NYCLASS, Bill de Blasio, and the Shit Sandwich

I’m stepping a little out of my typical rant zone here to comment on another animal welfare fight in New York City over carriage horses.

First, a little background: NYCLASS was founded on the single issue of banning horse carriages in New York City in 2008 by Steve Nislick and Wendy Neu. Nislick happens to be a powerful real estate magnate, and it was always speculated – and denied by NYCLASS – that his interest in the issue was motivated as much by a hunger for the West Side property that horse stables now sit on as much as his love for equestria.

In our last mayoral race, NYCLASS became a power player in a big way. The group and associated individuals reportedly spent more than a million dollars to help knock former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn out of the mayoral race in favor of their preferred candidate, Bill de Blasio. They helped make animal welfare a major issue in New York City’s last mayoral race, and secured the promise from their chosen candidate that the horse carriage industry would be banned on the very first day of his administration (which the mayor cannot actually do, but never mind that). NYCLASS was on top of the world – in just a few short years they had become one of the most powerful special interest lobbying groups in New York City.

Their man was elected. de Blasio took office, and that began a series of strange and tragic missteps for the group. In a stunning display of political naivete, they celebrated and crowed about their download (5)victory when they should have been holding the new mayor’s feet to the fire. They got caught and fined for committing “campaign finance violations”, or what you and I might call bribes, or favors. They formed an ill-advised alliance with national animal welfare joke PETA and adopted some of their hard-line protest tactics against undecided members of the city council, which turned off both council members and the public. They repeated some embarrassingly bad information that wasn’t true. They were badly bruised by a New York Daily News campaign in favor of the horse trade. And they were never able to secure the needed support in the city council for a ban bill – support that was needed all along – to push a ban through.

de Blasio probably would have been wise to simply drop the issue. But he has to repay his patrons, so a new carriage horse compromise bill is currently expected to be voted on this Friday. This bill is seemingly designed to piss nearly every stakeholder involved off, and add a few new groups as well.

You may read the exact text of NYC Intro 573B here, and I suggest that you do… but here’s a quick summary.

-Limits the operation of horse-drawn carriages, with the exception of travel to and from their existing stables, to Central Park beginning June 1, 2016.
-Reduces the number of licensed horses from approximately 180 to 110 by December 1, 2016. When the Central Park stable opens, the number of licensed horses will drop to 95, with 75 horses in a long term home in Central Park stables. Horses not at work must be on furlough outside the City.
-Requires the establishment of a stable within Central Park by October 1, 2018.
-Once the stable is complete, all travel and operations will be inside Central Park, providing space for 68 carriages and 75 horses.
-Reduces the number of hours per day a carriage may operate to 9 hours in any 24-hour period beginning December 1, 2016. Increases the time window for shifts to include operation during Central Park hours.
-Pedicabs will not be permitted to operate in Central Park south of the 85th Street Transverse, beginning on June 1, 2016

The bill effectively restricts the operation of horse-drawn carriages to within Central Park, getting them out of traffic. It provides for a modest improvement in the horses’ living and working conditions and a reduction in the total number of working licenses issued by the city. But it does so at a very steep cost: taxpayers must renovate a new stable within Central Park at a current estimated cost of $25 million (a number which is likely to go up). That stable, within a public park, will be for the exclusive use of a private industry. The city will further protect the economic interests of the carriage industry by banning pedicabs from part of the park where they would compete with horse carriages. Effectively this bill trades modest improvements for the city’s official seal of approval and economic sanction of the trade as the industry’s landlord and protector.

Some people have painted this deal as a victory for incrementalism. It is not. Once the city has an economic interest in promoting the trade it will be that much harder to eliminate it.

I am not by any means a hard liner on the horse carriage issue. I probably could have lived with some deal that got the horses out of traffic (where just about any sensible person will tell you they don’t belong) and kept them within Central Park as an incremental step. But I’ll be damned if my tax money will be used for a giveaway for this industry and to secure their future and security by virtue of the protection of the city.

It’s a rotten deal for animal welfare, a rotten deal for taxpayers, and a rotten deal for the poor pedicab drivers who had no dog in this fight at all and were suddenly tossed in without any warning – although I can’t stand them in traffic either, they’re at least operating a business that doesn’t involve any animal exploitation.

And NYCLASS? In their hunger for a deal and a victory they may set back their original cause to ban horse carriages by a decade or more. They’re up to their old dishonest tricks, misleading their supporters into thinking the legislation is all pros and no cons, pivoting their messaging instantly from nothing but a total ban will do to getting them out of the streets is good enough, hustling for something before their power and influence is completely dead.

Oh, and if the bill that NYCLASS supports passes, the horses will be moved out of that valuable West Side real estate they currently occupy.

But as always, NYCLASS maintains that is just coincidence.

The bill will be discussed by the City Council this Friday, Feb 5, at 10AM. Please call your New York City Council Member and ask them to oppose Intro 573B.

UPDATE 2/4/16: The bill is dead. It is likely to be quite some time before we see another attempt at legislation. Perhaps NYCLASS can use that time to reflect on whose interests they wish to represent.

Posted in New York City | Leave a comment

NYCACC’s Annual Board Meeting: Mixed Nuts

12400571_1250824591600680_3803242392476447266_n (1)The Annual Meeting of New York City’s Animal Care Centers (NYCACC or ACC) took place on Friday, January 22. Typically, the modestly sized room was only around 60% full, as many keyboard activists had share buttons to push. We don’t know, at the moment, if there will be more than one a year – Chairman Patrick Nolan reminded us that this January yearly meeting is required. Meetings have typically been quarterly, but the last one was this past summer. How frequently will we have board meetings from here on in? We don’t know.

Chairman Nolan started off what should have been a rather celebratory meeting with a verbal attack on some of the attendees in his opening remarks, a curious choice. He was then immediately re-elected as chair.

Sometimes these meetings can be routine: this one was anything but. This one was chock full of actual, hard news and mostly good news! So let’s get to it, a summary of the high points. You may view all of the slides from Executive Director Risa Weinstock’s presentation here and I recommend that you do, I’m simply not going to be able to cover everything! You might also want to check in on the notes I took during the presentation.

thumbs_up2015 was a historic year for ACC’s live release rates and gave us some excellent statistics news. The live release rate for dogs was at 89.9&, the live release rate for cats was at 84.4%. These are record high numbers for ACC. New programs are beginning to show hard dividends: the relatively new adoptions department is increasing adoptions to the public and decreasing intake through surrender prevention, over 1000 surrender preventions are claimed. Surrender prevention is very, very important – some people really don’t want to give up their animals and helping them keep them is much better than admitting them to a shelter. ACC had a record low 4,045 euthanasias (not including owner requests) out of a relatively flat intake of 30,521 cats and dogs. This is an extremely significant decrease of 27% over last year’s euthanasias of 5540 on intake of 30,277 cats and dogs.

There is no way to categorize that other than pretty damn spectacular. It is significant progress, it is historic progress, and this management team is making more progress at a faster rate than any in ACC history. And yes, I know it’s not perfect, and we’ll get to some of that in a minute, but here’s a fact: it is safer now to be an animal in a New York City shelter than at any time in their history.

Some note was given to shelter illness, and it’s nice to see ACC continue to acknowledge there is a problem and there are things do be done about it. They say they are focusing on their cleaning protocols, vaccination on intake, reduced stress, and increased staff to animal ratio. They’re well aware of the issues, and the fact is that they will continue to struggle with shelter-borne illnesses while crammed into too-small spaces with poor workflow options. But what they’re doing isn’t enough.

It’s only relatively recently that ACC has acknowledged that they have a disease problem, and that’s good to see. They continue to claim that disease isn’t unusual in large shelters, which is true enough: what’s unique to ACC’s situation is that some of the pathogens they have running around seem to be fairly novel from what little hard data we have. Some of the treatment-resistant pneumonia, especially, has been very bad and very difficult to cure. This summer, when disease hit its peak, the ASPCA announced a $500,000 dollar fund available to rescues pulling sick animals from ACC, a fund which quickly ran dry. We can’t count on that happening again.

ACC should be the number one information source for the illness resident in their facilities and they should be as open with that data as possible. We need to know exactly what the pathogens are and what the best treatments are, and that information needs to be shared. ACC does not seem to be doing even the most basic data acquisition on this – in the comments period ED Weinstock said that New Hope partners who pull a sick animal should report that to New Hope, but admitted that the shelter has no formal tracking system for these cases. That has to change, fast. We know there’s a problem, we know it’s a very significant one – half a million dollars, gone in a flash! We don’t know exactly how significant or exactly what the pathogen(s) are because no one is tracking the full extent of the problem. ACC claims only 43 cases of confirmed pneumonia in the shelter in 2015. That seems unlikely. That’s not the sort of thing that consumes half a million dollars in treatment expense. ACC owes it to the organizations it calls partners to lead boldly on this issue and collect and share data for the good of all.

ED Weinstock announced that the three major focuses for 2016 would be to reduce intake, increase placement, and build awareness. Add “fix the medical” and I think those are some pretty good goals.

feral-cats-58d26ef342001567The second major issue, which is not unique to ACC, is cats. Their partnership with the ASPCA’s kitten nursery has had a major impact on their cat live release rate, with the ASPCA treating almost 1500 animals this past season. That will be very helpful to a point, but it is hard to see a rosy future for New York City’s cat population until a serious effort is made to TNR NYC’s free roaming cats. This is a much bigger issue than ACC, one that will likely require a significant investment by the city/DOH that I’m not really expecting to see any time soon. ACC has come up with some solutions that are helping them keep up with the demand end of the equation but eventually the City of New York has to take on the supply. The ASPCA is currently doing most of the heavy lifting on this as well, since they run the largest clinics that serve the needs of free roaming cats.

A totally unexpected bright spot in the presentation was the brief mention of ACC’s fundraising independent of the city, which hit $1.6M in 2015. That’s something I’ve been harping on for a long time: an ability to raise money independently can free them (somewhat) from the DOH and, more importantly, lead to better animal care. This is a massive, incredible improvement in their fundraising in a very short period of time – as recently as 2013 independent fundraising was less than $350,000. Since the departure of their previous Development Director development has been turbocharged, and the exciting part is that they’re still just on the ground floor and have lots of room to grow further (they even convinced me to donate in 2015). We’re a wealthy city and a city that loves animals. A hearty congratulations to Team Development: Amy Bianciella, Manager of Creative and Events and Ashley Sgarlata, Annual Giving Manager.

Ken Foster, Community Dogs Program coordinator also presented on some pilot program work he’s been doing in the Bronx, an exciting development for what has been a historically drastically underserved borough. I believe the recent community vaccination and microchip clinic there may have been the first in ACC’s history, and there is also a new pet food bank and a dog training program. The first orientation session for Bronx volunteers will be held on February 1 to allow for program growth. This is great news for the Bronx and a great start, and hopefully you’ll be able to follow progress updates and program news here.

Following ED Weinstock’s presentation we moved on to a presentation by Mario Merlino, Assistant Commissioner for NYY’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOH). It’s official: funds for actual Bronx and Queens shelters are in the Mayor’s budget request for the new year, page 15 and 16, which is huge news.

1109-Civic-Buildings-5Mr. Merlino gave updates on all capital projects currently underway by the DOH, which owns all ACC facilities and oversees the ACC contract. Here’s the short version of those updates: the new Staten Island shelter, currently under construction, is expected to be completed in 2017. The new Manhattan adoption center to be built next to the existing shelter will have the design contact awarded in the fall of 2016 and construction is expected to begin in summer of 2018. Replacement of the Brooklyn shelter’s roof and HVAC system will complete a scope study in June 2016 with construction beginning in winter 2018. Finally, the new Bronx and Queens shelter facilities expect to have a scope study completed in Dec 2016 with site purchase done by Dec 2018, design approval in 2019, and construction beginning in 2020.

Each of these projects will be handled separately, any and all could (and probably will) run into delays. There are many layers of approval including city community boards (an opportunity for NIMBY objections) and the city council. This is a time for cautious optimism – but this is further than we’ve ever gotten before on the construction of new facilities.

Chairman Nolan, the board and the audience all expressed frustration at the pace of the city projects and asked for ways to accelerate them. There aren’t many. The city is well known for moving at a snail’s pace; the Second Avenue Subway was first proposed in 1920 and may be completed next year. Maybe. There are likely to be ample opportunities for public involvement in political lobbying. Stay tuned… but it’s an encouraging start.

One slight note of caution: Mr. Merlino did say that Mayor de Blasio was very committed to the new shelters, but declined to speculate what might happen under a different administration. This alone might be enough for me to hold my nose and vote de Blasio for re-election.

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 7.24.41 PMFinally, we had the public comment period. Although I try to make jokes about it, these periods of public Q&A frequently make it painfully embarrassing to be an advocate for animals in New York City. We had a few excellent points – a woman wanted to relate to the board her experience when her animal was killed by the shelter following complications from spay/neuter. A commenter made an excellent point about the legality of interstate transport, and further about the inability to reach anyone by phone. But we also had, as always, a parade of crazies. People without any discernable point. A man who delivered a petition to “become a No Kill shelter” who evidently had not been listening to the hour and a half of presentation on the progress in that direction. People who do not understand that ACC is not a police force. A commenter who stood only to accuse the board and all of the staff of being sociopaths, which caused a rare outburst of objection from an actual rescuer in the room. A person who would like NYC to follow Italy’s example, where hundreds of thousands of stray dogs and millions of cats roam the streets and the government funds privately operated camps for animals where some unscrupulous operators run cruel, crooked businesses that skimp on care and keep the money.

Eventually Chairman Nolan cut the comment period short, which was unfortunate and deprives the people of New York a chance to interact with the board of their shelters. But I attend a lot of public meetings and I’ve never one with a percentage of crazies that is routinely this high. It would be unfortunate to eliminate this period from the meeting – and indeed, without it there would probably be a lot of crazy erupting DURING the meeting – but we seem to need some further guidelines for commenters. No nazi comparisons. No murderers, no psychopaths, no making up your own statistics. Have an actual point. If I might make a suggestion, requiring each commenter to bring a written statement with sufficient copies for all board members and the written record of the meeting might at least weed out the worst of the worst.

So there are the high points, folks, the most significant developments from the highest functioning shelter New York City has ever had – and one that could really use our help. Is it perfect? No, and in some upcoming posts I’ll be talking some more about that. It’s still extremely difficult to volunteer, there is no public decision matrix for euthanasia, the medical care is underwhelming, and you can’t get anybody on the phone, to note a few of the most obvious issues. But it’s the best shelter system in NYC history, it’s the most rapidly improving shelter system in NYC history, and we’re gonna get to all of that. The time has come to continue to recognize the issues present, but also to ask: how can I help? It’s also time to show a little damn pride. I am tired of hearing hyperbole: a woman recently told me on Twitter that ACC was one of the “top 3” in the nation for killing animals, which is wildly, stupidly, ignorantly false. I’m tired of hearing “super high kill!!”, which hasn’t been true in many years. Those people should be corrected and informed of the progress made. I don’t know of anyone with an intake of 30,000 animals a year doing better. I hope they continue to do better still.

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NYCACC Board Meeting: Fri, Jan 22

Below is the official notice of the NYCACC board meeting. Click to enlarge.

BoardMeetingNoticePublicComments01222016

As always, every interested New Yorker should make every effort to attend. You’ll find information there you won’t hear anywhere else, and it’s your only chance to ask questions of the board in person.

I’ll be doing a full wrap-up and update after the meeting, but a few tidbits and things to know…

– These meetings used to be quarterly. We haven’t had once since the summer and this one is billed as an annual meeting. There’s always been a wax and wane of openness for these meetings, looks like we’re waning. Bring your questions; you may not be able to ask again for quite a while.

– Expect the meeting to contain quite a fanfare about save numbers and an announcement that they are closing in on No Kill. By my calculations (which the NYT seems to confirm) I would expect ACC to announce cat save numbers for 2015 in the mid-80th percentile and dogs around the 90th percentile. While there are some caveats (and definitely things to work on), there is no question that NYC is on the upswing – and within the parameters of the reporting format they use (Asilomar), I don’t see a reason to doubt them. Should ACC cross the 90% save rate mark I believe they would be the largest shelter by intake in the US to do so.

– One of those caveats remains the transmission of in-shelter disease, a burden that is borne disproportionately by rescue groups that pull from ACC. When Medical Director Dr. Levin first joined ACC she gave a very impressive presentation at her initial board meeting with very informative statistics and plans to improve ACC processes. Since then we’ve heard very little from Dr. Levin and she seems to have been somewhat sidelined by ACC upper management. Will we hear more about the state of infectious disease at ACC and an update on efforts to prevent it?

– You should be following the NYCACC twitter account, which is doing something quietly revolutionary: each day, they are annoucing how many animals were pulled from the lists and who pulled them. This is HUGE for transparency and data tracking. Transparency like this is not easy and I applaud them for it.

– Yesterday’s New York Times article contained several bombshells, including that efforts to find new shelter sites in Queens and the Bronx (which currently have no full-servive shelters) are moving forward. This isn’t anything we haven’t heard before, so I’m interested in hearing more details. This is, I believe, the first time Executive Director Weinstock has commented publicly that more shelter space is needed and/or welcome, and I’ll take that as an encouraging sign. If the city is serious this time, we may see some money allotted for it in the Mayor’s proposed budget and that would certainly give him a win in the animal issues column – a win he he could really use with his signature animal welfare issue turning into quite a mess.

Overall it’s a much better time to be an animal in an NYC shelter than it was five years ago, and there are some very interesting possibilities ahead. I’ll do a full write-up after the meeting.

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Adopt a King in New York City!

Buckle in, this is kind of a long story. But King Arthur is worth it.

This past summer, Arthur was trapped in a feral colony at the request of a Large Non Profit here in NYC. He was very social, very sick, and diabetic. When he needed help, the Large Non Profit walked away and left us trappers holding the bag. We turned to the public to help treat him, and thanks to all of you who donated King Arthur got his medical treatment and treatment for a very scary hypoglycemic episode where he had multiple seizures.

At the time my vet cautioned me that the seizures had been very severe and that he could take months to recover. Hah! He was back to his old self 24 hours after discharge.

Over the next several months we got his diabetes well under control, and it’s now quite easy to manage. The seizures have been a slightly different story – once a cat begins to have seizures, it’s almost a sure thing that they will have more, and it took some months to find a balance of medication that worked for him.

I love the little bastard. He’s charming. He’s vocal. He’s hungry. He loves people and he loves to be held like a baby as he purrs away. He gets along well with cats and dogs and is easygoing and very confident. And I would love to keep him, but I can’t. He will always have the risk of the occasional seizure, which means that he has to be kept separate from my dogs any time I can’t be in the room with them. This means he has to spend an unacceptable amount of time cooped up in my bathroom. He doesn’t seem to mind, but I hate to do it to him – he simply deserves a better life than I can possibly provide for him.

I know he’s a hard sell – 6 years old, diabetic, and has seizures. But I also know that he is one heck of a cat and a total charmer, and I hope that there is someone out there who might be interested in giving him a home fit for a King with the care he deserves. He is so worth it. His ongoing care is easy and I can teach you how. He does require daily injections of insulin (which he does not mind getting), and a pill he eats in his food.

If you’d consider meeting the King, please drop me a line. He is here in New York City but I will drive any resonable distance for the right home. There is no deadline; I will not give up on him. He is with me for as long as he needs to be. But he deserves better. Could that be you?

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Posted in Cats, Foster Cats | Leave a comment

Saving Bronx Cats

IMG_1334I got a phone call in early October to help with a dying kitten in the Bronx. I ended up in a 2BR apartment with a couple who were clearly overwhelmed. They love cats, and they tried to do the right thing by taking in just three cats who needed homes, but they didn’t keep up on the spay and neuter. The original cats had litters, and those cats had litters, and before you know it they had 35 cats in their home and they’re overwhelmed. Minutes after I arrived the kitten I had originally come for passed. Not even 2 weeks old, he had an infected bite wound on his head that had abscessed, unnoticed. The back bedroom is for the kittens, but many die from lack of care. They have so many cats that they could not remember all of their names or tell me how many there were.

I’m a little overwhelmed myself. I’m in production for a new Broadway show and we’re in our 8am – 11pm days, 6 days a week. But I couldn’t not help them. They needed help badly; about 25% of the cats in their home were approaching sexual maturity and the house was about to have a huge population explosion.

IMG_1326I quickly arranged for a day of mass spay/neuter, with an ASPCA truck coming to their home and picking up as many of the cats as possible, returning with them the next day – and I got very lucky. When I called the ASPCA, they had a truck available a mere two days later. They are a fairly amazing resource in New York City for this kind of work. A friend of mine whom I partner with on many spay/neuter projects very generously made herself available to be at the apartment with the truck on short notice when I could not, and she added a few Bronx-trapped feral cats to the truck load.

IMG_1379A few days after the first big spay/neuter I stopped by the apartment with supplies. While this project is primarily about stopping the cycle of reproduction and ending the deaths in the house, it was also an opportunity to teach the residents to care for the remaining cats as well as possible – good quality care does not have to be expensive. I brought new, large litter pans to replace the tiny, overflowing ones, 160lbs of clumping litter with scoops that will last longer, smell better and be more sanitary than the non-clumping litter, and 50 lbs of dry food and 150 cans of wet food that are solid quality nutrition that is not outrageously expensive. I also reached out to rescues and rescuers known to me to take a few of the most vulnerable cats, and a huge thanks to Anjellicle Cat Rescue, Companion Animal Trust, and Little Wanderers for their help and assistance in getting them to safety and making them available for adoption.

There is a little clean up still to do: there are three cats that we could not get access to on the initial day and I’ll have to return for them as well as the moms who are now nursing and their kittens. I’ll be doing that over the next few weeks. Once my show opens, in early December, I will switch focus to adopting out as many cats as the owners will allow; they have already given up 7 and are expected to surrender more.

IMG_1333Thus far the bill has been $1357 for spay/neuter which also included rabies and FVRCP shots, FIV/FeLV testing, flea treatment, and round trip transport – not too bad. In addition, I have spent approximately $200 on supplies. This project had to move quickly, so I financed everything out of my pocket hoping that people might want to help me once I got a chance to write this all down! I estimate that the total cost of the project will be approximately $2000. In addition to spaying and neutering every single cat in the house that is of age, I would like to be able to provide funding for any group that steps up to help me to fund their expenses, especially if they take a young kitten. At this point I intend to stop asking for donations when and if I hit $2000 and holding off until I determine if more funds are necessary. Any excess funding will be given to the 501(c)3 groups that have helped me on this project; I do not intend to keep a dime. IMG_1445While the people who live in the apartment will be asked to contribute, they have modest means. I think this is worth doing, not just for them but for the animals who live there, for the animals who will now not be born (and perhaps die) there, and for the sake of public health before this home becomes a law enforcement situation. If you would like to help, I would be very grateful. If you’re looking for a good number, $55 provides one cat with all of the basic services. I have partnered for this fundraising with the Social Good Fund so that your donation is to a 501(c)3 and is fully tax deductible; we are one of their sponsored projects.

Thank you so much for your help.


Posted in ASPCA, Cats, South Bronx | Leave a comment

NYCACC Board Meeting – Jun 24, 10:30AM

There will be a meeting of the board of New York City Animal Care and Control on Wednesday, June 24 at 10:30AM. The official notice is reprinted below (click to enlarge). These meetings are always educational and time there is well spent. Mark your calendar!

BoardMeetingNoticePublicCommentsJune2015

Posted in NYCACC, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Myth of the FBI and Animal Cruelty

US-FBI-ShadedSeal.svgYou see it regularly now on Facebook in cases of animal abuse – someone will mention the FBI and how all this will be improved when they get involved in animal cruelty as they’re scheduled to, or that abuse is now a federal crime, or isn’t the FBI supposed to be doing something about this?

No, no, and no. So let’s address that.

The FBI recently made a change to the way they collect and report data about crime in a database called the National Incident-Based Reporting System, or NIBRS, that collects and reports data on crime statistics from around the country. Previously, animal cruelty crimes were lumped into an “other” category. It represents a change in attitude for the FBI – they want better tracking of cruelty because they find it is an indicator of violent crime, so in their reporting they are presenting it as equally important to consider and track as many violent crimes.

This has been widely misunderstood, both by the press and the general public. It does not mean that animal cruelty is now a federal crime, it does not mean that people who abuse animals will be prosecuted differently or get stiffer sentences, it does not mean that the FBI intends to get involved or is involved in state or local cruelty cases. It is simply a change in the way they track crime data. And that’s important, and a step forward – it’s a signal that they agree it should be taken seriously. But that’s all it is.

Data collection will begin in 2016.

The waters have been somewhat further muddied, I think, by some activist groups with poor messaging.

58b44af9e0524ac6b21925a9f1a72272

This is simply not true. Trust me, cruelty is not always a felony – or don’t trust me, look at the thousands of news stories for misdemeanor animal cruelty. Here in New York State, you can still starve an animal to death and it’s a misdemeanor – there’s a link to the exact text of the current law, take a look. What is true is that all states now have provisions for treating some cruelty as a felony offense, which is a very different statement, and a step forward. But currently, in most states, most cruelty is treated as a misdemeanor – and the definition of “cruelty” can vary widely from state to state.

I think it is important to correct misinformation like this so that animal lovers and activists do not believe that we’ve crossed a goal line that we, in fact, have not. The way cruelty is treated in the United States is changing, and these represent small but very important changes, changes that are worth noting and celebrating but that are not revolutionary – and that tends to be the way things work. Attitudes and laws tend to evolve over time rather than radically changing overnight. But further change is needed, and there is still much to do.

Update 12/2/15: This is a recent and excellent mass media article on the subject.

Update 1/7/16: Here’s another great article in the Washington Post.

Posted in Not Funny | Leave a comment

Dog Condemned By Sternberg Gets Reprieve

“This dog is not a pet, and I don’t care what kind of trainer you are, you can’t make this dog a pet.” – Sue Sternberg

b0c7d7472fa4d6ac6dc134b28b4e14721c33e5f5f101323788266c70237aeffbExcept that sometimes – frequently, even – you can. When legendary dog trainer Jean Donaldson, PhD, tested Sternberg’s Assess-A-Pet temperament test at the San Francisco SPCA she commented, “We need tests that are scientifically proven to be reliable and valid. We couldn’t get Sue’s test past the reliability issue, and four of her five unadoptable dogs did fine.”

I’m guessing that the dog Sternberg recently condemned during a presentation will do pretty well. Sounds like he’s now with people with some better ideas and the patience to do an actual evaluation. Many thanks to them for believing in him.

"This dog is not a pet, and I don't care what kind of trainer you are, you can't make this dog a pet." ~Sue Sternberg…

Posted by Tennessee Death Row Dogs on Wednesday, April 29, 2015

He certainly does look like a killer…

I look forward to hearing more about Camo’s progress.

Posted in Shelter Stuff | Leave a comment

Sue Sternberg Has A Public Meltdown

Sue Sternberg is a relic from another age; an unaccredited “trainer” who is nonetheless looked to by some – including major, national groups – as a behavior expert. Sternberg is the creator of the Assess-A-Pet temperament test and the infamous Assess-A-Hand, the rubber hand on a stick that is used by shelters nationwide – sometimes inappropriately, to harass dogs into a response.

Sternberg believes that efforts should be focused on dogs who are “pet quality”, and those of lesser caliber – including those who fail her temperament test – are likely better off dead. Even for the “pet quality” dogs, she believes that a shelter stay of more than two weeks may damage them so much psychologically that death may be preferable. My own experience is radically different, having adopted dogs that have lived in awful, isolating conditions for extremely long periods of time – even a decade or more – and watching them adapt wonderfully to life as a cherished pet. I consider “kennel crazy” one of the most destructive shelter dog myths of our time – though kennel stress is very much real, long-term damage is overstated (and frequently easily reversible) and relatively easily avoided.

Sternberg is currently promoting a “Train to Adopt” program, which is pretty odd since historically she’s always been on the side of adopting out the easy and the perfect and killing the rest.

Recently she gave a presentation at the Petfinder conference where she had a bit of a public meltdown that I thought was worth sharing. These observations come from a trusted source who wishes to remain anonymous.

Last week I was at a Petfinder “Adoptions Options” seminar in the Nashville, TN, area. There were around 150 of us there from shelters and rescue groups within a few hours of the location. One of the presenters did something so horrible I needed to share it with people, but can’t do it officially because I was asked not to by my organization, to avoid embarrassment and because the events are free and mostly very valuable.

A dog trainer named Sue Sternberg was the last presenter of the day. This was how it was described in the agenda:

Animal welfare professionals have a responsibility to provide true quality of life for each dog in their program. This workshop covers the importance of achieving and maintaining quality of life for dogs in shelters. Training, behavior modification programs, and mental, behavioral and emotional stimulation for dogs will be covered. We will explore some fun and easy ways to train adoptable dogs so they can put their best paw forward. Shelter dogs will be used for demonstration.

Sue seemed like a funny and polished presenter, and at first I was interested. I thought her making fun of vegans was a little rude, but when she started mocking the dogs by calling them “Lab/Boxer mixes” with an eye roll, I thought it was more than rude, it was inappropriate. We know how unreliable visual ID of a breed is, and given the existence of BSL and the damage breed stereotypes do all over the world, treating that like it’s funny rubbed me the wrong way. I just wish that was all that had rubbed me the wrong way.

She would use hot dogs to get the dogs to sit and lie down, and all while she was working with them in a very non-focused way, she would offer and withhold treats from them. Either someone I couldn’t hear asked her if this wasn’t frustrating them a lot, or she just responded because she gets this question all the time, but she said yes, it was frustrating, but dogs get frustrated in ‘real life” all the time.

One of the dogs she interacted with got very frustrated and started mouthing her. I don’t know how hard it was. She got very “serious” and informed the audience this dog “isn’t a pet” and needed to be “euthanized” or put in a sanctuary with a long list of requirements that I don’t actually disagree with, but had no real context and certainly were out of reach for any shelter.

This was bad enough, as she’d just condemned a dog to death in front of more than a hundred people who were seeing her as an expert, with the Petfinder seal of approval, based on a distracted five-minute interaction with a dog who not only was in an unfamiliar setting but may have been hungry and had been made to wait for around an hour back next to the loaded food tables, on a short leash with a bunch of other dogs around. Great, now all these people think THIS is a valid way to evaluate a shelter dog! Ten minutes and a hotdog and anyone can do it! Who needs scientifically proven behavior assessments, who needs veterinary behaviorist input, who needs reproducible results?

And what about the behavior modification we were promised in the agenda? No mention of the work being done at places like the Center for Shelter Dogs in Boston or research from the ASPCA or anywhere else. Just boom, dog’s “not a pet” and should be put down.

But then, it got worse. She said not only was he “not a pet,” he “wasn’t bred to be a pet,” and his “mother and father weren’t bred to be a pet.” Now she was “evaluating” dogs she’d never even seen and knew nothing about.

4T9QpAnd then she went into this long, self-pitying rant about the evils of the no-kill movement, and how dangerous dogs are flooding our communities because shelters want to improve their live release rates, and how the rate of dog attacks has gone up, and on and on, without any evidence or data of any kind to back up what she said. I mean, the shelter vet who presented, and all three of the marketing and social media presenters, had data. Her opinions can KILL DOGS — so where was hers? And why didn’t anyone ask her for any (including me?).

Then she got all martyred, saying how “no one else” wants to talk about these hard truths, like she’s some misunderstood prophet and not like just about half the shelters in the country or more aren’t already judging and condemning these dogs every day. She’s so BRAVE, right? Even though… cue the tears … she gets death threats and there’s a pile of police reports in her local PD from all the people who want to “euthanize her” — her words — and again and again with how she’s the ONLY ONE saying these tough realities. And that she knew someone would “put this on Facebook” and she’d start getting the death threats.

Then she slammed the San Francisco SPCA, which I didn’t understand exactly, except she said they could adopt out these dogs more safely because people in San Francisco don’t have families. Like it’s okay for dogs to bite adults? I don’t know. It made no sense.

Then she wrapped it all up with a pitch to buy things from her table — she was the ONLY presenter who had a table and was selling anything. It was all so inappropriate, and I’m really shocked Petfinder would let her do it. But she’s on their schedule over and over again, and not only that, but she wrote something in the booklet she handed out, so they obviously think she’s just fine.

Thank you for anything you can do to stop this irresponsible presentation of what it means to evaluate a dog from being put in front of trusting animal welfare community members who are only trying to do right by our animals, and might believe what she’s teaching is backed up by research or in step with behavior experts when it’s not.

Relics such as this are best left behind, and I do hope Petfinder will reconsider giving Sternberg a forum.

I’d love to hear from others who witnessed this presentation.

Posted in Shelter Stuff | 1 Comment

Leading Astray: Scott Stringer’s Audit of NYC Animal Care and Control

images (1)City Comptroller Scott Stringer recently gave a press conference to present his office’s audit of New York City’s Animal Care and Control (NYCACC or just ACC). He did not hold back on the rhetoric, with lines like “(vaccine) storage practices that would make your stomach crawl” and “fiscal mismanagement”. Unfortunately the report he delivered that day doesn’t entirely support some of that rhetoric, some of which might be said to be exaggerated, and some of that speech shows either a basic lack of understanding of the relationship between ACC and the city’s Department of Health (DOH), which supervises the contract, or a willingness to use confusion for political gain. Although it exposed flaws (as all audits will), it’s likely the best Comptroller audit ACC has ever had.

First, Stringer’s press conference:

You may read the report in its entirety here:

Scott Stringer's 2015 NYCACC Audit

a2c98e84b7d65600cfe94b1f8d6c013f6cea4e3d1ebb6c561375353c1494ab56Really, the only serious matter of ACC deficiency in this entire report is the mishandling of controlled substances and the use of expired drugs, and that is indeed extremely troubling. However, the information in this audit is a year old or more – right after ACC had hired a new Medical Director and just before they restructured medical staff. After this information was uncovered, ACC added a Senior Veterinary Manager who is a vet, several Licensed Veterinary Technicians, quality control staff, and a Medical Practice Administrator. In response to the audit’s findings ACC pledged to immediately address the issues found and to implement better tracking systems for controlled substances and expired medications. They’ve revamped the entire system since the audit’s information gathering. You wouldn’t know this from the Comptroller’s speech, which presents this as if it were still the case today. It is not. This is a very serious matter and I hope the Comptroller’s office follows up on it.

There are some criticisms that, while valid, are not under ACC’s direct control. The audit criticizes them for not using an empty garage space in Manhattan: they are forbidden from doing so by the DOH, which owns the building. The audit points out the need for a backup generator in Manhattan – a capital improvement that would also be the domain of the DOH, as would the recommendation for an improved HVAC system for Brooklyn – a known issue for years. These things are represented in Stringer’s press conference as ACC flaws – they are not, they are DOH flaws (as is mostly correctly noted in the written report). Renovations were recently announced on the garage in Manhattan to turn it into an adoptions center and on Brooklyn’s HVAC system, and Stringer claims some of the credit for that in the video – but a misleading the public isn’t necessary for that; he could’ve started with a funding request. Scott Stringer either does not fully understand the relationship between ACC and the DOH or is willing to use the confusion for his own political gain.

Then we have the mountains out of molehills. He makes a lot of hay out of “(vacccine) storage practices that would make your skin crawl” because refrigerated vaccines were stored with employee lunches. This is not generally considered good practice for two reasons: temperature stability, with as few opens of the refrigerator door as possible, and vaccine contamination. It’s extremely difficult, however, to contaminate modern vaccines, which generally ship in very tightly sealed small glass vials in multiple layers of packaging. Similarly, temperature stability is less of an issue in an environment that uses so much product. In a small vet clinic that goes into the fridge 8-10 times per day for vaccines the additional opening by employees to access their lunches may make for a significant decline in temperature stability. In a place that uses a hundred vaccines per day the additional lunch openings aren’t likely to make a whole lot of difference. Although a separate vaccine fridge is recommended and ideal, sharing space with lunch is also pretty common. While not ideal practice, it not only doesn’t make my skin crawl, it’s typical enough to barely arouse my interest.

I did find interesting the vaccines discovered stored next to animal remains mentioned in the audit. At the time I thought the auditors had actually missed the point – vaccines need to be stored in a refrigerator, animal remains are generally stored in a freezer. I later discovered that this was an unique situation where an animal that needed a necropsy (the animal equivalent of an autopsy) was placed in a vaccine refrigerator temporarily for preservation until the procedure – freezing makes the necropsy much more difficult. It would be unusual to have a refrigerator on hand specifically for this purpose (although I’m sure they now do!), because it’s not something that comes up very often.

images (2)Stringer attempted to conflate these two situations at his press conference, claiming “(animal) remains next to people’s lunches and vice versa”. That would indeed be disgusting if it actually happened. His report does not document that. These were prepared remarks, not off the cuff, and I believe the Comptroller has a duty to represent the contents of his report accurately.

Stringer’s press conference claimed “fiscal mismanagement” mainly based on approximately $11,000 in credit card charges over one fiscal year that his office felt lacked sufficient documentation. The New York Post later obtained some of the charges. None of the items mentioned in the article seem particularly extravagant to me. Animal non-profit employees are not very well paid and occasionally buying lunch for your employees, or a gift card to say thank you to a volunteer can be totally legitimate expenses. As an employee of animal charities I have been on the giving and receiving ends of those thoughtful thank-yous; they are typical. $124 for parking expenses and $294 for parking tickets are a drop in the bucket for an org that employs more than 200 people and owns many vehicles; I pay a hell of a lot more than that yearly on the single car I own. For those of you who are not NYC residents, a simple parking error in Manhattan – missing a sign, or not seeing a hydrant – can easily run you more than $100. Another aspect of “fiscal mismanagement” was late fines and interest on accounts payable. While ACC did note some deficiencies in paying accounts on time, they also noted the expense – over half of the late fee/interest total – of having to maintain a line of credit because payments due to them from the city were so frequently late. If only there was a city office that could help with that! Even if every single item of the $11,000 in credit card expenses were fraudulent – which clearly, they are not – they would amount to less than 1% of the budget, significantly less than the average loss of retail operations. Although Stringer sought to make a point of this in his press conference, his report calls these issues minor, and deservedly so.

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 1.13.23 PMFinally, we have both the silly and the harmful. Stringer felt the need to bring up in the press conference some peeling paint above a dog kennel in Staten Island. I will assume Mr. Stringer does not own a dog, because a few latex paint chips in one of my dogs’ food bowls would be the least significant non-food item they’ve consumed this week. Harmful is Stringer’s “overcrowding” criticism: when Manhattan runs out of space in their rooms, they house animals in rolling cage banks in the hallways. While that is not ideal practice, I would certainly rather see a live animal in a hallway cage than an animal killed for “lack of space” when housing in the hallway is an option. We all know that more shelters are needed, especially in the Bronx and Queens. Let’s not drive the euthanasia rate up to make a point – until more space exists, I would rather see an animal in a hallway than a garbage bag. Creative use of their limited space is, in fact, something ACC is doing RIGHT, not doing wrong.

Generally speaking, I’m a fan of Scott Stringer. I supported his mayoral run, I supported his Comptroller run, and I’ll probably support his future mayoral run(s), which he’s pretty transparently already running for. I believe that the long term plan he has proposed for ACC is the best chance for giving NYCACC a stable future: independence from the DOH (which has no mission to safeguard the welfare of animals), independence from the city, and the ability to be self-sustaining and raise their own funds are necessary so that shifting political winds – winds that right now happen to be the best we’ve yet seen, but can change in an instant – do not take us backwards. I can make the case for necessary improvements without having to resort to hyping peeling paint as a serious hazard or promoting lurid details about lunches and deceased animals that happen to be… well, let’s be generous and call them unproven. I find the Comptroller’s willingness to mislead a bit troubling. Stringer is a smart enough political operator to recognize that voters who care about animal issues are a significant bloc and also smart enough to recognize that they’re disappointed in the broken promises of Mayor de Blasio. While I do believe that he cares about this issue, I hope he someday makes the time in his busy schedule to visit ACC, which evidently he has not yet done. While they certainly have a way to go, had he visited in the years he’s been following this issue he might better be able to recognize their progress.

So keep an eye on the drugs, mmmkay? And other than that, congratulations. It’s a hell of a lot better than, say, this. And that deserves some recognition.

Posted in NYCACC, Scott Stringer | Leave a comment