NYCACC’s Annual Board Meeting: Mixed Nuts

12400571_1250824591600680_3803242392476447266_n (1)The Annual Meeting of New York City’s Animal Care Centers (NYCACC or ACC) took place on Friday, January 22. Typically, the modestly sized room was only around 60% full, as many keyboard activists had share buttons to push. We don’t know, at the moment, if there will be more than one a year – Chairman Patrick Nolan reminded us that this January yearly meeting is required. Meetings have typically been quarterly, but the last one was this past summer. How frequently will we have board meetings from here on in? We don’t know.

Chairman Nolan started off what should have been a rather celebratory meeting with a verbal attack on some of the attendees in his opening remarks, a curious choice. He was then immediately re-elected as chair.

Sometimes these meetings can be routine: this one was anything but. This one was chock full of actual, hard news and mostly good news! So let’s get to it, a summary of the high points. You may view all of the slides from Executive Director Risa Weinstock’s presentation here and I recommend that you do, I’m simply not going to be able to cover everything! You might also want to check in on the notes I took during the presentation.

thumbs_up2015 was a historic year for ACC’s live release rates and gave us some excellent statistics news. The live release rate for dogs was at 89.9&, the live release rate for cats was at 84.4%. These are record high numbers for ACC. New programs are beginning to show hard dividends: the relatively new adoptions department is increasing adoptions to the public and decreasing intake through surrender prevention, over 1000 surrender preventions are claimed. Surrender prevention is very, very important – some people really don’t want to give up their animals and helping them keep them is much better than admitting them to a shelter. ACC had a record low 4,045 euthanasias (not including owner requests) out of a relatively flat intake of 30,521 cats and dogs. This is an extremely significant decrease of 27% over last year’s euthanasias of 5540 on intake of 30,277 cats and dogs.

There is no way to categorize that other than pretty damn spectacular. It is significant progress, it is historic progress, and this management team is making more progress at a faster rate than any in ACC history. And yes, I know it’s not perfect, and we’ll get to some of that in a minute, but here’s a fact: it is safer now to be an animal in a New York City shelter than at any time in their history.

Some note was given to shelter illness, and it’s nice to see ACC continue to acknowledge there is a problem and there are things do be done about it. They say they are focusing on their cleaning protocols, vaccination on intake, reduced stress, and increased staff to animal ratio. They’re well aware of the issues, and the fact is that they will continue to struggle with shelter-borne illnesses while crammed into too-small spaces with poor workflow options. But what they’re doing isn’t enough.

It’s only relatively recently that ACC has acknowledged that they have a disease problem, and that’s good to see. They continue to claim that disease isn’t unusual in large shelters, which is true enough: what’s unique to ACC’s situation is that some of the pathogens they have running around seem to be fairly novel from what little hard data we have. Some of the treatment-resistant pneumonia, especially, has been very bad and very difficult to cure. This summer, when disease hit its peak, the ASPCA announced a $500,000 dollar fund available to rescues pulling sick animals from ACC, a fund which quickly ran dry. We can’t count on that happening again.

ACC should be the number one information source for the illness resident in their facilities and they should be as open with that data as possible. We need to know exactly what the pathogens are and what the best treatments are, and that information needs to be shared. ACC does not seem to be doing even the most basic data acquisition on this – in the comments period ED Weinstock said that New Hope partners who pull a sick animal should report that to New Hope, but admitted that the shelter has no formal tracking system for these cases. That has to change, fast. We know there’s a problem, we know it’s a very significant one – half a million dollars, gone in a flash! We don’t know exactly how significant or exactly what the pathogen(s) are because no one is tracking the full extent of the problem. ACC claims only 43 cases of confirmed pneumonia in the shelter in 2015. That seems unlikely. That’s not the sort of thing that consumes half a million dollars in treatment expense. ACC owes it to the organizations it calls partners to lead boldly on this issue and collect and share data for the good of all.

ED Weinstock announced that the three major focuses for 2016 would be to reduce intake, increase placement, and build awareness. Add “fix the medical” and I think those are some pretty good goals.

feral-cats-58d26ef342001567The second major issue, which is not unique to ACC, is cats. Their partnership with the ASPCA’s kitten nursery has had a major impact on their cat live release rate, with the ASPCA treating almost 1500 animals this past season. That will be very helpful to a point, but it is hard to see a rosy future for New York City’s cat population until a serious effort is made to TNR NYC’s free roaming cats. This is a much bigger issue than ACC, one that will likely require a significant investment by the city/DOH that I’m not really expecting to see any time soon. ACC has come up with some solutions that are helping them keep up with the demand end of the equation but eventually the City of New York has to take on the supply. The ASPCA is currently doing most of the heavy lifting on this as well, since they run the largest clinics that serve the needs of free roaming cats.

A totally unexpected bright spot in the presentation was the brief mention of ACC’s fundraising independent of the city, which hit $1.6M in 2015. That’s something I’ve been harping on for a long time: an ability to raise money independently can free them (somewhat) from the DOH and, more importantly, lead to better animal care. This is a massive, incredible improvement in their fundraising in a very short period of time – as recently as 2013 independent fundraising was less than $350,000. Since the departure of their previous Development Director development has been turbocharged, and the exciting part is that they’re still just on the ground floor and have lots of room to grow further (they even convinced me to donate in 2015). We’re a wealthy city and a city that loves animals. A hearty congratulations to Team Development: Amy Bianciella, Manager of Creative and Events and Ashley Sgarlata, Annual Giving Manager.

Ken Foster, Community Dogs Program coordinator also presented on some pilot program work he’s been doing in the Bronx, an exciting development for what has been a historically drastically underserved borough. I believe the recent community vaccination and microchip clinic there may have been the first in ACC’s history, and there is also a new pet food bank and a dog training program. The first orientation session for Bronx volunteers will be held on February 1 to allow for program growth. This is great news for the Bronx and a great start, and hopefully you’ll be able to follow progress updates and program news here.

Following ED Weinstock’s presentation we moved on to a presentation by Mario Merlino, Assistant Commissioner for NYY’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOH). It’s official: funds for actual Bronx and Queens shelters are in the Mayor’s budget request for the new year, page 15 and 16, which is huge news.

1109-Civic-Buildings-5Mr. Merlino gave updates on all capital projects currently underway by the DOH, which owns all ACC facilities and oversees the ACC contract. Here’s the short version of those updates: the new Staten Island shelter, currently under construction, is expected to be completed in 2017. The new Manhattan adoption center to be built next to the existing shelter will have the design contact awarded in the fall of 2016 and construction is expected to begin in summer of 2018. Replacement of the Brooklyn shelter’s roof and HVAC system will complete a scope study in June 2016 with construction beginning in winter 2018. Finally, the new Bronx and Queens shelter facilities expect to have a scope study completed in Dec 2016 with site purchase done by Dec 2018, design approval in 2019, and construction beginning in 2020.

Each of these projects will be handled separately, any and all could (and probably will) run into delays. There are many layers of approval including city community boards (an opportunity for NIMBY objections) and the city council. This is a time for cautious optimism – but this is further than we’ve ever gotten before on the construction of new facilities.

Chairman Nolan, the board and the audience all expressed frustration at the pace of the city projects and asked for ways to accelerate them. There aren’t many. The city is well known for moving at a snail’s pace; the Second Avenue Subway was first proposed in 1920 and may be completed next year. Maybe. There are likely to be ample opportunities for public involvement in political lobbying. Stay tuned… but it’s an encouraging start.

One slight note of caution: Mr. Merlino did say that Mayor de Blasio was very committed to the new shelters, but declined to speculate what might happen under a different administration. This alone might be enough for me to hold my nose and vote de Blasio for re-election.

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 7.24.41 PMFinally, we had the public comment period. Although I try to make jokes about it, these periods of public Q&A frequently make it painfully embarrassing to be an advocate for animals in New York City. We had a few excellent points – a woman wanted to relate to the board her experience when her animal was killed by the shelter following complications from spay/neuter. A commenter made an excellent point about the legality of interstate transport, and further about the inability to reach anyone by phone. But we also had, as always, a parade of crazies. People without any discernable point. A man who delivered a petition to “become a No Kill shelter” who evidently had not been listening to the hour and a half of presentation on the progress in that direction. People who do not understand that ACC is not a police force. A commenter who stood only to accuse the board and all of the staff of being sociopaths, which caused a rare outburst of objection from an actual rescuer in the room. A person who would like NYC to follow Italy’s example, where hundreds of thousands of stray dogs and millions of cats roam the streets and the government funds privately operated camps for animals where some unscrupulous operators run cruel, crooked businesses that skimp on care and keep the money.

Eventually Chairman Nolan cut the comment period short, which was unfortunate and deprives the people of New York a chance to interact with the board of their shelters. But I attend a lot of public meetings and I’ve never one with a percentage of crazies that is routinely this high. It would be unfortunate to eliminate this period from the meeting – and indeed, without it there would probably be a lot of crazy erupting DURING the meeting – but we seem to need some further guidelines for commenters. No nazi comparisons. No murderers, no psychopaths, no making up your own statistics. Have an actual point. If I might make a suggestion, requiring each commenter to bring a written statement with sufficient copies for all board members and the written record of the meeting might at least weed out the worst of the worst.

So there are the high points, folks, the most significant developments from the highest functioning shelter New York City has ever had – and one that could really use our help. Is it perfect? No, and in some upcoming posts I’ll be talking some more about that. It’s still extremely difficult to volunteer, there is no public decision matrix for euthanasia, the medical care is underwhelming, and you can’t get anybody on the phone, to note a few of the most obvious issues. But it’s the best shelter system in NYC history, it’s the most rapidly improving shelter system in NYC history, and we’re gonna get to all of that. The time has come to continue to recognize the issues present, but also to ask: how can I help? It’s also time to show a little damn pride. I am tired of hearing hyperbole: a woman recently told me on Twitter that ACC was one of the “top 3” in the nation for killing animals, which is wildly, stupidly, ignorantly false. I’m tired of hearing “super high kill!!”, which hasn’t been true in many years. Those people should be corrected and informed of the progress made. I don’t know of anyone with an intake of 30,000 animals a year doing better. I hope they continue to do better still.

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