Since Hurricane Sandy animals have been pouring into New York City Animal Care & Control (NYCACC). They have locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island but the Staten Island location was evacuated prior to the storm’s arrival and animals transferred to the other two shelters. Their computer systems were down for several days and they stopped killing animals as they battened down the hatches to ride out the storm.
By midweek this week they were full to bursting and as some normalcy returned to New York City their New Hope staff, the staff that interfaces with rescues, began to reach out to partner rescues to ease some of the crowding at NYCACC. Rescues responded and over 100 animals were placed in less than 24 hours.
One of the rescues contacted was Pets Alive Westchester, who immediately agreed to take 30+ cats even though this is one of their most difficult times of year – the approaching winter means that their heating bills are about to skyrocket and donations have been down.
I immediately started planning to transport the animals out of NYCACC the next day. Travelling in and out of Manhattan from my home in the Bronx is very difficult at this point. Traffic and police activity cause long and unpredictable backups. There is a massive gas shortage that makes refueling very difficult, with gas rationing and lines to refuel stretching 10 blocks or more. Finally there are travel restrictions in place to enter Manhattan: to enter the city between 6am and midnight you need to have at least 3 people in your car.
I had 5/8ths of a tank of gas, which would be enough for the day’s errands if everything went well. On Thursday night just after midnight, I drove my car over the bridge to Manhattan, parked it there for the night, and walked home.
On Friday morning I woke up and walked back over the bridge to my car. I was due at NYCACC Manhattan at 9:30AM and I ended up walking in at about 9:45. The shelters typically open at 8am but right now they’re on limited hours (opening at noon) and limited services, which I found odd – they certainly seemed to have plenty of staff milling about, including uniformed Department of Health staff and someone washing the sidewalks. I’m going to assume that when someone is hosing down the sidewalks you’re in pretty good shape. I knocked on the door, which was locked, and was allowed in. I met a new New Hope staff member there – I regret that I did not catch his name – and he was already in the process of getting the cats together whom I was pulling. I also handed him a list of small dogs who were known to be in the shelter and said I would like to add two small dogs to today’s pull, then settled down to wait.
A couple was in the lobby who had also been let in before the official “limited” opening time. The woman was crying with joy – they had finally found their beloved dog, who had been lost before the storm and the hurricane had put their search on a temporary hold. They were so happy to have her back, but they couldn’t have her back. NYCACC requires proof of ownership that is rather draconian at the best of times. Here’s what you need to reclaim a lost dog:
I regularly hear this conversation in their lobby from people who simply can’t believe that they need to be carrying 2 notarized letters or vet records. Most people don’t think to bring that kind of thing with them when searching frantically for a beloved pet.
Additionally, there was another complication: their dog was not spayed and New York law requires that all animals be spayed or neutered prior to their release from a shelter, even owned dogs being reclaimed by their owners. NYCACC charges $150 for that service and the surgery will done in a filthy, disease-ridden environment. Some vets at NYCACC are better than others. Some have an alarming number of surgery deaths. You don’t get a choice. I see the intent of this law, but the application of it has gone horribly, horribly wrong in the NYC shelter system. It encourages people to abandon their pets to be killed.
The couple was incredulous, then angry. They couldn’t believe they had finally found their dog and now they would not be able to take her home. After much argument it was discovered that their dog could, in fact, go home: she had been wearing an expired license that constituted proof of ownership, so that requirement was satisfied. She had also been at AC&C long enough to get sick, as all animals will who are there long enough. Because they do not do surgery on sick animals, their dog was eligible for a spay/neuter waiver – a $150 deposit is left and the dog must be brought back when well for surgery or proof of surgery must be presented to reclaim the deposit. Because the AC&C has mistreated her and failed to protect her from illness, she could go home… for only $218 total.
The sheer stupidity of it is mind boggling. There are a lot of animals lost right now, and a lot of people looking for them because of the storm. Do they expect someone who’s just lost their home to present vet records? Will they sock them with hefty reclaim fees? There was not a lot of flexibility in evidence.
Essentially, if you lose your animal in NYC and NYCACC picks them up, they are held for ransom: pay up or they’re at risk of death. Oh, and they’re at risk of death anyway. Illness or risky surgery, take your pick.
My cats were ready so I loaded the car and went back to see what dogs they had available for me. I was informed by the New Hope coordinator that their computer system was down so they could not release any more animals right now. I think my head just about exploded. They called us due to overcrowding. They asked us to take as many as we could. And now here I was, standing there in front of her, asking to take more animals, and I was being told no. She suggested that I come back later, which was an impossibility – as I explained to her, gas was extremely scarce and I had to plan this transport very carefully. I was one of the few rescuers in NYC at the moment who had a car, gas, was standing in front of her and was offering to take animals. She stood firm. They would not be released. I prayed that none of the dogs I wanted to take would make the kill list as I stormed out, got in my car, and headed for Brooklyn where I hoped to find some staff who could possibly think creatively to save lives.
Later I would find out why their computers were down: a router needed to be restarted. Animals are at risk due to a computer system that is less than robust and has been down for several days. Time to invest in some distributed cloud servers… and an offline backup.
Off to Brooklyn, which was a pleasure by comparison – although there’s that “limited service” thing again.
Here’s what greeted me when I pulled up:
Not very inviting. I opened the gate myself and walked up to the front door, which like Manhattan was locked. This one had a sign:
Again I knocked and stated my case before I was let in. Although I arrived before the opening of their “limited” hours I left long after their new noon opening time and the gate stayed closed, the front door locked. It is very clear to me that one of the ways that NYCACC is weathering the storm is by simply not doing their job: they are “open” in name only. Everything is set up to discourage you from entering and allow them to not let you in if they don’t want to help you. They’ve gone from doing much of their job poorly to not doing much of it at all – and this after being completely closed to the public for several days. Animal “Receiving Centers” (intake only) in the Bronx and Queens have been closed since the storm, and the Staten Island shelter remains closed as well. I wonder how many animals field services brought into the shelters in that time. Did they bring in any, or just drive around and look busy?
Their computers were up (I guess someone knows how to reset a router in Brooklyn), the cats were quickly ready, and New Hope staffer Jessica walked me though the shelter to meet available dogs. I was happy to see that Brooklyn was well staffed, clean, and not overcrowded – so WHY NOT BE OPEN? Jessica was extremely helpful and staffers helped me load my car and select two dogs in addition to the 35 cats in the car. I was quickly loaded, paperwork completed, and transported everyone safely to Pets Alive Westchester – who, by the way, could use your help if you feel inclined to do so (follow the link!). Mass rescues aren’t cheap and animals coming from NYCACC almost always need veterinary care above and beyond the usual due to the illnesses that run unchecked at the shelters.
New York has actually had a taste of No Kill this week. The shelter hasn’t had a kill list in, I think, 5 days. It’s good that they’ve had a sample: No Kill starts as an act of will, a determination to do anything but kill. But as a city contractee with certain duties to the public, they shouldn’t be allowed to ignore them for their own convenience, which appears to be what has happened. They essentially seem to have stopped services nearly completely for a few days other than basic care for their resident animals, which is completely unacceptable. But what if they combined the reaching out for help when they need it, as they displayed this week, with a determination to do the right thing, employees not locked into dogmatic policy but given the liberty to pursue common sense and lifesaving, and maybe some basic skills like learning how to do effective adoptions? Because as depressing as today was, by the end of it I saw what was possible here and I am more convinced than ever that with reformation of the shelter system we could see both the end of the nightly kill list AND the services that the shelters are contracted to provide to the public, services that are all the more critical in times of crisis. This will be one of the untold stories of Sandy: faced with a challenge, a vital contractor to the City of New York simply stopped performing some of their duties. The good news is that once they crumble, as they will eventually, I believe that goal is as possible here as anywhere.