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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