The good news: New York City Animal Care and Control (NYCACC) has finally hired a medical director after more than three years.
The bad news: this is a very curious choice.
After more than three years without a medical director NYCACC has hired Dr. Lisa Hara Levin for the position. I was excited to see this at first until I started parsing the introduction, which is oddly short on specifics – for example, not listing a single position held in shelter medicine. A lack of detail like that usually indicates a cause for concern, and so I started digging.
Let us begin with Dr. Levin’s postdoctoral education at Johns Hopkins University, where she served in 1987-1988 as a fellow to Dr. Richard Traystman, who at the time was a Professor of Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine as well as the director of the Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine Research Laboratories. Dr. Traystman helpfully publishes his resume online where he lists Dr. Levin as one of the postdoctoral fellows he trained in 1987-88. Dr. Traystman mostly trains human doctors but Dr. Levin is one of a handful of vets he has trained as well. Dr. Traystman is a research scientist and extremely prolific publisher of research, and mostly what he does is medical research on animals – to put it bluntly, vivisection. In 1987-88 Dr. Traystman published reams of research also helpfully listed on his online resume which involved experiments that sound rather unpleasant on dogs, cats, sheep, rabbits, infant pigs, and newborn lambs – and that’s just what he published in a two year period. One would assume that as a fellow under Dr. Traystman, Dr. Levin was fairly deeply involved in his research and publishing. This interest in vivisection re-appears later in her career.
From there the digital trail runs cold for a while. In 1994 Dr. Levin published a charming sounding paper entitled “Pain Control in Laboratory Animals”, which would indicate to me that she was still working in the field. I suppose it is some, relatively minor comfort that she had some interest in controlling the pain of animals being experimented on.
Also published in 1994 was a paper written while seemingly employed by the Humane Society of the United States entitled “Appointing Animal Protectionists to Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees“. A little background: every institution that uses animals in research is required to have a committee that monitors and offers input on how the animals are being used. I strongly recommend you read the (non-technical, non-graphic) paper yourself, but what I got out of it was an encouragement to animal research facilities to “reach out” to local animal protectionists in the spirit of… I’m not sure. Some would say cooperation, some would say co-option. I encourage you to read the paper. The Humane Society of the United States, whom she was evidently working for at the time, promoted the paper in their magazine (beginning on p. 30) as a step towards more humane treatment of laboratory animals, if you’re into participating in that sort of thing. As the HSUS said themselves in the magazine, “be willing to work within the system” (p. 34). I’m pretty sure any work within that system would give me nightmares.
In 1996 she was cited in a work entitled “Xenotransplantation: Science, Ethics, and Public Policy” as a participant in the workshop that is the subject of the publication. Xenotransplantation is the act of transplanting cells, tissues or organs from one species to another, and you can bet that’s a field that involves a lot of animal research. That’s not the interesting part, however – the interesting thing is that Dr. Levin is listed as being associated with an organization called “Americans for Medical Progress”, an advocacy organization that promotes and defends vivisection in biomedical research. This would seem to be somewhat at odds with her HSUS work but consistent with her postdoctoral studies.
Our digital trail again falters until around 1997, when Dr. Levin turns up first as an employee and then in 1999 as the very first Director of Veterinary Services for the infamous Associated Humane of Newark, NJ – a group of some very troubled shelters that by the way remain so to this day. Most of what we know of Dr. Levin’s time there comes from the official state investigative report into longtime wrongdoing at Associated Humane published in 2003. The report treats Dr. Levin with kid gloves, indicating to me that she must have been quite helpful to the investigators, but what the report details in facilities that she was the veterinary director of is horrifying and reminds one of some of the ACC’s worst historical practices. Dr. Levin is repeatedly cited in the report for firing off memos to superiors about violations as serious as vet techs performing surgery, but nowhere is it stated that she called law enforcement or state enforcement agencies, and she stayed with Associated for quite a while – from 1997 to 2001. The report contains an entire section on “Violations of the Law”, many of which are veterinary.
After that things quiet down and Dr. Levin turns up here and there in searches. I do not find any online record of her providing medical direction for a shelter facility since Associated Humane. She appears to have worked in private practice, at spay/neuter clinics, and has been associated with a sanctuary in AZ although not evidently as an employee.
I’m not sure what drew NYCACC to Dr. Levin, and my research on her leads me to more questions than answers: is she a former vivisectionist who flipped sides, became more interested in animal welfare, and eventually found her satisfaction in what appears to be a very honest effort to do good for animals through spay/neuter? Why is NYCACC so secretive about her background? Is Associated Humane the only shelter she was ever a medical director at, and why would NYCACC hire a former medical director who worked at one of the most infamously corrupt shelter systems in the country at one of the most tumultuous and brutal times in their history? Does she renounce her participation in animal-based research? Does she maintain ties to organizations that promote the use of research animals?
Is this the best they can do after 3 years of looking?
I think Dr. Levin deserves a chance to explain herself and her background, but I also think New Yorkers deserve to see a complete resume and for that explanation to happen rather quickly. The idea of a former vivisectionist as a shelter medical director is rife with potential conflicts of interest and a mindset that perhaps may not value the life of individual animals in a way that contributes meaningfully to saving them.
I do hope some of you will join me at the board meeting of NYCACC on Thursday, January 30th at 10:30am. The public comment portion of the meeting is bound to be an interesting one.