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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NYCACC Board Meeting: Fri, Jan 22

Below is the official notice of the NYCACC board meeting. Click to enlarge.


As always, every interested New Yorker should make every effort to attend. You’ll find information there you won’t hear anywhere else, and it’s your only chance to ask questions of the board in person.

I’ll be doing a full wrap-up and update after the meeting, but a few tidbits and things to know…

– These meetings used to be quarterly. We haven’t had once since the summer and this one is billed as an annual meeting. There’s always been a wax and wane of openness for these meetings, looks like we’re waning. Bring your questions; you may not be able to ask again for quite a while.

– Expect the meeting to contain quite a fanfare about save numbers and an announcement that they are closing in on No Kill. By my calculations (which the NYT seems to confirm) I would expect ACC to announce cat save numbers for 2015 in the mid-80th percentile and dogs around the 90th percentile. While there are some caveats (and definitely things to work on), there is no question that NYC is on the upswing – and within the parameters of the reporting format they use (Asilomar), I don’t see a reason to doubt them. Should ACC cross the 90% save rate mark I believe they would be the largest shelter by intake in the US to do so.

– One of those caveats remains the transmission of in-shelter disease, a burden that is borne disproportionately by rescue groups that pull from ACC. When Medical Director Dr. Levin first joined ACC she gave a very impressive presentation at her initial board meeting with very informative statistics and plans to improve ACC processes. Since then we’ve heard very little from Dr. Levin and she seems to have been somewhat sidelined by ACC upper management. Will we hear more about the state of infectious disease at ACC and an update on efforts to prevent it?

– You should be following the NYCACC twitter account, which is doing something quietly revolutionary: each day, they are annoucing how many animals were pulled from the lists and who pulled them. This is HUGE for transparency and data tracking. Transparency like this is not easy and I applaud them for it.

– Yesterday’s New York Times article contained several bombshells, including that efforts to find new shelter sites in Queens and the Bronx (which currently have no full-servive shelters) are moving forward. This isn’t anything we haven’t heard before, so I’m interested in hearing more details. This is, I believe, the first time Executive Director Weinstock has commented publicly that more shelter space is needed and/or welcome, and I’ll take that as an encouraging sign. If the city is serious this time, we may see some money allotted for it in the Mayor’s proposed budget and that would certainly give him a win in the animal issues column – a win he he could really use with his signature animal welfare issue turning into quite a mess.

Overall it’s a much better time to be an animal in an NYC shelter than it was five years ago, and there are some very interesting possibilities ahead. I’ll do a full write-up after the meeting.

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Adopt a King in New York City!

Buckle in, this is kind of a long story. But King Arthur is worth it.

This past summer, Arthur was trapped in a feral colony at the request of a Large Non Profit here in NYC. He was very social, very sick, and diabetic. When he needed help, the Large Non Profit walked away and left us trappers holding the bag. We turned to the public to help treat him, and thanks to all of you who donated King Arthur got his medical treatment and treatment for a very scary hypoglycemic episode where he had multiple seizures.

At the time my vet cautioned me that the seizures had been very severe and that he could take months to recover. Hah! He was back to his old self 24 hours after discharge.

Over the next several months we got his diabetes well under control, and it’s now quite easy to manage. The seizures have been a slightly different story – once a cat begins to have seizures, it’s almost a sure thing that they will have more, and it took some months to find a balance of medication that worked for him.

I love the little bastard. He’s charming. He’s vocal. He’s hungry. He loves people and he loves to be held like a baby as he purrs away. He gets along well with cats and dogs and is easygoing and very confident. And I would love to keep him, but I can’t. He will always have the risk of the occasional seizure, which means that he has to be kept separate from my dogs any time I can’t be in the room with them. This means he has to spend an unacceptable amount of time cooped up in my bathroom. He doesn’t seem to mind, but I hate to do it to him – he simply deserves a better life than I can possibly provide for him.

I know he’s a hard sell – 6 years old, diabetic, and has seizures. But I also know that he is one heck of a cat and a total charmer, and I hope that there is someone out there who might be interested in giving him a home fit for a King with the care he deserves. He is so worth it. His ongoing care is easy and I can teach you how. He does require daily injections of insulin (which he does not mind getting), and a pill he eats in his food.

If you’d consider meeting the King, please drop me a line. He is here in New York City but I will drive any resonable distance for the right home. There is no deadline; I will not give up on him. He is with me for as long as he needs to be. But he deserves better. Could that be you?


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Saving Bronx Cats

IMG_1334I got a phone call in early October to help with a dying kitten in the Bronx. I ended up in a 2BR apartment with a couple who were clearly overwhelmed. They love cats, and they tried to do the right thing by taking in just three cats who needed homes, but they didn’t keep up on the spay and neuter. The original cats had litters, and those cats had litters, and before you know it they had 35 cats in their home and they’re overwhelmed. Minutes after I arrived the kitten I had originally come for passed. Not even 2 weeks old, he had an infected bite wound on his head that had abscessed, unnoticed. The back bedroom is for the kittens, but many die from lack of care. They have so many cats that they could not remember all of their names or tell me how many there were.

I’m a little overwhelmed myself. I’m in production for a new Broadway show and we’re in our 8am – 11pm days, 6 days a week. But I couldn’t not help them. They needed help badly; about 25% of the cats in their home were approaching sexual maturity and the house was about to have a huge population explosion.

IMG_1326I quickly arranged for a day of mass spay/neuter, with an ASPCA truck coming to their home and picking up as many of the cats as possible, returning with them the next day – and I got very lucky. When I called the ASPCA, they had a truck available a mere two days later. They are a fairly amazing resource in New York City for this kind of work. A friend of mine whom I partner with on many spay/neuter projects very generously made herself available to be at the apartment with the truck on short notice when I could not, and she added a few Bronx-trapped feral cats to the truck load.

IMG_1379A few days after the first big spay/neuter I stopped by the apartment with supplies. While this project is primarily about stopping the cycle of reproduction and ending the deaths in the house, it was also an opportunity to teach the residents to care for the remaining cats as well as possible – good quality care does not have to be expensive. I brought new, large litter pans to replace the tiny, overflowing ones, 160lbs of clumping litter with scoops that will last longer, smell better and be more sanitary than the non-clumping litter, and 50 lbs of dry food and 150 cans of wet food that are solid quality nutrition that is not outrageously expensive. I also reached out to rescues and rescuers known to me to take a few of the most vulnerable cats, and a huge thanks to Anjellicle Cat Rescue, Companion Animal Trust, and Little Wanderers for their help and assistance in getting them to safety and making them available for adoption.

There is a little clean up still to do: there are three cats that we could not get access to on the initial day and I’ll have to return for them as well as the moms who are now nursing and their kittens. I’ll be doing that over the next few weeks. Once my show opens, in early December, I will switch focus to adopting out as many cats as the owners will allow; they have already given up 7 and are expected to surrender more.

IMG_1333Thus far the bill has been $1357 for spay/neuter which also included rabies and FVRCP shots, FIV/FeLV testing, flea treatment, and round trip transport – not too bad. In addition, I have spent approximately $200 on supplies. This project had to move quickly, so I financed everything out of my pocket hoping that people might want to help me once I got a chance to write this all down! I estimate that the total cost of the project will be approximately $2000. In addition to spaying and neutering every single cat in the house that is of age, I would like to be able to provide funding for any group that steps up to help me to fund their expenses, especially if they take a young kitten. At this point I intend to stop asking for donations when and if I hit $2000 and holding off until I determine if more funds are necessary. Any excess funding will be given to the 501(c)3 groups that have helped me on this project; I do not intend to keep a dime. IMG_1445While the people who live in the apartment will be asked to contribute, they have modest means. I think this is worth doing, not just for them but for the animals who live there, for the animals who will now not be born (and perhaps die) there, and for the sake of public health before this home becomes a law enforcement situation. If you would like to help, I would be very grateful. If you’re looking for a good number, $55 provides one cat with all of the basic services. I have partnered for this fundraising with the Social Good Fund so that your donation is to a 501(c)3 and is fully tax deductible; we are one of their sponsored projects.

Thank you so much for your help.

Posted in ASPCA, Cats, South Bronx | Leave a comment

NYCACC Board Meeting – Jun 24, 10:30AM

There will be a meeting of the board of New York City Animal Care and Control on Wednesday, June 24 at 10:30AM. The official notice is reprinted below (click to enlarge). These meetings are always educational and time there is well spent. Mark your calendar!


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The Myth of the FBI and Animal Cruelty

US-FBI-ShadedSeal.svgYou see it regularly now on Facebook in cases of animal abuse – someone will mention the FBI and how all this will be improved when they get involved in animal cruelty as they’re scheduled to, or that abuse is now a federal crime, or isn’t the FBI supposed to be doing something about this?

No, no, and no. So let’s address that.

The FBI recently made a change to the way they collect and report data about crime in a database called the National Incident-Based Reporting System, or NIBRS, that collects and reports data on crime statistics from around the country. Previously, animal cruelty crimes were lumped into an “other” category. It represents a change in attitude for the FBI – they want better tracking of cruelty because they find it is an indicator of violent crime, so in their reporting they are presenting it as equally important to consider and track as many violent crimes.

This has been widely misunderstood, both by the press and the general public. It does not mean that animal cruelty is now a federal crime, it does not mean that people who abuse animals will be prosecuted differently or get stiffer sentences, it does not mean that the FBI intends to get involved or is involved in state or local cruelty cases. It is simply a change in the way they track crime data. And that’s important, and a step forward – it’s a signal that they agree it should be taken seriously. But that’s all it is.

Data collection will begin in 2016.

The waters have been somewhat further muddied, I think, by some activist groups with poor messaging.


This is simply not true. Trust me, cruelty is not always a felony – or don’t trust me, look at the thousands of news stories for misdemeanor animal cruelty. Here in New York State, you can still starve an animal to death and it’s a misdemeanor – there’s a link to the exact text of the current law, take a look. What is true is that all states now have provisions for treating some cruelty as a felony offense, which is a very different statement, and a step forward. But currently, in most states, most cruelty is treated as a misdemeanor – and the definition of “cruelty” can vary widely from state to state.

I think it is important to correct misinformation like this so that animal lovers and activists do not believe that we’ve crossed a goal line that we, in fact, have not. The way cruelty is treated in the United States is changing, and these represent small but very important changes, changes that are worth noting and celebrating but that are not revolutionary – and that tends to be the way things work. Attitudes and laws tend to evolve over time rather than radically changing overnight. But further change is needed, and there is still much to do.

Update 12/2/15: This is a recent and excellent mass media article on the subject.

Update 1/7/16: Here’s another great article in the Washington Post.

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Dog Condemned By Sternberg Gets Reprieve

“This dog is not a pet, and I don’t care what kind of trainer you are, you can’t make this dog a pet.” – Sue Sternberg

b0c7d7472fa4d6ac6dc134b28b4e14721c33e5f5f101323788266c70237aeffbExcept that sometimes – frequently, even – you can. When legendary dog trainer Jean Donaldson, PhD, tested Sternberg’s Assess-A-Pet temperament test at the San Francisco SPCA she commented, “We need tests that are scientifically proven to be reliable and valid. We couldn’t get Sue’s test past the reliability issue, and four of her five unadoptable dogs did fine.”

I’m guessing that the dog Sternberg recently condemned during a presentation will do pretty well. Sounds like he’s now with people with some better ideas and the patience to do an actual evaluation. Many thanks to them for believing in him.

"This dog is not a pet, and I don't care what kind of trainer you are, you can't make this dog a pet." ~Sue Sternberg…

Posted by Tennessee Death Row Dogs on Wednesday, April 29, 2015

He certainly does look like a killer…

I look forward to hearing more about Camo’s progress.

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Sue Sternberg Has A Public Meltdown

Sue Sternberg is a relic from another age; an unaccredited “trainer” who is nonetheless looked to by some – including major, national groups – as a behavior expert. Sternberg is the creator of the Assess-A-Pet temperament test and the infamous Assess-A-Hand, the rubber hand on a stick that is used by shelters nationwide – sometimes inappropriately, to harass dogs into a response.

Sternberg believes that efforts should be focused on dogs who are “pet quality”, and those of lesser caliber – including those who fail her temperament test – are likely better off dead. Even for the “pet quality” dogs, she believes that a shelter stay of more than two weeks may damage them so much psychologically that death may be preferable. My own experience is radically different, having adopted dogs that have lived in awful, isolating conditions for extremely long periods of time – even a decade or more – and watching them adapt wonderfully to life as a cherished pet. I consider “kennel crazy” one of the most destructive shelter dog myths of our time – though kennel stress is very much real, long-term damage is overstated (and frequently easily reversible) and relatively easily avoided.

Sternberg is currently promoting a “Train to Adopt” program, which is pretty odd since historically she’s always been on the side of adopting out the easy and the perfect and killing the rest.

Recently she gave a presentation at the Petfinder conference where she had a bit of a public meltdown that I thought was worth sharing. These observations come from a trusted source who wishes to remain anonymous.

Last week I was at a Petfinder “Adoptions Options” seminar in the Nashville, TN, area. There were around 150 of us there from shelters and rescue groups within a few hours of the location. One of the presenters did something so horrible I needed to share it with people, but can’t do it officially because I was asked not to by my organization, to avoid embarrassment and because the events are free and mostly very valuable.

A dog trainer named Sue Sternberg was the last presenter of the day. This was how it was described in the agenda:

Animal welfare professionals have a responsibility to provide true quality of life for each dog in their program. This workshop covers the importance of achieving and maintaining quality of life for dogs in shelters. Training, behavior modification programs, and mental, behavioral and emotional stimulation for dogs will be covered. We will explore some fun and easy ways to train adoptable dogs so they can put their best paw forward. Shelter dogs will be used for demonstration.

Sue seemed like a funny and polished presenter, and at first I was interested. I thought her making fun of vegans was a little rude, but when she started mocking the dogs by calling them “Lab/Boxer mixes” with an eye roll, I thought it was more than rude, it was inappropriate. We know how unreliable visual ID of a breed is, and given the existence of BSL and the damage breed stereotypes do all over the world, treating that like it’s funny rubbed me the wrong way. I just wish that was all that had rubbed me the wrong way.

She would use hot dogs to get the dogs to sit and lie down, and all while she was working with them in a very non-focused way, she would offer and withhold treats from them. Either someone I couldn’t hear asked her if this wasn’t frustrating them a lot, or she just responded because she gets this question all the time, but she said yes, it was frustrating, but dogs get frustrated in ‘real life” all the time.

One of the dogs she interacted with got very frustrated and started mouthing her. I don’t know how hard it was. She got very “serious” and informed the audience this dog “isn’t a pet” and needed to be “euthanized” or put in a sanctuary with a long list of requirements that I don’t actually disagree with, but had no real context and certainly were out of reach for any shelter.

This was bad enough, as she’d just condemned a dog to death in front of more than a hundred people who were seeing her as an expert, with the Petfinder seal of approval, based on a distracted five-minute interaction with a dog who not only was in an unfamiliar setting but may have been hungry and had been made to wait for around an hour back next to the loaded food tables, on a short leash with a bunch of other dogs around. Great, now all these people think THIS is a valid way to evaluate a shelter dog! Ten minutes and a hotdog and anyone can do it! Who needs scientifically proven behavior assessments, who needs veterinary behaviorist input, who needs reproducible results?

And what about the behavior modification we were promised in the agenda? No mention of the work being done at places like the Center for Shelter Dogs in Boston or research from the ASPCA or anywhere else. Just boom, dog’s “not a pet” and should be put down.

But then, it got worse. She said not only was he “not a pet,” he “wasn’t bred to be a pet,” and his “mother and father weren’t bred to be a pet.” Now she was “evaluating” dogs she’d never even seen and knew nothing about.

4T9QpAnd then she went into this long, self-pitying rant about the evils of the no-kill movement, and how dangerous dogs are flooding our communities because shelters want to improve their live release rates, and how the rate of dog attacks has gone up, and on and on, without any evidence or data of any kind to back up what she said. I mean, the shelter vet who presented, and all three of the marketing and social media presenters, had data. Her opinions can KILL DOGS — so where was hers? And why didn’t anyone ask her for any (including me?).

Then she got all martyred, saying how “no one else” wants to talk about these hard truths, like she’s some misunderstood prophet and not like just about half the shelters in the country or more aren’t already judging and condemning these dogs every day. She’s so BRAVE, right? Even though… cue the tears … she gets death threats and there’s a pile of police reports in her local PD from all the people who want to “euthanize her” — her words — and again and again with how she’s the ONLY ONE saying these tough realities. And that she knew someone would “put this on Facebook” and she’d start getting the death threats.

Then she slammed the San Francisco SPCA, which I didn’t understand exactly, except she said they could adopt out these dogs more safely because people in San Francisco don’t have families. Like it’s okay for dogs to bite adults? I don’t know. It made no sense.

Then she wrapped it all up with a pitch to buy things from her table — she was the ONLY presenter who had a table and was selling anything. It was all so inappropriate, and I’m really shocked Petfinder would let her do it. But she’s on their schedule over and over again, and not only that, but she wrote something in the booklet she handed out, so they obviously think she’s just fine.

Thank you for anything you can do to stop this irresponsible presentation of what it means to evaluate a dog from being put in front of trusting animal welfare community members who are only trying to do right by our animals, and might believe what she’s teaching is backed up by research or in step with behavior experts when it’s not.

Relics such as this are best left behind, and I do hope Petfinder will reconsider giving Sternberg a forum.

I’d love to hear from others who witnessed this presentation.

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Leading Astray: Scott Stringer’s Audit of NYC Animal Care and Control

images (1)City Comptroller Scott Stringer recently gave a press conference to present his office’s audit of New York City’s Animal Care and Control (NYCACC or just ACC). He did not hold back on the rhetoric, with lines like “(vaccine) storage practices that would make your stomach crawl” and “fiscal mismanagement”. Unfortunately the report he delivered that day doesn’t entirely support some of that rhetoric, some of which might be said to be exaggerated, and some of that speech shows either a basic lack of understanding of the relationship between ACC and the city’s Department of Health (DOH), which supervises the contract, or a willingness to use confusion for political gain. Although it exposed flaws (as all audits will), it’s likely the best Comptroller audit ACC has ever had.

First, Stringer’s press conference:

You may read the report in its entirety here:

Scott Stringer's 2015 NYCACC Audit

a2c98e84b7d65600cfe94b1f8d6c013f6cea4e3d1ebb6c561375353c1494ab56Really, the only serious matter of ACC deficiency in this entire report is the mishandling of controlled substances and the use of expired drugs, and that is indeed extremely troubling. However, the information in this audit is a year old or more – right after ACC had hired a new Medical Director and just before they restructured medical staff. After this information was uncovered, ACC added a Senior Veterinary Manager who is a vet, several Licensed Veterinary Technicians, quality control staff, and a Medical Practice Administrator. In response to the audit’s findings ACC pledged to immediately address the issues found and to implement better tracking systems for controlled substances and expired medications. They’ve revamped the entire system since the audit’s information gathering. You wouldn’t know this from the Comptroller’s speech, which presents this as if it were still the case today. It is not. This is a very serious matter and I hope the Comptroller’s office follows up on it.

There are some criticisms that, while valid, are not under ACC’s direct control. The audit criticizes them for not using an empty garage space in Manhattan: they are forbidden from doing so by the DOH, which owns the building. The audit points out the need for a backup generator in Manhattan – a capital improvement that would also be the domain of the DOH, as would the recommendation for an improved HVAC system for Brooklyn – a known issue for years. These things are represented in Stringer’s press conference as ACC flaws – they are not, they are DOH flaws (as is mostly correctly noted in the written report). Renovations were recently announced on the garage in Manhattan to turn it into an adoptions center and on Brooklyn’s HVAC system, and Stringer claims some of the credit for that in the video – but a misleading the public isn’t necessary for that; he could’ve started with a funding request. Scott Stringer either does not fully understand the relationship between ACC and the DOH or is willing to use the confusion for his own political gain.

Then we have the mountains out of molehills. He makes a lot of hay out of “(vacccine) storage practices that would make your skin crawl” because refrigerated vaccines were stored with employee lunches. This is not generally considered good practice for two reasons: temperature stability, with as few opens of the refrigerator door as possible, and vaccine contamination. It’s extremely difficult, however, to contaminate modern vaccines, which generally ship in very tightly sealed small glass vials in multiple layers of packaging. Similarly, temperature stability is less of an issue in an environment that uses so much product. In a small vet clinic that goes into the fridge 8-10 times per day for vaccines the additional opening by employees to access their lunches may make for a significant decline in temperature stability. In a place that uses a hundred vaccines per day the additional lunch openings aren’t likely to make a whole lot of difference. Although a separate vaccine fridge is recommended and ideal, sharing space with lunch is also pretty common. While not ideal practice, it not only doesn’t make my skin crawl, it’s typical enough to barely arouse my interest.

I did find interesting the vaccines discovered stored next to animal remains mentioned in the audit. At the time I thought the auditors had actually missed the point – vaccines need to be stored in a refrigerator, animal remains are generally stored in a freezer. I later discovered that this was an unique situation where an animal that needed a necropsy (the animal equivalent of an autopsy) was placed in a vaccine refrigerator temporarily for preservation until the procedure – freezing makes the necropsy much more difficult. It would be unusual to have a refrigerator on hand specifically for this purpose (although I’m sure they now do!), because it’s not something that comes up very often.

images (2)Stringer attempted to conflate these two situations at his press conference, claiming “(animal) remains next to people’s lunches and vice versa”. That would indeed be disgusting if it actually happened. His report does not document that. These were prepared remarks, not off the cuff, and I believe the Comptroller has a duty to represent the contents of his report accurately.

Stringer’s press conference claimed “fiscal mismanagement” mainly based on approximately $11,000 in credit card charges over one fiscal year that his office felt lacked sufficient documentation. The New York Post later obtained some of the charges. None of the items mentioned in the article seem particularly extravagant to me. Animal non-profit employees are not very well paid and occasionally buying lunch for your employees, or a gift card to say thank you to a volunteer can be totally legitimate expenses. As an employee of animal charities I have been on the giving and receiving ends of those thoughtful thank-yous; they are typical. $124 for parking expenses and $294 for parking tickets are a drop in the bucket for an org that employs more than 200 people and owns many vehicles; I pay a hell of a lot more than that yearly on the single car I own. For those of you who are not NYC residents, a simple parking error in Manhattan – missing a sign, or not seeing a hydrant – can easily run you more than $100. Another aspect of “fiscal mismanagement” was late fines and interest on accounts payable. While ACC did note some deficiencies in paying accounts on time, they also noted the expense – over half of the late fee/interest total – of having to maintain a line of credit because payments due to them from the city were so frequently late. If only there was a city office that could help with that! Even if every single item of the $11,000 in credit card expenses were fraudulent – which clearly, they are not – they would amount to less than 1% of the budget, significantly less than the average loss of retail operations. Although Stringer sought to make a point of this in his press conference, his report calls these issues minor, and deservedly so.

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 1.13.23 PMFinally, we have both the silly and the harmful. Stringer felt the need to bring up in the press conference some peeling paint above a dog kennel in Staten Island. I will assume Mr. Stringer does not own a dog, because a few latex paint chips in one of my dogs’ food bowls would be the least significant non-food item they’ve consumed this week. Harmful is Stringer’s “overcrowding” criticism: when Manhattan runs out of space in their rooms, they house animals in rolling cage banks in the hallways. While that is not ideal practice, I would certainly rather see a live animal in a hallway cage than an animal killed for “lack of space” when housing in the hallway is an option. We all know that more shelters are needed, especially in the Bronx and Queens. Let’s not drive the euthanasia rate up to make a point – until more space exists, I would rather see an animal in a hallway than a garbage bag. Creative use of their limited space is, in fact, something ACC is doing RIGHT, not doing wrong.

Generally speaking, I’m a fan of Scott Stringer. I supported his mayoral run, I supported his Comptroller run, and I’ll probably support his future mayoral run(s), which he’s pretty transparently already running for. I believe that the long term plan he has proposed for ACC is the best chance for giving NYCACC a stable future: independence from the DOH (which has no mission to safeguard the welfare of animals), independence from the city, and the ability to be self-sustaining and raise their own funds are necessary so that shifting political winds – winds that right now happen to be the best we’ve yet seen, but can change in an instant – do not take us backwards. I can make the case for necessary improvements without having to resort to hyping peeling paint as a serious hazard or promoting lurid details about lunches and deceased animals that happen to be… well, let’s be generous and call them unproven. I find the Comptroller’s willingness to mislead a bit troubling. Stringer is a smart enough political operator to recognize that voters who care about animal issues are a significant bloc and also smart enough to recognize that they’re disappointed in the broken promises of Mayor de Blasio. While I do believe that he cares about this issue, I hope he someday makes the time in his busy schedule to visit ACC, which evidently he has not yet done. While they certainly have a way to go, had he visited in the years he’s been following this issue he might better be able to recognize their progress.

So keep an eye on the drugs, mmmkay? And other than that, congratulations. It’s a hell of a lot better than, say, this. And that deserves some recognition.

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Saving Julia – And Her Unborn Puppies

NB: This was originally published on the Pets Alive blog, but I’m placing a copy here for archival purposes.

nycacc_manhattan_acc_cacc_shelter_poundThere is a tempting human tendency to see things strictly in terms of black and white, of good and evil. Goodness knows I’m as guilty of this as anyone, and it’s an especially tempting trap to fall into in the world of animal sheltering. With emotion amplified by the tincture of death it’s easy to lapse into excess; surrounding nearly any public shelter you will find critics at the edge of this excess who pepper social media with references to murder and Nazis, typically in all-caps.

My own view of New York City Animal Care and Control (NYCACC or just ACC) has mellowed over the years from the all-caps position. I moved back to my New York City home when the shelter was under the control of people whose actions were nearly completely inexplicable for people who claimed to care for animals, the reins of control firmly held by mayoral administrations that had no care at all. The stench of apathy permeated the buildings, detectable even over the constant animal odor. Still, even then, there were some good people there in a bad place, in a bad situation, people who were doing everything they could to save animals.

Recent developments have been much more encouraging. The most recent administration is the most progressive yet seen there and has been busy enacting a raft of long-awaited changes to increase the number of animals who leave the shelter alive, and the political winds have shifted as well to the benefit of the shelter system and New York City’s animals. Things are not perfect, but they are certainly improving. Even the buildings smell better.

When the current administration really became serious about improvements I observed that one of their challenges would be to infuse the entire organization with their new spirit of lifesaving. The new leaders were believers – one top staffer had told me point-blank that sustaining a save rate of over 90% was a matter of when, not if – but large institutional change, from top to bottom, rarely comes overnight. ACC faces the additional challenge of physical removal, with top managers located offsite in a downtown office building, far from the shelters they control.

juliaWith any transition, with change, there are bumps in the road. This is Julia. Like many of the animals who still die nightly, Julia was almost one of those bumps.

Julia came to the shelter as a stray on March 23. You can read all about her on the Urgent site, which publicizes the shelter’s nightly kill lists (among other things). Her evaluation is stellar, she’s friendly, beautiful, no behavior problems, likes dogs and cats, loved by staff and volunteers. A wonderful dog.

Julia was adopted on March 31. By this time she was quite sick, likely the recipient of one of the shelter’s resident diseases. Her adopter had her for only one day before returning her, concerned that they would not be able to help her get healthy – she was reportedly constantly coughing and gagging continuously, vomiting up food and medication. Around April 5, volunteers noticed that her belly was distended and discovered what several medical exams by ACC had missed: Julia was pregnant.

Julia’s first intake exam on March 23 contained the note “enlarged teats, poss post lactation”. Close, but not quite. Her pregnancy (and pre-lactation) undiscovered, Julia had been prescribed doxycycline to treat her illness. Doxycycline is typically not given to pregnant dogs because it inhibits skeletal growth, endangering the health of her pups.

Julia3On April 6 Julia was kill listed, offered to both the public and to rescues to save. The news of her pregnancy – although known to the shelter – was concealed, not disclosed in her medical notes. If she was not chosen from the list, her unborn pups would die with her. If she was saved, the shelter would do a “spay abort” prior to her release, likely without informing her adopter. Many people who are not intimately familiar with animal sheltering do not realize that within the mainstream world of sheltering and of shelter medicine, spay abort procedures aren’t even controversial; they are done routinely, with complete support of national animal welfare organizations. Many shelters and s/n clinics will do spay aborts extremely, even horrifyingly, late in pregnancy. Spay aborts come with increased surgical risk – and that risk was already high due to illness and impaired breathing.

At ACC, people who had come to love Julia were sneaking her extra food for the health of her babies and looking for a place where she would be able to deliver them, contacting Pets Alive Westchester.

Aware of her pregnancy, Pets Alive Westchester (PAW) tried to claim her from the kill list, but she had already been reserved by a member of the public, her spay abort scheduled at the shelter for Saturday, April 11 – a 5 day wait in order for her health to improve before attempting the risky procedure. PAW tried to appeal for the life of her puppies, guaranteeing to honor Julia’s adoption once they were weaned. They were denied. Appeals to the supervisor of New Hope, the department that interfaces with rescues, went unanswered. Because of the adoption hold placed by a public adopter, Julia would undergo the risky surgery, her pups relegated to the trash bin.

On Friday April 10, PAW escalated, advocating for Julia’s interests, contacting shelter upper management, and preparing for the possibility of a public information campaign as a last ditch effort to save Julia’s puppies – and Julia – from surgery. Near the close of the business day, at the close of the business week, late on the day before her surgery, word finally came back from ACC: she would go to an adopter’s home and have her puppies, who would be fostered by the adopter until they were old enough to come back to the shelter for adoption.

Although this hopefully spares Julia’s puppies, it’s less than ideal. The shelter that missed her pregnancy and gave her medication that can cause birth defects in her puppies will continue to oversee her medical care. Once weaned and ready for adoption, her puppies are likely to be returned to the shelter where their delicate immune systems will be exposed to the environment where their mother caught a respiratory disease severe enough to land her on a list for destruction. PAW had hoped for better for her and for them. But the adopter’s hold must be honored, the outcome information controlled, the course likely to result in the most successful lifesaving outcome not chosen for the purpose of PR.

IMG_4206It is not fair to penalize a person or an organization for mistakes made in good conscience, or to leverage those mistakes for PR – and yes, I’ve been as guilty of that as anyone and I’m trying to evolve. Animals are not potted plants; shelters present ample opportunity for human error, unexpected events, medical mysteries. This past week I accidentally left a bag of medications on my kitchen counter. Attracted to the delicious smell of Heartguard, one of my dogs pulled the bag from the counter and chewed up the assorted bottles, ingesting unknown quantities of powerful medications. I paid dearly for my mistake, both financially and in concern for my dog – I cried with relief when, at 3am in the emergency room, the vet told me that she thought he was going to be all right. I risked his life in what was not an act of good or evil; I made a mistake.

Patterns are a slightly different matter. When an animal is repeatedly seen by medical staff for at least two intake exams and several follow-ups and a detail like pregnancy is missed, only to be pointed out by volunteers a mere four days after an intake exam, that’s a pattern. Patterns like that can be troubling. In April of 2014, one year ago, ACC announced a goal of having every intake exam being done by a vet and I’m not sure that happened here. Patterns of rigidly adhering to policy and procedure when that procedure clearly contradicts what is an ethical imperative are also troubling; 48 hours of internal debate and external maneuvering to accomplish a clear ethical imperative are more than troubling because there should be no debate. When one can choose life, that is what you do, at every level from the janitor to the Chairman of the Board. Rarely should requests to act in what is clearly and unquestionably the best interests of an animal require working their way up to senior management.

Some years ago I interviewed for a position at one of the country’s best municipal open-admission No Kill shelters. I spent the entire day there, meeting and talking to many of the staff at all levels, from kennel cleaners to the Executive Director. I later remarked to the ED how astounded I was that nearly every person I had talked to at some point dropped into the conversation, somehow, saving lives. “I’m here to save lives.” “I like to save lives.” “I’m proud to save lives.” They had distilled their mission to such a simple essence and communicated that so effectively throughout the entire organization, and their employees seemed genuinely empowered to do that at every level – to choose the right thing. I reflect on that experience often. I wonder how there can be success without it.

I like data. Recent data – data that I believe is accurate – show that New York City shelters have improved, greatly. I believe that this is true. But data and statistics do not show the whole story. While some would call it anecdote, what one of my statistic geek friends calls “hand-selected artisanal data” indicates that New York has some distance yet to travel. These are not matters of good and evil necessarily but of problems to be solved, attitudes to change, evolutions to encourage. While we all want things to be perfect overnight, evolution can be messy. As I’ve said, there are always bumps in the road.

I am glad Julia was not one of them, though I remain somewhat disappointed with the outcome. We will work with and ally with and encourage others to cooperate with anyone, to the very best of our abilities, who will commit themselves to saving the Julias, to correcting mistakes, to making every effort to do the right thing, until the day when all the Julias are saved and the kill list is no more. What stands in our way we will fight to the best of our ability with every tool we can. When lives are at stake and there is something that can be done that may save them the ethical imperative is very clear.

One of my rescue mentors taught me something that I’m still trying to absorb completely: that there is value in disagreement, and not to back down on matters of conscience or ethics – to not be quiet when you’re screaming inside; to have the uncomfortable discussions or disagreements or arguments or downright bloody fights (metaphorically speaking) in matters of practice, of legislation, of ethics. But, she counseled, you must never hesitate to lay down your sword and join together with your opponent when there is an opportunity to help an animal. That should be the most important thing of all, and no matter how bloody the fight, how deep the disagreement, that is the one thing we cannot afford to lose sight of – what all this is for.

Join us.

John Sibley
Animal Rescuer
Board President and Chairman, Pets Alive

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