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.

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.

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

Saving Julia – And Her Unborn Puppies

NB: This was originally published on the Pets Alive blog, but I’m placing a copy here for archival purposes.

nycacc_manhattan_acc_cacc_shelter_poundThere is a tempting human tendency to see things strictly in terms of black and white, of good and evil. Goodness knows I’m as guilty of this as anyone, and it’s an especially tempting trap to fall into in the world of animal sheltering. With emotion amplified by the tincture of death it’s easy to lapse into excess; surrounding nearly any public shelter you will find critics at the edge of this excess who pepper social media with references to murder and Nazis, typically in all-caps.

My own view of New York City Animal Care and Control (NYCACC or just ACC) has mellowed over the years from the all-caps position. I moved back to my New York City home when the shelter was under the control of people whose actions were nearly completely inexplicable for people who claimed to care for animals, the reins of control firmly held by mayoral administrations that had no care at all. The stench of apathy permeated the buildings, detectable even over the constant animal odor. Still, even then, there were some good people there in a bad place, in a bad situation, people who were doing everything they could to save animals.

Recent developments have been much more encouraging. The most recent administration is the most progressive yet seen there and has been busy enacting a raft of long-awaited changes to increase the number of animals who leave the shelter alive, and the political winds have shifted as well to the benefit of the shelter system and New York City’s animals. Things are not perfect, but they are certainly improving. Even the buildings smell better.

When the current administration really became serious about improvements I observed that one of their challenges would be to infuse the entire organization with their new spirit of lifesaving. The new leaders were believers – one top staffer had told me point-blank that sustaining a save rate of over 90% was a matter of when, not if – but large institutional change, from top to bottom, rarely comes overnight. ACC faces the additional challenge of physical removal, with top managers located offsite in a downtown office building, far from the shelters they control.

juliaWith any transition, with change, there are bumps in the road. This is Julia. Like many of the animals who still die nightly, Julia was almost one of those bumps.

Julia came to the shelter as a stray on March 23. You can read all about her on the Urgent site, which publicizes the shelter’s nightly kill lists (among other things). Her evaluation is stellar, she’s friendly, beautiful, no behavior problems, likes dogs and cats, loved by staff and volunteers. A wonderful dog.

Julia was adopted on March 31. By this time she was quite sick, likely the recipient of one of the shelter’s resident diseases. Her adopter had her for only one day before returning her, concerned that they would not be able to help her get healthy – she was reportedly constantly coughing and gagging continuously, vomiting up food and medication. Around April 5, volunteers noticed that her belly was distended and discovered what several medical exams by ACC had missed: Julia was pregnant.

Julia’s first intake exam on March 23 contained the note “enlarged teats, poss post lactation”. Close, but not quite. Her pregnancy (and pre-lactation) undiscovered, Julia had been prescribed doxycycline to treat her illness. Doxycycline is typically not given to pregnant dogs because it inhibits skeletal growth, endangering the health of her pups.

Julia3On April 6 Julia was kill listed, offered to both the public and to rescues to save. The news of her pregnancy – although known to the shelter – was concealed, not disclosed in her medical notes. If she was not chosen from the list, her unborn pups would die with her. If she was saved, the shelter would do a “spay abort” prior to her release, likely without informing her adopter. Many people who are not intimately familiar with animal sheltering do not realize that within the mainstream world of sheltering and of shelter medicine, spay abort procedures aren’t even controversial; they are done routinely, with complete support of national animal welfare organizations. Many shelters and s/n clinics will do spay aborts extremely, even horrifyingly, late in pregnancy. Spay aborts come with increased surgical risk – and that risk was already high due to illness and impaired breathing.

At ACC, people who had come to love Julia were sneaking her extra food for the health of her babies and looking for a place where she would be able to deliver them, contacting Pets Alive Westchester.

Aware of her pregnancy, Pets Alive Westchester (PAW) tried to claim her from the kill list, but she had already been reserved by a member of the public, her spay abort scheduled at the shelter for Saturday, April 11 – a 5 day wait in order for her health to improve before attempting the risky procedure. PAW tried to appeal for the life of her puppies, guaranteeing to honor Julia’s adoption once they were weaned. They were denied. Appeals to the supervisor of New Hope, the department that interfaces with rescues, went unanswered. Because of the adoption hold placed by a public adopter, Julia would undergo the risky surgery, her pups relegated to the trash bin.

On Friday April 10, PAW escalated, advocating for Julia’s interests, contacting shelter upper management, and preparing for the possibility of a public information campaign as a last ditch effort to save Julia’s puppies – and Julia – from surgery. Near the close of the business day, at the close of the business week, late on the day before her surgery, word finally came back from ACC: she would go to an adopter’s home and have her puppies, who would be fostered by the adopter until they were old enough to come back to the shelter for adoption.

Although this hopefully spares Julia’s puppies, it’s less than ideal. The shelter that missed her pregnancy and gave her medication that can cause birth defects in her puppies will continue to oversee her medical care. Once weaned and ready for adoption, her puppies are likely to be returned to the shelter where their delicate immune systems will be exposed to the environment where their mother caught a respiratory disease severe enough to land her on a list for destruction. PAW had hoped for better for her and for them. But the adopter’s hold must be honored, the outcome information controlled, the course likely to result in the most successful lifesaving outcome not chosen for the purpose of PR.

IMG_4206It is not fair to penalize a person or an organization for mistakes made in good conscience, or to leverage those mistakes for PR – and yes, I’ve been as guilty of that as anyone and I’m trying to evolve. Animals are not potted plants; shelters present ample opportunity for human error, unexpected events, medical mysteries. This past week I accidentally left a bag of medications on my kitchen counter. Attracted to the delicious smell of Heartguard, one of my dogs pulled the bag from the counter and chewed up the assorted bottles, ingesting unknown quantities of powerful medications. I paid dearly for my mistake, both financially and in concern for my dog – I cried with relief when, at 3am in the emergency room, the vet told me that she thought he was going to be all right. I risked his life in what was not an act of good or evil; I made a mistake.

Patterns are a slightly different matter. When an animal is repeatedly seen by medical staff for at least two intake exams and several follow-ups and a detail like pregnancy is missed, only to be pointed out by volunteers a mere four days after an intake exam, that’s a pattern. Patterns like that can be troubling. In April of 2014, one year ago, ACC announced a goal of having every intake exam being done by a vet and I’m not sure that happened here. Patterns of rigidly adhering to policy and procedure when that procedure clearly contradicts what is an ethical imperative are also troubling; 48 hours of internal debate and external maneuvering to accomplish a clear ethical imperative are more than troubling because there should be no debate. When one can choose life, that is what you do, at every level from the janitor to the Chairman of the Board. Rarely should requests to act in what is clearly and unquestionably the best interests of an animal require working their way up to senior management.

Some years ago I interviewed for a position at one of the country’s best municipal open-admission No Kill shelters. I spent the entire day there, meeting and talking to many of the staff at all levels, from kennel cleaners to the Executive Director. I later remarked to the ED how astounded I was that nearly every person I had talked to at some point dropped into the conversation, somehow, saving lives. “I’m here to save lives.” “I like to save lives.” “I’m proud to save lives.” They had distilled their mission to such a simple essence and communicated that so effectively throughout the entire organization, and their employees seemed genuinely empowered to do that at every level – to choose the right thing. I reflect on that experience often. I wonder how there can be success without it.

I like data. Recent data – data that I believe is accurate – show that New York City shelters have improved, greatly. I believe that this is true. But data and statistics do not show the whole story. While some would call it anecdote, what one of my statistic geek friends calls “hand-selected artisanal data” indicates that New York has some distance yet to travel. These are not matters of good and evil necessarily but of problems to be solved, attitudes to change, evolutions to encourage. While we all want things to be perfect overnight, evolution can be messy. As I’ve said, there are always bumps in the road.

I am glad Julia was not one of them, though I remain somewhat disappointed with the outcome. We will work with and ally with and encourage others to cooperate with anyone, to the very best of our abilities, who will commit themselves to saving the Julias, to correcting mistakes, to making every effort to do the right thing, until the day when all the Julias are saved and the kill list is no more. What stands in our way we will fight to the best of our ability with every tool we can. When lives are at stake and there is something that can be done that may save them the ethical imperative is very clear.

One of my rescue mentors taught me something that I’m still trying to absorb completely: that there is value in disagreement, and not to back down on matters of conscience or ethics – to not be quiet when you’re screaming inside; to have the uncomfortable discussions or disagreements or arguments or downright bloody fights (metaphorically speaking) in matters of practice, of legislation, of ethics. But, she counseled, you must never hesitate to lay down your sword and join together with your opponent when there is an opportunity to help an animal. That should be the most important thing of all, and no matter how bloody the fight, how deep the disagreement, that is the one thing we cannot afford to lose sight of – what all this is for.

Join us.

John Sibley
Animal Rescuer
Volunteer
Board President and Chairman, Pets Alive

Posted in NYCACC, Pets Alive, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

NYCACC Breaks 90%: Is It Possible?

yay-statisticsAt the beginning of this year New York City Animal Care and Control (NYCACC) did something rather important: they began to provide detailed statistics directly to the public on a monthly basis in a standard shelter reporting (Asilomar) format. This is important because it allows a (somewhat) apples-to-apples comparison between shelters and many trends can be fairly easily seen. As a data geek I’m very excited about this and it’s an important step for any public shelter that makes a commitment to transparency.

February’s statistics show a live release rate, as defined by the Asilomar standards, of 92.1% – believed to be the best month in NYCACC’s history.

I will note that the Asilomar standard exempts owner-requested euthanasia from the calculated live release rate. Although there is some controversy about this, I believe it is reasonable and proper to do so. These animals are not presented for the purpose of shelter intake. I have spent considerable time in NYCACC’s waiting rooms over the years and have witnessed this process many times, and in my personal experience I have never seen them perform owner-requested euthanasia when it was not warranted – indeed, I have watched them steer owners toward surrender instead when it was more appropriate for the animal, or to refuse euthanasia services when it was inappropriate. So I recognize the hazard that this method of calculation may present in some cases, but I have confidence that it is being appropriately applied here.

Although the knee-jerk reaction may be “yeah, right”, looking at the statistics I don’t see a reason to doubt the overall numbers. Shelter statistics have been audited before by NYC Comptrollers and I’m sure will be again. These numbers are likely to be tracked by the DOH as well; it would be a risky place to tell terribly tall tales. There’s nothing that stands out as especially statistically odd to me – February was a slow, short and very cold month, which especially helps keep cat intake down. 2014’s live release rate was 80.7%, this is not that huge a statistical deviation from that average considering the season.

I do see one thing in the details that is a rather large statistical deviation from what’s been previously reported, and it’s notable. In the 2012 yearly numbers, a whopping 20% of all animal intake was euthanized as “unhealthy and untreatable” (there were no transfers of such animals) – 5728 animals out of an intake of 27471 in the year 2012. This was never remotely believable, far exceeding the national average and the product of some very obvious games being played at the time where animals killed were not being labeled accurately to avoid the loss of funding. I see in this latest report that animals labeled as “unhealthy and untreatable” (accounting for both euthanized and transferred – no “unhealthy and untreatable” animals were transferred at all in 2012) are around 10% of intake – still what I would consider slightly high, but not spectacularly so. NYCACC’s medical situation as well as their labeling seem to be improving. One of the weaknesses of the Asilomar statistics is that each community is allowed to have their own definition of words like “treatable” (and animals under 8 weeks old are ALWAYS considered “unhealthy”). NYCACC has never publicly published their definitions and criteria for medical classification that I am aware of, and I would encourage them to do so to make the statistics documents completely transparent.

fig56Do weaknesses remain, areas to be worked on? Sure. The facilities still have a problem with disease – a dog that was pulled by a group that I work with recently died of pneumonia shortly after his pull, and he didn’t have it on intake. The long-term play for better animal health seems likely to involve more space and space(s) that are purpose built as animal shelters – preferably one in every borough (although planned renovations in Brooklyn and construction in Manhattan may also provide a benefit). There are still issues with accurate medical information for animals with medical problems. Local rescues still account for 2/3 of all live releases and bear the cost of saving most animals with significant medical and behavioral challenges. There is still the tremendous drama – and the clumsy, awkward, hysterical and time consuming execution – of the nightly “at risk” list, with some animals losing their lives due to confusion, disorganization, and ironically some fraud by the public (fake pulls) in the name of “saving” them. I think people have a tendency to forget that even at a sustained 90% save rate (generally considered the threshold of No Kill), New York City would still kill ~2700 animals per year. There would still be a list of some sort, and some days it would be long.

Although we know that these issues still exist, we also need to look at the simply huge improvements we’ve seen from the current administration. Off the top of my head, that would include creating an adoptions department, hiring a medical director, greatly increasing fundraising capacity and corporate partnerships, starting regular mobile adoptions, having regular discounted adoption events, participating in Just One Day (a national day of No Kill), plans for expansion of the Manhattan facility and improvement of the Brooklyn facility, greater field hours, securing more funding, expanding adoption hours, and doing far more outreach in social and traditional media. Most exciting lately was the announcement that NYCACC is hiring Community Cat staff, beginning an involvement in return-to-field and TNR (trap-neuter-return) efforts. This could not be more important: the offspring of community cats bring the shelters to their knees twice a year like clockwork, and I couldn’t be happier to see the beginnings of shelter involvement in TNR.

g1365089101540651822So my wholehearted and hearty congratulations to NYCACC. I believe that we will eventually see that 90% mark more permanently cracked. The road to get there won’t be without bumps, but we’re seeing serious looks at longstanding problems and serious attempts at improving them. I, personally, am greatly looking forward to a NYC shelter I can enthusiastically support.

Posted in New York City, No Kill, NYCACC | 1 Comment

Mission Creep: Best Friends Buys A Fitness Center

nautilus-nt-cc1This is Andy. Andy is a five year old, purebred Nautilus machine. We suspect Andy has seen some abuse – his upholstery has some tears and one of his cables is missing – but we know, with your help, we can restore him to be happy and healthy again. Won’t you please help us help Andy? With your help, anything is possible.

Best Friends has recently taken quite an interest in employee health, desiring to provide the employees of its home base with a gym facility. Should be easy enough – Best Friends owns about 3700 acres a few miles outside of the small town of Kanab, UT. There are around a hundred building structures on the property, should be a cinch to find some unused space. A barbell set from Amazon, a few bikes and treadmills from the thrift shop in town, and Bob’s your uncle!

Oddly, that’s not what they’re doing. Instead, they’re purchasing the long-struggling Adobe Fitness, both the business and the building, located in the center of Kanab several miles from their main campus. That’s a pretty strange and extravagant expenditure for a donor-funded animal non-profit, to purchase an outside, fully staffed professional fitness facility for the use of its employees. The claim will be made that it’s an important part of their benefits package. Health coverage is also an important part of a benefits package, but you don’t see non-profits with unrelated missions buying up hospitals to provide it because that’s not very cost effective, as well as being not at all relevant to their stated non-profit mission.

Screen Shot 2015-03-27 at 3.52.08 PMIt gets weirder from there. The new business, The Best Friends Wellness and Fitness Center, has been spun off as a for-profit company also headed by Best Friends CEO Gregory Castle, despite its origin from non-profit (donor) funds. Best Friends is in the process of hiring a Fitness Manager who will oversee a professional, paid staff. While Best Friends employees will have free use of the facility, the facility will also be open to the public who may pay for a membership, both Kanab residents and visitors. Best Friends obviously feels that they can make up for free access to their employees by driving the many visitors they bring to town to purchase paid access, and the manager they’re seeking to run the place is expected to be focused on growing the business financially. At this point this starts to look a lot less like an employee benefit and a lot more like speculating in a for-profit business venture that has nothing at all to do with animal welfare. The last few years of explosive growth have, indeed, been good to Best Friends’ coffers.

The status of the new, donor-funded business as a separate for-profit corporation is a very interesting one. There’s certainly no reason a fitness center can’t be set up as a non-profit for social good – indeed, the YMCA does this all the time. If Best Friends were growing bored of their animal mission it could be set up as a non-profit with the separate mission of promoting community health, or it could be set up as a separate non-profit for the sole purpose of benefiting the animal charity. One of the few conceivable reasons I could fathom for the for-profit status, however, is that private for-profit companies do not have the obligation to disclose any of their financial activities to the public, as opposed to the public tax returns of a non-profit. The success or failure of the new business venture will be well-concealed as well as important information like compensation paid to management and key staff. Such non-transparent business arrangements, while perfectly legal, should be avoided by the ethical non-profit for the appearance of impropriety they may bring – at worst they can be used as a device to transfer money in a way that is completely off the books of the non-profit that controls them. Best Friends does Lifting-Frenchiehave an odd and unexplained history (which I believe is no longer current practice) of operating their gift shop and merchandise operations as for-profit companies controlled by company insiders (founders), and I would assume that arrangement ended, similarly, for the appearance of impropriety that it could bring.

The thorny issue of compensation at a for-profit subsidiary is bound to be a bone of contention among Best Friends staff and may sow the seeds of open revolution. The pay structure of a for-profit business is likely not subject to the pay discount that most employees of a non-profit expect – indeed, the national average salary of a qualified fitness manager is around $40-45k. Many Best Friends employees who contribute very directly to their stated animal related mission and goals make significantly less. A national animal charity that pays its Zumba instructor more than their animal care staff is sending a very clear message to some of their lowest-paid employees. Of course, many of the lowest-paid employees will have little use for a fitness center – the difficult, physical work of sanctuary operations out on the desert sand is enough to keep them in fantastic shape.

Charities are given special tax status in exchange for their focus on a social benefit or issue. The IRS requires charities to have a stated mission, a goal. Smart charities know that, to succeed, their every activity must make a substantial and significant contribution to their mission. There is little precedent or support for an animal charity using non-profit funds – which in the end, is all donor money – to finance a profit-making business activity so far outside of their stated goals. This new, for-profit business venture seems to have more to do with the CEO’s personal interest in physical fitness than Saving Them All, the incorporation as a separate for-profit a tacit admission that these operations have little to do with the core mission.

If donors, however, support a national animal charity using non-profit assets to finance a for-profit fitness business, this will open up some new avenues of investment for Best Friends to consider – obviously the rise of their national profile has generated more fund-raising than they feel they can directly apply to their stated mission. Kanab is a small and isolated town, there are so many resources they lack that would be a benefit to both employees and residents and also have the potential to be profitable. A bowling alley, a vegetarian sushi bar, a vitamin shop, a natural foods store, a massage studio, a juice bar…

With your help, anything is possible.

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Shelters for Every Borough of NYC: Not Like This

bad_escape_planIn 2011 New York City passed Local Law 59-2011, the result of a deal between some of the city’s major animal organizations (including the ASPCA, which lobbied very hard to pass the bill) and the city. The major effect of Local Law 59 was to relieve the city of its decade-old obligation to build full service city shelters in the Bronx and Queens in exchange for the promise (but not the written obligation) by the city to provide additional funding for existing facilities.

Now in 2015 the political winds have shifted, the shelter system is better funded (although that may be taken away at any time, since that was just a promise and not a law…), and the same group of people who negotiated the deal with the city to take away the obligation to build a full-service shelter in every borough are trying to pass a law that again restores that obligation, Intro 485.

This all sounds well and good, but it’s a bit simple. The law makes only one change, this statement: The department shall ensure that a full-service shelter is maintained in each borough of the city of New York.

That is a very popular idea. It is popular enough that most of the city’s animal organizations are for it, it is popular enough to have the majority of city council members as co-sponsors. It is an easy thing to be in favor of, with no political consequence: I voted to save puppies and kittens! Funding? Someone else’s problem! This is a massive unfunded mandate, an idea with no evident plan – and that makes it dangerous.

j-b-handelsman-no-but-i-can-give-you-an-unfunded-mandate-new-yorker-cartoonThere is nothing that I see that would prevent the City’s Department of Health from building and opening two more full-service shelters but keeping the budget for operations the same, crippling the ability of the entire system to operate. There is nothing I see that would prevent them from putting an adoption run or two in their existing borough “intake centers” and claiming compliance with the law. But what I see as most likely is an exact repeat of what happened last time: faced with a very weak law and knowing that when politicians are asked how they plan to finance their creation they will have no answer and, faced with providing actual funding, are likely to go skittering for the exits, the Department of Health will simply drag their feet and fail to comply with the law as they did for the decade after the first one was passed, secure in the knowledge that there will be no consequence for doing so.

It’s a good idea. It’s a great idea. But it’s been tried before and it didn’t work. Worse than that, some of the possible outcomes from an idea so vague and undefined have the potential to undo the steady progress we’ve recently been seeing from the New York City shelter system and take us back to the old days.

A politically popular idea is not enough; what is needed is a plan. This proposed law is not a plan, and it is potentially dangerous.

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New Hope for Shelters for ALL of New York City? [UPDATED]

Update 2/23 – Please note there is a CHANGE OF VENUE for this hearing – it will now be held on the 14th floor of 250 Broadway at 10am on Wed, Feb 25. There is also a press conference/photo op on the steps of City Hall scheduled for 9:30.

confused_catNew York City Councilman Paul Vallone (not to be confused with his brother, Peter) has introduced a bill in the NYC Council to require full service shelters in the Bronx and Queens in addition to the other three boroughs. This will be an interesting fight, as there was a back-room deal a few years ago to get rid of the requirement for full service shelters in every borough (which had existed, unfulfilled, for a decade) in exchange for greater funding of the existing shelters. While that has happened as planned, the details of the deal have never been revealed to the public. I guess Councilman Vallone isn’t happy with how it’s worked out – and the number of sponsors the bill has attracted makes it look to me like he’s getting some traction on the issue. You may view the very simple details of the bill here.

The hearing on the proposed legislation will take place on Wed, Feb 25 at 10am at the Council Chambers of City Hall of New York City on the 14th Floor of 250 Broadway. Here are the directions for this meeting of the Health Committee, which is charged with legislative oversight of the City’s shelter system.

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NYCACC Board Meeting

There will be a meeting of the board of New York City Animal Care and Control on this Friday, January 23rd. The official notice is reprinted below. These meetings are always educational and time there is well spent.

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