Shelters for Every Borough of NYC: Not Like This

bad_escape_planIn 2011 New York City passed Local Law 59-2011, the result of a deal between some of the city’s major animal organizations (including the ASPCA, which lobbied very hard to pass the bill) and the city. The major effect of Local Law 59 was to relieve the city of its decade-old obligation to build full service city shelters in the Bronx and Queens in exchange for the promise (but not the written obligation) by the city to provide additional funding for existing facilities.

Now in 2015 the political winds have shifted, the shelter system is better funded (although that may be taken away at any time, since that was just a promise and not a law…), and the same group of people who negotiated the deal with the city to take away the obligation to build a full-service shelter in every borough are trying to pass a law that again restores that obligation, Intro 485.

This all sounds well and good, but it’s a bit simple. The law makes only one change, this statement: The department shall ensure that a full-service shelter is maintained in each borough of the city of New York.

That is a very popular idea. It is popular enough that most of the city’s animal organizations are for it, it is popular enough to have the majority of city council members as co-sponsors. It is an easy thing to be in favor of, with no political consequence: I voted to save puppies and kittens! Funding? Someone else’s problem! This is a massive unfunded mandate, an idea with no evident plan – and that makes it dangerous.

j-b-handelsman-no-but-i-can-give-you-an-unfunded-mandate-new-yorker-cartoonThere is nothing that I see that would prevent the City’s Department of Health from building and opening two more full-service shelters but keeping the budget for operations the same, crippling the ability of the entire system to operate. There is nothing I see that would prevent them from putting an adoption run or two in their existing borough “intake centers” and claiming compliance with the law. But what I see as most likely is an exact repeat of what happened last time: faced with a very weak law and knowing that when politicians are asked how they plan to finance their creation they will have no answer and, faced with providing actual funding, are likely to go skittering for the exits, the Department of Health will simply drag their feet and fail to comply with the law as they did for the decade after the first one was passed, secure in the knowledge that there will be no consequence for doing so.

It’s a good idea. It’s a great idea. But it’s been tried before and it didn’t work. Worse than that, some of the possible outcomes from an idea so vague and undefined have the potential to undo the steady progress we’ve recently been seeing from the New York City shelter system and take us back to the old days.

A politically popular idea is not enough; what is needed is a plan. This proposed law is not a plan, and it is potentially dangerous.

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New Hope for Shelters for ALL of New York City? [UPDATED]

Update 2/23 – Please note there is a CHANGE OF VENUE for this hearing – it will now be held on the 14th floor of 250 Broadway at 10am on Wed, Feb 25. There is also a press conference/photo op on the steps of City Hall scheduled for 9:30.

confused_catNew York City Councilman Paul Vallone (not to be confused with his brother, Peter) has introduced a bill in the NYC Council to require full service shelters in the Bronx and Queens in addition to the other three boroughs. This will be an interesting fight, as there was a back-room deal a few years ago to get rid of the requirement for full service shelters in every borough (which had existed, unfulfilled, for a decade) in exchange for greater funding of the existing shelters. While that has happened as planned, the details of the deal have never been revealed to the public. I guess Councilman Vallone isn’t happy with how it’s worked out – and the number of sponsors the bill has attracted makes it look to me like he’s getting some traction on the issue. You may view the very simple details of the bill here.

The hearing on the proposed legislation will take place on Wed, Feb 25 at 10am at the Council Chambers of City Hall of New York City on the 14th Floor of 250 Broadway. Here are the directions for this meeting of the Health Committee, which is charged with legislative oversight of the City’s shelter system.

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NYCACC Board Meeting

There will be a meeting of the board of New York City Animal Care and Control on this Friday, January 23rd. The official notice is reprinted below. These meetings are always educational and time there is well spent.

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Strike a Blow for the Status Quo

For those who can’t read the graphic (and it’s not easy, I know) – this is a group of activists, mostly in Italy, celebrating their success at pressuring Puma to withdraw sponsorship of a New York City Animal Care and Control (NYCACC) fundraising event.

Which is dumb.

Many activists here in New York have been critical of NYCACCs past inability to fundraise independently of the city and the Department of Health. Then when they start to improve their corporate relations, they are shut down? Is NYCACC to be entirely dependant on whatever the city deems politically convenient forever, or do we want them to form relationships that may someday help to lead to their independence?

We cheer when the city increases their budget because we recognize the potential to save more lives. Is this different? Might the next corporate supporter renovate a building, or buy an x-ray machine? Would we like the opportunity to find out?

I realize the good intentions behind this, but activists who target fundraising and the venues used to hold fundraising functions have to realize that they are striking a blow for the status quo, where the budget depends entirely on the whims of politicians, the city calls the shots, and the facilities consist of whatever old building the city happens to own.

Many New York activists believe that critical to the way forward is a truly independent organization with the fundraising prowess to pursue its own organizational goals as opposed to being the handmaiden of the city, which is inevitable when the city provides nearly all of the funding.

Is the status quo what you want to support?

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NYCACC Board Meeting

I wasn’t able to attend the most recent NYCACC board meeting. Fortunately, the meeting was posted on YouTube for the first time and the presentation slides are online as well, so anyone can follow along at home.

I’m not going to do an in-depth analysis right now but I did want to note two particular slides in the presentation.

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These are the “shock and awe” slides that AC&C uses to communicate the enormity of the job at hand, but they only tell a small part of the story. What isn’t communicated here is that a large number of these animals are already leaving alive, particularly courtesy of the shelters’ New Hope partners who do the lion’s share of actually adopting out AC&C animals. The more useful data is to look at the number of animals who aren’t making it out.

Here are the statistics for May of 2014, the most recent available:

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So here’s another way to phrase the problem: AC&C remains pathetically bad at adoptions. In the month of May they did an average of slightly over 5 adoptions per day per location in the largest, densest adoptions market in the nation.

In the month of May 383 animals lost their lives at AC&C. That is slightly over four per day per location, so if AC&C could adopt out an additional four animals per day per location they could have had zero euthanasias for the month.

That assumes that zero euthanasias are possible, which is likely not true – there will always be behavioral and health euthanasias, so let’s assume a generous 90% save rate target. At 2821 intake for the month, dropping euthanasia to approximately 282 would get them to a 90% save rate. In order to drop euthanasias to that number they would need to save an additional 101 animals… or an average of one more adoption per day per location.

Shock and awe indeed.

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Redemption – The Film – Comes to NYC on July 16

There are a handful of books that have really shaped my world. William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Po Bronson’s What Should I Do With My Life. Tom Collins’ Good to Great. But the book that has probably impacted my life the most, especially my relationship to animals, is Nathan Winograd’s Redemption, a book that shook the animal protection movement to its core and continues to reverberate today in every animal shelter and every animal protection organization in this country and many others. It is a work that I and others found tremendously inspiring as well as practical – a movieposterwebhistory of the animal protection movement in the United States, where it has lost its way, and how to fix it; a story about believing in the community and in the power of human compassion.

Redemption has now been made into a film, and its exclusive engagement in New York City will be at 6pm on Wednesday, July 16. Following the film there will be a reception with a Q&A and book signing by Nathan Winograd.

This is not an evening of depression, but of inspiration and hope, compassion and redemption. Find out where we’ve been. Find out where we’re going. Join us at the New York City screening of Redemption on July 16.

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IMG_0902 3

1999 – 2014

“To call him a dog hardly seems to do him justice,
though inasmuch as he had four legs, a tail, and barked,
I admit he was, to all outward appearances. But to those who
knew him well, he was a perfect gentleman.”
-Hermione Gingold

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NYCACC Schedules Board Meeting for Thursday, June 19

The next board meeting of New York City Animal Care and Control will be held on Thursday, June 19 at 10:30AM at 125 Worth Street in Manhattan. If you have any interest in animal issues in New York City attendance at these meetings is extremely educational – and at this one I hope to learn if the new Medical Director’s presence is paying off. See you there!

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New York: A No Kill City for Just One Day

justonedayJune 11, 2014 is Just One Day in New York City and across the country – a day when animal shelters across the nation pledge to not kill any animals in their care and showcase their efforts to reach out to the public and involve them in saving shelter animals – a trial run of No Kill, if you will, an exploration of what is possible. It is also, by extension, a day of cooperation between shelter systems and rescue groups; a day to lay down one’s rhetorical and metaphorical swords and focus on saving as many animals as possible – together.

Historically there has been participation in this yearly event in the New York City area from rescue groups; their role has been an effort to clean out the kill lists on Just One Day. This year, they’ll have help.

The newest participant in this national day of No Kill is Animal Care and Control of New York City. On Jun 10 there will be no “at risk” list. On Jun 11, there will be no euthanasias performed, there will be extended adoption hours, there will be greatly reduced adoption fees, there will be outreach in the form of an adoptions vehicle going to a major urban center, and there will be a focus on reaching out to the public and inviting them in – especially through a social media presence that has been growing steadily more engaging.

This is important; to my mind representing an acknowledgement by NYCACC of a direction, a goal: this is where we’re going.

I know it’s very difficult to see this in the middle of kitten season, but NYCACC is actually improving. The April numbers imply a live release rate for the month somewhere on the upper end of the 80th percentile – it’s hard to say exactly where they are as NYCACC still will not provide numbers in the standard Asilomar reporting format – and neither will Maddie’s Fund, who requires NYCACC to produce those numbers but hasn’t made them publicly available since 2011. Both organizations have a lot to say about transparency and I would hope that one or both will soon publish the shelter’s recent numbers soon to fulfill that commitment to transparency. In the fall, when the ASPCA’s recently announced kitten nursery opens, we will hopefully see further improvement statistics even during upcoming kitten season(s).

There will be detractors who say that the commitment to Just One Day doesn’t matter, that animals will simply be moved to another day – but they miss the point. By coupling a suspension of the kill list with a focused effort to get more animals into homes, with adoptions promotions, with extended hours, with more opportunities for animals to leave the shelter – well, I can guarantee you that it won’t be a typical Wednesday.

compromise-imgI am not, historically, what one might call a huge fan of NYCACC. But I do see improvements, I do have hope, and I do believe, strongly, that when there is an opportunity to save animals that opportunity should be exploited and supported.

So participate. Pull on the evening of Monday, Jun 9. Adopt. Spread the word. Let’s get as many animals in homes as we can – together – and someday, in New York City as everywhere else, Just One Day will be every day.

You may read NYCACC’s Just One Day press release here – and if you’re affiliated with a group saving animals in New York, ask them to take the pledge and support the event! ANY group can participate.

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NYCACC: Spring Into… A Glint of Hope?

Well, it’s now been months since any kind of serious update. Rather overdue; doncha think? Let’s get to it.

New York City Animal Care and Control announced the appointment of a new medical director – the first in several years – in early January. They provided scant information on her background, including some things that deserved an explanation. Then, at the quarterly board meeting at the end of January – a meeting that is supposed to be open to the public – much of the public was kept out of the room, long after the meeting had started, while Dr. Levin’s public introduction was made. I’m still not sure what the story is on that but it was certainly an inauspicious start and one that only served to heighten distrust, especially in the face of NYCACC tactics in years past to keep meetings closed to the public. Questions in the public comment part of the meeting went unanswered, particularly those that were resume-related – but notably, a much more detailed (and mostly complete) introduction was released a few days following the meeting.

Then, in early February after that board meeting, something really unexpected happened: Dr. Levin called me. Our conversation lasted approximately 45 minutes and was wide-ranging, encompassing her background and plans for change at NYCACC. Dr. Levin was at times blunt and, I thought, honest about the challenges facing her. My hastily scribbled notes on our conversation headline with “I don’t want to have the at risk list”; no qualifiers.

She addressed a few of my greatest concerns and what I thought was deeply misleading about her initial introduction published by NYCACC: yes, she did begin her career, starting with her postdoctorate work, in animal experimentation. She described to me the evolution of her thinking as she became deeply uneasy with what she was doing and eventually, over time, underwent a complete transformation to an animal protectionist and vegan. This was a long time ago and people change; I cannot see a reason to doubt her. She filled in some gaps in the resume that did not show up in the digital trail, including directorships at some smaller humane societies (though to be fair, compared to NYCACC… most places are smaller).

I came away impressed with Dr. Levin. She’s blunt, unafraid and appropriately wonky for the position (and I truly mean that as a compliment). We ended the conversation agreeing that in the end, results would be all that mattered.

Now let’s fast forward to the latest NYCACC board meeting, held on April 23rd. For what I believe is the first time (?), the slides from that meeting have been made available on NYCACC’s website… as well as notes on board meetings going back to 2011. This is very much a step in the right direction and I commend NYCACC for making it happen. It was also announced in the meeting that future meetings would be archived on video and that video would be made available to the public on the internet – this would be to comply with New York’s Open Meetings Law. This is also tremendously appreciated.

Much of the slideshow is of little note; the meeting was lightly attended by both board members and the general public. There was little statistical difference in the first quarter of 2014 vs the same time period in 2013 with the exception of a small increase in intake that was balanced out through an increase in New Hope placements. (NB: New Hope is the NYCACC department that interfaces with outside rescues.) The slight decrease in public adoption is of some concern given the recent resources that NYCACC has poured into increasing public adoption. For the most part, business as usual. The creation of an intake department is a welcome change (as with the adoptions department, it’s surprising that they’re just getting around to creating that), but most of the rest of it – including an increased focus on disease prevention – are things we’ve heard before. It’s good to see that they now have an adoptions vehicle, it would be nice to see it on the road every day – and one member of the public (I believe Tom Scopac) commented that when it was not in use at events, perhaps it could be stationed at the intake-only NYCACC locations in the Bronx and Queens. Fantastic idea. They’re also getting slightly better at fundraising and much better at PR.

But the real meat of this meeting was in Dr. Levin’s report as the Medical Director. This contained some real improvements in direction, including full time staff veterinary coverage for each shelter, a weekly review of morbidity and mortality with veterinary staff, and a greatly expanded training of staff including non-veterinary staff to act as additional “eyes and ears”. Some very important things that don’t turn up in the slides: Right now every intake exam is done by a Licensed Veterinary Technician, but additional staff (3 more vets) are being hired with the goal of having every intake exam being done by a vet. That’s a great idea and a huge step forward. Dr. Levin also claimed that all spay/neuter surgeries had been brought in-house instead of outsourcing some of them to the ASPCA, and my sources at the ASPCA confirm that. I dearly hope that is an indication of the increased capacity of the department. Until recently NYCACC had been relying heavily on non-staff, per diem vets and it’s an excellent sign to see them transitioning to full time vet staff and the increased stability and accountability that staff will bring.

It’s very important to note that none of this is budging the kill numbers… yet. But this is good groundwork and hopefully a foundation to be built on. NYCACC has a huge challenge now and soon with kitten season upon us, and by the next meeting we should have some idea if these tactics will provide an improvement over the same quarter of last year. I would also hope at some point that there would be a greatly increased focus on making sure that animals on the NYCACC kill list have correct, complete medical notes (as well as behavioral…) as well as an accurate categorization; the kill listing of a cat with, say, a URI as having “major conditions” is beyond silly and the result of political forces, not medical.

Screen Shot 2014-04-28 at 9.52.35 PMBoard Chair Nolan is not a fan of a favorite expression of mine, “big ships turn slowly” – I might remind him that it took NYCACC something like 17 years to create an adoptions department. I believe, however, that the expression is appropriate here – and don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of things that still suck (Have you tried to call them lately? Good God). I do not yet think we are seeing the catalyst(s) that will take NYCACC on a course to No Kill; I find it hard to believe that will ever happen while NYCACC is under contract to the city’s Department of Health, which has no interest or duty to the welfare of animals (and truthfully will probably be getting in Dr. Levin’s way soon, if they haven’t already), even if they had a staff that believes in or had worked in No Kill communities, which they don’t. Dr. Levin appears, however, to be a step in the right direction, and gives me a bit of hope for the next meeting in a way that was wholly unexpected. I have come to believe that I jumped the gun on her a bit in a way that was unfair, and I apologize.

In the end, results are all that matter. Let’s hope June’s board meeting brings some.

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