Animal Shelter Touts Progress, Advocates Disagree

Animal Care and Control's executive board, headed by Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley, at right, listened to a presentation on new initiatives in the shelter system. Photo courtesy of the Shelter Reform Action Committee.

New York City not only has the largest population in the country, it also runs the largest public animal shelter system. Animal Care and Control, the nonprofit that runs the city’s three shelters, took in nearly 32,000 lost, stray or abandoned animals last year. About 8,000 of them were euthanized. This was a marked improvement from a decade ago when upwards of 20,000 animals were killed each year.

At a June 28th meeting of Animal Care and Control’s executive board, director Julie Bank touted the lower euthanasia and intake numbers as evidence of progress at the city’s shelters. She also announced several initiatives that the agency is undertaking to improve shelter operations. The improvements will be funded by an almost $4 million dollar increase in city funding.

“We are putting a significant emphasis on expanding our placement programs in the coming year,” Bank told the board, which is chaired by Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley.

Click image to enlarge. Chart shows the decreasing number of cats and dogs euthanized at the city's public shelters. Courtesy of Animal Care and Control.

She described several new initiatives designed to help more animals make it out of the shelter system alive.  The AC&C will hire nine adoption counselors to help increase direct adoptions to the public, which have declined in the past few years. The counselors will also perform follow-up services to reduce the number of animals returned to the shelters after adoption.

Bank also discussed the return of a program to reunite lost pets with their owners. The AC&C stopped performing this service in 2010 due to budget cuts, but the agency tested a new online program this year.  During the pilot, 575 animals were successfully reunited with their owners, according to Bank. The program will go live sometime this month.

Animal Care and Control will also focus efforts on training volunteers to foster animals. Fosters can provide temporary care for animals that are ill or very young and would therefore be at risk for being euthanized if they stayed at the shelter.

In spite of these seemingly positive developments, animal rescuers and shelter volunteers who attended the meeting said that the reality of the city’s shelter system is much darker than Bank implied. They said that animals get sick at the shelters due to negligence and improper care and are euthanized due to health conditions that are easily treatable. They called for the board members, who are appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to take a serious look at conditions and practices  in the city’s shelters.

“Ms. Bank paints a very pretty picture,” Lori Scinto, a shelter volunteer, told the board. “But that’s not what really happens behind closed doors at the AC&C.”

Scinto came to the meeting with her sister, Marilyn Porcaro, to speak about some of the incidents they’ve witnessed in their roles working with New York City’s homeless animal population. They brought pictures of  Hero, a puppy who died at the  shelter in East New York, Brooklyn, due to illness, and of Billy, a dog who was recently euthanized. In both cases, the women said, rescue groups or adopters made attempts to save these dogs, but were turned away.

After two weeks in the shelter, Billy’s initially positive behavioral rating was changed to negative. Scinto said it is common for dogs who spend so much time in cages to grow a bit antsy. However, Billy received good reviews from the volunteers who worked with him. A man interested in adopting Billy came to the shelter twice to see the dog, but was turned away empty-handed.

“He was told the dog was unavailable,” Scinto said. “No one informed him that he could work with a rescue to adopt this dog. It’s shameful.”

Animal Care and Control did not respond to a request for comment on either incident.

Since 2004, the number of animals euthanized at the city’s shelters has steadily decreased thanks in part to a partnership between the AC&C and a network of independent rescue groups known as “New Hope” partners. However, advocates say that examples like Billy and Hero aren’t rare enough. According to them, animals are still killed at an alarming rate, often due to illnesses they contract at the shelter.

Tom Scopac, an accountant and animal rescuer also addressed the board. He used his skills to analyze Animal Care and Control’s data for the month of May.  Based on Animal Care and Control’s own medical reports, of the 360 dogs Scopac analyzed, he found that 220 of them contracted kennel cough while in the shelter. Ninety-four of these dogs were euthanized due to their health conditions.

“This means that for an alert, happy, healthy dog arriving on a Monday,” Scopac said. “There’s a good chance it will be dead by the next Tuesday.”

Scopac exhorted the board to take the health issues at the shelter seriously. He addressed Health Commissioner Farley directly at the end of his comments.

“Dr. Farley, as a person with your professional background including a decade at the CDC, and in your capacity as ACC Chairman and as the Health Commissioner, the animal advocates of this city expect the shelters would not be places of festering disease,” Scopac said.

The board accepted public comments, but did not answer questions or respond to criticism.

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