At 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.
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.
Do 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.
So 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.