This is one of those I really don’t want to write.
Hurricane Katrina was probably more than anything what promoted Best Friends from a regional to a national player in animal welfare. Their response to the disaster was forceful – indeed, entire books have been written about the response. They committed overwhelming time, manpower and funding to the rescue and saved thousands of animals, some of whom I would later have the pleasure of caring for as a sanctuary employee.
Although Katrina made their name, it also very nearly broke them. Their sanctuary was packed full to bursting with animals, their coffers depleted, their staff pushed to their physical and emotional limits. Even when I joined the staff, in 2008, the repercussions of Katrina were felt throughout the organization as management was obviously reluctant to commit resources to mass rescue situations and the Disaster Response Team went through multiple managers and reorganizations – in its current form, I believe it is an ad hoc team drawn from available staff without a dedicated manager.
So too it must have burned Best Friends to see the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) take more credit than they deserved in the aftermath of Katrina and walk away with a massive profit, after raising $34 million and reportedly spending only $18 million on Katrina-related activities.
Fast-forward a few years and Best Friends has opened a regional office here in New York City. It’s been quite the source of speculation in New York City as to what this office actually does. Here’s the claim of Best Friends on one of their websites:
By “grassroots local programs” they evidently mean the handful of single day events that take place in and around New York City throughout the year: the Super Adoption(s), Strut Your Mutt, a Pit Bull Day, and assisting with the occasional Pup My Ride transport going to NY area shelters (although those rescues are not coordinated by the NY office). This does not seem to me to be enough to justify a full-time presence in New York City, and I have in fact asked highly placed Best Friends staff what the function of the New York office is on a day-to-day basis. No one seems to know, exactly. While the events they promote benefit and fundraise for local rescues, producing them is not an entirely altruistic effort for Best Friends: they get their name, logo and mission in the media, in promotion, and into the hands of animal lovers in the New York City region.
And with all that attention, it would be easy for the animal lovers of New York City to conclude that Best Friends does more here in New York than they actually do. I can easily tell you what they do not do: I attend most of the animal related local legislative hearings in New York, and you won’t find Best Friends staff there. You won’t find them testifying before committees of the NY City Council about local animal related issues. You won’t find them lobbying the New York State Legislature on behalf of animals. You won’t find them doing day to day rescue work. And you won’t find them engaged in efforts to reform the notoriously abusive New York City Animal Care and Control system, the local pound. Indeed, when the kill lists of the last few months hit historic levels of 75 animals or more per night, nary a peep was heard from Best Friends. Nary a finger was lifted in the New York office.
Still, I’ve largely held my tongue until now. They were at least helping local groups attract adoptions and donations, even if they got something in return that helped their organization grow in size and influence (and donations) without any of that messy day-to-day practical stuff.
Then Sandy came.
Best Friends knew Sandy would be a big one. On October 29, they ran an article about the storm’s historic impact, advising the people in the affected areas how to best prepare their pets. And immediately after the storm, they sprang into action, sending out a fundraising email that promised swift response to the storm’s wrath. They put a giant graphic on their homepage advertising their response and posted a news story promising regular updates – and again, asking for money.
On Nov 1st, 3 days after the storm, we discovered Best Friends’ response to the largest hurricane in East Coast history: they sent two staffers and a truck. They appear to have driven that truck to the East Coast from the Best Friends home office in Utah, which would account for the long delay in response time. The choice to have them drive a vehicle here was a very curious one – it slowed their response time greatly and vehicles are in plentiful supply here in the northeast. Climate controlled box trucks are a very simple thing to rent around here – or for a more flexible and maneuverable option, multiple cargo vans. UHauls are not hard to find in the area.
I want to make it clear that the two staff members Best Friends sent are among the best there are. Their skill and commitment is not in question, not in the slightest. But by the time they arrived, other major animal organizations had boots on the ground for days. Massive investments, multiple rescue teams, vet teams, food distribution trucks, vehicles, fully staffed temporary rescue centers – the sort of massive response one would expect for an epic natural disaster. One of the other national organizations had a food distribution and vet care center set up in Staten Island before FEMA had even established a presence there. Best Friends sent two people to Bergen County, New Jersey.
It soon became clear as the flailing continued in the Facebook group of Best Friends New York City (which you’ll note they include as a major contribution to their efforts in their published news stories) that this meager response in conjunction with national fundraising was all they were prepared to offer in the home of their satellite office. It was suggested there that they offer grants to some of the local rescues who were doing boots on the ground in New York City, and they enacted that the next day.
By November 4th Best Friends had heard a lot from their NYC supporters begging them to help the animals of the shelters of New York City, and in yet another national fundraising email they promised to do just that. This email boasted a lot about “organizing” and “gathering” but spoke little of the accomplishments of the 2-man ground team. A new news story that day promised assistance to the shelter animals of New York City in the coming days. Again, strangely, they didn’t feel the need to hurry but promised that a special “Emergency Response vehicle” was on the way, presumably from Utah. Much of this news story once again speaks of their work to “organize”, “coordinate”, “assist”, and “deliver” – things one can do by phone and certainly nothing that would require a nationwide fundraising campaign. At this time they also, in their Facebook group, solicited the participation of volunteers to help them transport animals out of New York City.
That plan appears to have fallen apart at some point.
On November 7th Best Friends could finally speak of some practical accomplishments, taking 41 cats and 10 dogs from the Town of Hempstead animal shelter to partners in the Northeast. Although they claim that their planned pull from the New York City animal shelters has been delayed due to “technicalities related to moving their animals across state lines”, I doubt that highly, especially because moving animals across state lines is in no way necessary. Only the coastal areas of NY have been affected, and NY is a pretty big state. Surely with their local office Best Friends must have made contacts to enable animal placement in-state. They can’t have been playing Minesweeper the entire time. The more likely explanation is that they were unable to navigate the considerably complex issues of pulling animals from New York City Animal Care and Control. Ironically, rescue access legislation which they once actively opposed and now support by lip service if not much practical effort would have paved the way for them to actually rescue some animals in the city where their office is based.
Tonight the New York City shelters released their first kill lists since the storm; they had been suspended in the immediate period after the hurricane. Best Friends is simply too late. At the time of this writing, 11 days after the storm, there is no indication that the New York City office has been able to save a single animal from New York City, either from the shelter or in the field.
Watching the Best Friends response over the past week and a half has been watching a giant flail. Disorganization, incompetence, a total lack of planning, of contacts, of resources. One of the bright spots has been the volunteers of Best Friends, who stepped up where their organization would not and organized supply drives on their own, which Best Friends generously loaned the support of their Facebook group to.
But in the end, even with all their available resources, with nationwide fundraising emails, with heart-wrenching Sandy graphics plastered all over their website with appeals to donate, the Best Friends response to the largest natural disaster in the history of the northeast United States was 2 additional staff members and a truck, later adding a grant program in apparent response to public pressure.
If you open up an office in NYC and use it to raise funds and increase your national profile, you’d damn well better be ready to give back to NYC when an emergency hits. When HSUS raised $34 million for Katrina operations and walked away having spent only $18 million they were the subject of an investigation by the Louisiana Attorney General – an investigation that was later dropped under mysterious circumstances. New York’s Attorney General has been much quicker and more aggressive about looking into Sandy related offenses.
I do hope it does not take Best Friends too much longer to do right by the animals of New York City and perhaps engage in some soul searching about what exactly their New York office should be doing on the 356 or so days in the year when they’re not running an event. At this point, after 11 days of aggressive fundraising and minimal response expenditure for a major disaster, I’ll say this:
They certainly have the money.