who launched Michelson Found Animals Foundation (MFA) in 2005. “In 2008, we built out what is now the backbone of all the non-governmental spay and neuter that’s available around Los Angeles,” he recalls.
Transforming the Future of Animal Welfare in Los Angeles
Over the last 15 years, MFA’s Lifesaving Grants program has poured more than $10 million into programs, including Spay Neuter Project of Los Angeles (recently rebranded as CAMP), FixNation, and SPAY4LA, a mobile spay and neuter clinic founded in 2010 in partnership with the Brunsons. The organizations worked closely until Erika and Robert’s deaths in 2022 and 2023, respectively.
Now, MFA is taking the next steps in transforming the future of animal welfare in Los Angeles by rolling out a new Spay & Neuter Initiative that builds upon the legacy of the Brunsons’ work, while also channeling resources into innovative ideas that could revolutionize the animal welfare model.
“We’re going to try to honor the memory of all that Erika and Robert have done, what they believed in, and keep it alive,” says Jana Brennan, Program Manager of the Spay & Neuter Initiative. “This really is an opportunity to change the game—to disrupt how things are done and change the outcomes for these animals.”
“Traditionally, the mission and vision of the Brunson Fund was to get as many mobile units out into the community as possible doing spay and neuter—and we’re absolutely going to continue to do that,” Brennan notes. “But at a base systemic level, spay and neuter alone is not fixing the problem. We also need to look at the core problems at hand.”
In 2022, approximately 33,500 animals were admitted into Los Angeles’ six city shelters—an increase of 5,000 over 2021. “Animals are continuing to live on the streets, shelters are overpopulated, and people aren’t fully getting educated on why to have their pets spayed or neutered,” Brennan says. Going forward, MFA will continue to fund its spay and neuter organizations while investing an equal amount in “really innovative thought leaders in the space that are saying, ‘Here’s how we can fix this problem,’” she adds.
That hybrid approach ensures that the essential work of MFA’s partners in Los Angeles County will continue, including CAMP (Community Animal Medicine Project), the largest nonprofit veterinary organization in Southern California, and FixNation, a nonprofit dedicated to the practice of Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) and colony management for the humane care of homeless cats.
“We directly address the issue of high rates of euthanasia in shelters, and owner surrenders through providing high-volume, high-quality spay and neuter and affordable community medicine,” says Janet Sepulveda, Senior Director of Operations for CAMP. “We really are a safety net for a lot of these pets who’ve never had veterinary care where the only other option for them is being surrendered to a shelter or being euthanized.”
According to CAMP, one-third of pets experience financial barriers to vet care, and 70 percent of those pets that live in poverty will never see a veterinarian. “We have strategically set up our clinics in these areas to directly address this issue,” Sepulveda says. “In our 16 years, we have provided nearly 300,000 spay-neuter surgeries for dogs and cats in Los Angeles. And we do 32,000 exams for community medicine on dogs and cats yearly.”
“On average, we fix about 100 cats a day,” says Karn Myers, Co-Founder and Executive Director of FixNation, which has performed nearly 250,000 spay-neuter surgeries since 2008. “Not only do we fix them, but we also give them all their vaccines, the flea treatment, pain medication, fluids, antibiotics, and an ear tip to show that they have been fixed—and we do this for free. We wouldn’t be able to do what we do at the volume that we do without the support of Gary Michelson and the Brunsons. They’ve been here from day one.”
The Veterinarian Shortage Crisis and Access to Care
A major concern, not just in Los Angeles but nationwide, is the shortage of veterinarians to provide the access to care that’s needed. “Access to care is truly an issue that keeps bubbling up,” Brennan says. “We are at a time of crisis with so few vets for the amount of need that exists.”
MFA is exploring a host of other possibilities to address the shortage, from working with veterinary schools to increase enrollment capacities, to focusing on getting registered veterinary technicians (RVTs) the training they need to perform high-volume spay and neuter surgeries. (One such program is CAMP’s Veterinary Training Project, with the support of MFA and the Brunson Fund.) “It’s going to take some really forward thinking to try to figure out what we can do while getting more animals spayed and neutered quickly,” Brennan says.
In the months ahead, she adds, MFA will be taking a data-driven approach to where the greatest need is in Los Angeles County—the communities that have the most pets per household, the highest social vulnerability index of people of low income with no transportation, and the districts that are underserved by veterinary care.
“We are having a lot of discussions about what our strategic plan looks like—thinking about how we change the conversation, just getting away from some of the traditional grant funding that we’ve done in the past,” Brennan says. On the policy front, she continues, “We’ve been working to ensure that we’re meeting with the right elected officials—getting in front of the mayor as well as the directors of the city and county animal services to make sure that they’re aware of the data.”
Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who represents nearly 2 million residents in L.A. County’s 1st District, has been a huge proponent of MFA’s Better Neighbor Project, which has brought pet food and wellness services to the communities most in need, for more than three years now. Another vocal proponent for animal welfare is Los Angeles City Councilmember Eunisses Hernandez, who recently co-sponsored a motion to place a moratorium on the issuing of breeding licenses to address overpopulation in the city’s six animal shelters.
Erika Brunson once observed, “Whether you are rich or poor, young or old, attractive or ugly—a dog will always love you.” The devotion inspired her to devote her life’s work to “the closest friends we have.” MFA intends to continue executing on the Brunsons’ vision, says Brett Yates, CEO of Michelson Found Animals: “It’s something we’re really proud to be able to do.”
Are there any other Erica Brunsons out there? “Oh goodness, I would hope so,” Brennan says. “I know that there are a lot of beautiful hearts out there who want to make a difference for this. I would hope that everybody puts something behind fixing this problem because that’s the only way to get it done.” For all the differences in the world, she adds, “Animals are a unifying thing.”
The MFA team with founder Dr. Gary K. Michelson at a BNP event in South Gate, CA. At this event, the Spay & Neuter Initiative coordinated services with our partners for pets to receive surgery for free, thanks to the Robert & Erika Brunson Fund. From the efforts of this event alone a total of 109 dogs and cats received free spay and neuter services.
To learn more about MFA’s spay and neuter efforts, visit: foundanimals.org/robert-erika-brunson-fund/