After a longish break I’ve been participating in some pulls of animals from New York City Animal Care and Control. It seems some policies have changed in my absence – and not necessarily for the better.
Previously nearly any animal in the shelter who was not on a required hold was available to rescue. Oh sure, you probably wouldn’t get that healthy, friendly one year old Yorkie, and there were occasionally special cases like holds for media events or animals who had special medical treatment through the shelter’s fund for such purposes, but for the most part most of the animals who were not on hold were available to rescue, as it should be.
This time was a little different. Even animals off of hold (or nearing their time off of hold) were denied with the explanation that they needed “adoptions consideration” or were being held for adoptions and were not yet available to New Hope (rescue) partners. This led to the very odd experience of bringing a van down to two very full NYCACC locations, ready to pull… and not being able to pull enough animals that fit our criteria to fill it.
It seems that NYCACC is attempting to respond to recent criticism from the Stringer Report and City Council hearings about their simply awful internal adoptions rate (they did a mere 5730 adoptions to the public in a city of about 9 million people in 2011, the last year for which complete data is available) by keeping more animals in-house for longer. And I might have less of a problem with that if their adoptions program was a little further along than it is.
Recently ACC announced the creation of an adoptions department, which they have never had before, and the intent to separate adoptions from intake – long overdue. Brooklyn now has a separate desk and waiting area for adoptions, but in Manhattan potential adopters still spend a lot of time in their main waiting room witnessing a steady stream of things that would give any animal lover nightmares. They also announced the creation of dedicated adoptions counselor positions, which I have yet to see any evidence of. They’re holding back more animals for adoption but the part where they actually make a full-court press to get them adopted simply doesn’t seem to have materialized yet. They do very few offsites, little advertising (their current ad campaign doesn’t seem to be having much of an impact as far as drawing adopters to the inconveniently located shelter facilities) and underwhelming social media. I know that they sometimes run specials on animals but they’re so poorly publicized I frequently have no idea what they are. Even the basics aren’t covered: although the shelters are open from 8am to 8pm, adoptions are only done between the hours of noon and 7. People don’t know this, so I routinely see people who have made the trek out to one of the shelters to adopt turned away because they made the unfortunate decision to come at 9am. If your shelter is open, there’s no reason not to do adoptions – especially if you’re doing intake.
So while little change has been made in the way adoptions are done, they’re busy making sure they hold as many animals in their crammed to the gills shelter as possible. The new policy is that animals are not eligible for rescue placement until they have had a behavioral evaluation and consideration for adoption – and this includes adult pit bulls and adult cats, two categories where they should be absolutely leaping at any opportunity for them to leave the shelter. The exceptions to this rule are those who fail their behavioral evaluation, the sick/injured, and the very young (and their moms). Anybody else gets to stay. Only animals that require work and/or money can go to a rescue group immediately.
Despite the recent increases in funding and staffing levels illness still runs rampant and any animal who stays long enough is guaranteed to become sick. Although it is nice to see increased staffing levels, that staff still is not being adequately trained to prevent the spread of disease. In one of my many visits to ACC facilities over the past two weeks a shelter employee brought out a kitten sick with an upper respiratory infection for us to meet, cradling the young animal against their shirt. Immediately afterwards, and after changing their gloves, the employee brought out a healthy newborn kitten… cradled to the exact same spot on their shirt. I would also note that the increased funding and staffing does not seem to have yet made a significant improvement on medical care – NYCACC is still unable to fulfill their most basic and legally required obligation to spay and neuter animals for release in-house and is outsourcing some of that surgery to the ASPCA – I assume due to still being understaffed. NYCACC still is attempting to save money, effort and staff time by doing as little as possible for animals while on their hold period. Animals brought in with horrific matting stay matted until their hold period is up, and animals needing extensive medical care have little hope of receiving it prior to the end of their hold when it may be provided by the private rescue groups that pull them.
The consequences of the new “hold for adoptions” policy are easy to see. It made it far more difficult for us to pull the number of animals we wanted to pull and required us going to the shelters repeatedly instead of being able to pull en masse. This drives up the amount of necessary contact on both ends: more emails, more phone calls, more staff time, more requests to upper management to let animals go, increasing the staff workload on both sides in ways that are simply not productive. It was particularly difficult to get dogs out. Instead of being able to pull an animal once off hold, rescues are now asked to put in a memo on that animal and they will be contacted once the animal becomes available (usually because they’re sick or have failed their behavioral exam). But rescue doesn’t work like that. Kennel (or foster) spaces empty today fill quickly, and by the time ACC gets around to deciding that the animal they’ve gifted with pneumonia is okay to be released, that space is likely filled. The new policy ensures that their shelters will always be packed to the gills and that even more animals will become ill due to increased population density. It also decreases the already slim chances that rescues will pull a healthy animal by driving up the average length of stay for animals, which in turn drives up the cost of rescue yet again for the private groups that pull from the shelters.
This will also affect the impact of the Urgent type Facebook groups that work to get animals out of NYCACC. Already some of these groups create a lot of confusion by not being clear about the differences between animals who are on the kill list and in immediate and extreme danger and animals who are simply resident in shelter, whom they also label “Urgent” or “Super Urgent”. You can tell what category an animal falls into by the album that photographs are contained in, but once an individual picture is shared that distinction falls away quickly – and thus a lot of effort is sometimes made for animals who aren’t even off their holds yet but many erroneously think are in danger of being killed the next morning. Many of these animals who would previously be available for rescues to pull will not be available pending their consideration for adoption, which will drive up the frustration (and wasted effort) level for potential adopters and rescues whom those potential adopters contact to help get these animals out.
We’ve got three ways this can go: NYCACC can suddenly and miraculously turn into an adoptions machine, they can kill list more animals, or the system will quickly break down and slide back to the previous policies. I’m betting on a combination of the latter options. It is simply staggering that the conclusion reached by the executives who sit in offices far far away from the three actual shelter locations seems to be that their adoptions rate is so terrible because they just don’t have enough animals.
The Mayor’s Alliance, powered by the grant monies of Maddie’s Fund, has made vast improvements since their inception in the number of animals who left the New York City shelter system alive. However, they focused only on what they could do externally with the assistance of massive funding and never addressed the fundamental problem: basic reform of shelter policy and procedure with emphasis on creating increased save rates that are sustainable without huge outside financial assistance. With that funding tapering off we now have a shelter poised to reverse those gains.