On May 6 a cat named Martinez came into New York City Animal Care and Control (NYCACC).
Martinez, a 5 year old female, had been found stuck in the radiator system of a college dorm building. She was dehydrated, emaciated, weak and showing signs of neurological dysfunction. She was also found to have a microchip, which inadvertently led to the situation that eventually caused her death.
Because Martinez had a known owner, she was placed on a 10-day “ID Hold”. A registered letter is sent to the owner and they are given time to come reclaim their animal. This is a mix of law, policy and custom – officially most of the laws about reclaiming animals in NYS only apply to dogs but they are customarily applied to cats as well by shelters that take cats in.
In more straightforward situations where there is a caring owner who wants their animal back, this can work reasonably well – the person typically hurries down to the shelter and reclaims their animal. In situations like this it doesn’t work so well. If an animal has been hit by a car or otherwise hurt and their owner does not step forward to reclaim them, they may suffer in a situation where they are medically stabilized but not necessarily treated. Martinez was lucky to end up in Brooklyn; they have an x-ray machine and more advanced diagnostic capabilities that the other shelters do not. Animals that arrive at Manhattan or Staten Island with suspected fractures may never get a diagnosis due to the lack of an x-ray machine and are lucky to get some attempt at pain control during any hold period.
In Martinez’s case her owner did not respond. When an animal has been starved into emaciation, as she had, one sometimes has to be very careful about getting their weight back up – a sudden intake of carbohydrates can lead to refeeding syndrome, and that may have happened here. Martinez’s condition continued to decline over her ten day hold and with each passing day the possibility of successful treatment diminished and the cost and difficulty of possible treatment went up as ACC noted her decline but did not provide lifesaving treatment. Because she was on an ID Hold, by policy she could not be offered to rescue groups to save and a special medical plea was not sent by the shelter’s New Hope department to rescues to save her life. She did not even get a photo taken until halfway through her hold period.
At the end of Martinez’s ten day ID Hold she was killed, her prognosis judged to be too poor to offer her for rescue, although a rescue that had found out about her had stepped up for her and was ready to transfer her immediately to an specialty care facility. They were denied.
There are no easy solutions here, and the best solution would likely involve a change in the law to change how owners may be notified – currently a registered letter is the only recognized way, but an attempt by phone or email with a registered letter as a backup would certainly make sense. There are also legal issues involved in releasing an animal for treatment by a rescue group (or internally at the shelter) as it involves a third party making life or death decisions for what the law currently regards as someone else’s property – and should they come forward post-treatment to claim that animal the situation could get quite difficult indeed. Although I would love NYCACC to provide treatment for these animals as opposed to just stabilization, at the current moment they clearly lack the resources, facilities and expertise to do so. Currently they even rely on the assistance of outside organizations to meet their legal obligation of spay/neuter of all animals prior to release, one of their most basic duties that they cannot yet fulfill internally.
At the same time, we should not be condemn animals to suffer for the sake of property law. Martinez’s case is by no means unique, and walking the hallways of the shelter you will routinely find other ID Holds that get, hopefully, pain control but not treatment – a dog hit by a car with a crushed pelvis, a cat found with leg injuries from another animal. These are routine, and with every day that passes for an animal with severe injuries the hope of a complete recovery is diminished. A change in the law to give animals judged to need emergency treatment the opportunity to receive it would certainly be a welcome first step.