On January 6, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer released “Led Astray“, a scathing report on the state of the city’s Animal Care system. I highly recommend reading the report in its entirety, it is worth the read.
While I have my quibbles with some of the minor details, the summary, overview of the system, and identification of the problems is spot-on. Despite this, and despite the most welcome attention it brings to the subject, this report in and of itself is not likely to bring about changes, but it may set the stage for future changes – and Scott Stringer remains the one to watch as the politician most likely to eventually spark an overhaul of the broken New York City shelter system.
One of the minor details that the report omits is that under New York State law, the mayor of New York City alone has the power to dictate who will run the city’s animal care system, and the system as we know it now is firmly under the control of the mayor. It is highly unlikely to have complete systemic reform without the commitment of the mayor, and as Bloomberg’s term draws to a close it is increasingly unlikely that this will be a subject he will turn his attention to – indeed, he has never shown much interest in the welfare of the city’s animals beyond the occasional photo op.
This coming November we will elect a new mayor, and Scott Stringer was once an entrant in that race – the genesis of this report may very well have been to lay a foundation for his argument for reform should he have been elected mayor. He was considered a long shot, however, and for the moment the smart money is still on Mayor Bloomberg’s handpicked successor, Christine Quinn. Quinn talks a good game when it comes to animal welfare but has consistently sold out the interests of New York City’s animals to further her own political goals, so it seems unlikely that she would be the champion who would support reforming the system.Stringer, however, is nothing if not a smart political operator. After feeling out the mayoral race and considering his odds he instead declared candidacy for City Comptroller, who functions as New York City’s Chief Financial Officer. Though he was a longshot as a mayoral candidate, he has quickly established himself as a serious and credible candidate for comptroller who stands an excellent chance of winning the race.
As comptroller Stringer would have great influence over New York City Animal Care and Control (NYCACC) – they are, after all, a contractor to the city – but without the cooperation of the mayor he would be unlikely to be able to move the ball forward on his own for reform. It is worth noting that previous comptrollers have issued scathing official reports on NYCACC, none of which have led to significant operational changes. He could, however, use the power of his office to keep the spotlight on them, use his influence to push change whenever possible, and hopefully in the next election run for Mayor of New York City and capitalize on the seeds he has planted.
The report has a few flaws, however minor.
One is a recommendation to increase dog licensing. The report correctly points out the estimate that 10% or less of the city’s dogs are licensed, that licensing fees are low, that licensing is essentially unenforced, and that licensing is declining despite an ad campaign run by the city’s Department of Health to increase the number of licensed dogs in NYC. However, the report does not make the link, directly, to the reason dog licensing compliance is low: monies collected go largely to the city’s general fund. It is not enforced because the agencies in charge of enforcing it do not directly see the revenue it generates, and there is no reason to believe that the city would see fit to spend it on animal welfare. The report does note that redirection of licensing revenue would require legislation and state approval, and that would be step one: have revenue from licensing directly fund animal welfare in New York City, giving the agencies who administrate the licensing the incentive to maximize registration because to do so benefits them directly. I personally would also be much more likely to license my dogs if I knew that by doing so I was helping my dogs and animals all over New York rather than contributing to a city slush fund. Without such redirection happening first, so that licensing fees benefit animals, there is little reason to attempt an increase in the number of licensed dogs – and passing the legislation to accomplish that redirection is no minor feat and must be pushed through first and foremost.
The section that also examines “Best Practices” (p 19) is also a little curious: Calgary seems to be included because it generates significant revenue but the report tells us nothing about their actual shelter operations and what lessons can be learned from those operations at all. I know that Calgary saves a lot of animals; this report does little to explain why or how or how their system is a model.
The inclusion of the Helen Woodward Center in San Diego is another curious example of “Best Practices”: while an extremely impressive operation (and again, one that seems to be included because they do fund raising very well), they are not a municipal open admission shelter but a private, limited admission shelter. While there are certainly lessons to be learned from their fundraising and marketing, they do not provide a model for best practices for an open admission municipal shelter because that’s not the business that they’re in.
Washoe County, Nevada is an incredible example of a highly successful public-private partnership, but again no concrete explanation is given as to the details of the partnership or, most importantly, why it works. This would be an intriguing model to explore more deeply as it is the one that most people are least familiar with.
One of the primary recommendations of the report is to remodel the board in the image of the Central Park Conservancy. This is definitely an idea worth considering but is by no means the only possible pathway to success. The most important thing is to make a swift change from the way things are done now, which clearly does not work: the city creating a theoretically “independent” body which it controls has been catastrophic for the city’s animals, but there are examples of success in the United States in traditional, municipally run shelters, in independent non-profits contracted to municipalities, and in public-private partnerships. While the Conservancy Board model may very well work, there are other structures that may work as well that are worth looking at – and smaller boards can be better at moving quickly. The report also recommends that the new board should be “seeded” with personnel from the ASPCA and the Mayor’s Alliance. The ASPCA does not run municipal shelters and has a recent history of fighting activists who attempt to reform them, as they did in Austin TX. They also have a very recent history here in NY of lobbying against good legislation and promoting legislation that is harmful to animals – indeed, they engineered the Faustian bargain that was Local Law 59, giving NYCACC a one-time increase in funding in exchange for forever relieving the city of its legal obligation to build shelters in Queens and the Bronx. While the Mayor’s Alliance has implemented some positive changes in the city’s shelter systems, they exist at the whim of a single wealthy benefactor who is poised to pull their funding in 2015. To keep that funding flowing to the current time, they are believed to have participated in knowingly falsifying data to show continual improvement. I don’t want to see lies about an improved system, I want to see a genuinely improved system. Rather than these two bastions of New York City dysfunction one would probably do better to look for leadership to some of the rescue groups which the report correctly notes are doing the bulk of the rescue work in NYC as well as doing superior fundraising – even tiny, all volunteer efforts.
Overall the flaws here are relatively minor and this remains the most impressive and comprehensive look at NYCACC dysfunction to come from a city official – but without the backing and the cooperation of a mayor, I don’t think it goes anywhere. The upcoming mayoral race is absolutely crucial to any possible NYCACC reform, and the logical next step would be for Borough President Stringer to see if his report finds any backing among the leading candidates. If not, we are likely to see four more years of little change, biding our time and hoping that Stringer eventually secures the mayor’s seat – and if Christine Quinn wins the election it may be a very long four years indeed.