NB: This was originally published on the Pets Alive blog, but I’m placing a copy here for archival purposes.
There 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.
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.
On 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.
It 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.
Board President and Chairman, Pets Alive