I didn’t have any intention of adopting that day in Feb – with 5 large dogs and four cats in a two bedroom apartment, I have quite enough on my hands, and I try not to spend much time looking at the New York City Animal Care Center (NYCACC or simply ACC) kill list because I know I am weak.
And then there was Biggie.
I’m not sure where I caught sight of her first but I couldn’t get her listing out of my mind. She is 15 years old and long blind, with eye disease, glaucoma and luxated (detached) lenses. That landed her a dreaded “4” medical rating, for animals with severe medical conditions, and some notes about her attitude to boot.
I was up most of the night thinking about her. The next day I asked a New Hope rescue (one that is registered to pull from the shelter) to pull her for me before the list closed and I went to pick her up.
She is not nearly as bad as the listing made her sound. Our first stop was my vet, where her bloodwork and most of her checkup proved normal. Our second stop was a veterinary opthamologist; she will remain blind for life but her glaucoma is now well controlled through eye drops which are easy to administer. She is not in pain and has no need of pain control. Finally, she had extensive dental disease so once she had settled in all but one of her teeth were removed.
While she does not like strangers much, within days she was completely attached to me; it is not so surprising that an elderly, 9lb, blind dog should be terrified in a shelter. She loves to sleep at my side (or in my lap) and loves to snuggle and burrow under the covers. Surprisingly, she also loves travel, cars, and new places – set her down and she’ll set off happily exploring and gently bumping into things. She sleeps most of the day and has rock-solid house training. She completely rules the household, having announced to one and all cats and dogs on the day of her arrival that she was now in charge – and they accepted it, instantly. My big 75lb boy, Leo, doesn’t let ANY dog lay down rules like that in HIS house – but he accepted her as The Boss instantly and none have touched a hair on her head. She doesn’t want to interact with them, but she’s completely comfortable around them and they’re completely comfortable around her.
So I had to do a bit of work, a bit of expense, and a bit of puzzle solving. But for that I got in return a sweet and loving animal who is perhaps the easiest dog to care for I have ever had. While she’s blind and old, her disease is not progressing, she is in no pain, and she is fully capable of enjoying her life.
Do I feel great about adopting her under threat of harm? I do not. Does it give me warm fuzzy feelings about that process? It does not.
New York City releases a list every night around 6pm. It is officially named the “at risk” list, but most New York City advocates call it the kill list. The name is a euphemism; these animals are not at risk of a good cuddling but of a needle of poison. The list has two portions: a list of animals who are available only to ACC partner (New Hope) rescues and a list of animals who are available to the public and to rescue as well.
You can see the public portion of the list daily on the NYCACC website beginning at 6pm until it closes at noon the following day. The shelter does not publicly provide information on the animals available only to rescue, nor is the list especially easy to access – one has to enter a considerable amount of personal data to see the list, and no tools are provided for social media networking or commentary. Facebook-based groups have sprung up to make the complete list available in a format that makes it easy to share individual animals or the entire list on social media as well as add commentary, information, links, and fundraising for groups that pull the animals. Some of the information on these freewheeling groups – especially in the comments – is not accurate, which is a thorn in the shelter’s side, but they have yet to provide a competing, better system. The two groups have formed a symbiotic but uneasy relationship: neither side likes the other but they both need the other, and as much as the shelter cries that it’s not a kill list, just an “at risk” list, they reap the benefit (and look the other way) when outside groups use the threat of death to drive adopters their way. It has been enormously effective in getting animals out of the shelter: on an average day, the majority of animals on the daily kill list are pulled by New Hope rescues or adopted by members of the public.
Make no mistake: Feb of 2016 (the last month of available data) was the most successful lifesaving month in the entire history of NYCACC, with a live release rate of 94.1%. This is, if you will excuse my French, fucking amazing. It is an incredible save rate for New York and a massive step forward for the shelter.
February is a pretty good month in the Northeast for lifesaving, generally speaking. Sheltering is a seasonal business and intake tends to slow in the colder months, especially cat intake. It’s a great time to show the world what you’re capable of and to regroup for the spring, which brings kitten season. This February was kind to NYCACC. Even with fairly mild temperatures, intake was around 60% of average – quite slow. The shelters had rows of empty cages. But the kill list marched on, typically with 10-20 animals listed per day.
New York’s Shelter Reform Action Committee recently pointed out that the kill list has been an amazingly successful marketing tool for the shelter, representing a significant portion of their live release at reduced effort for them. But February made it very clear that it is a marketing tool used even when it is not necessary, presumably to place animals that would take more than average time, effort or medical resources (and probably sometimes as a method of disease control). There isn’t any reason to kill list dogs like Biggie in small-dog-crazy New York, for instance, other than that she takes some not insignificant investment to save. In February, most of the animals not pulled by New Hope groups or adopted by the public from the list were simply either removed or re-listed again the next day.
Why is this important?
In the recent past the shelter has undergone a huge transformation that has resulted in a historic increase in lifesaving and a live release rate unheard of in New York’s history. But it’s hard to convince people of that improvement, especially people who never set foot in a shelter facility, when their only interface with the shelter is seeing the daily list of animals threatened with death. It is simply devastating for public relations – it encourages people not to come to the shelter, to work against the shelter, to not volunteer, to not donate, to not support – even, perhaps, to not adopt. Some of it is barely worth the trouble it causes; it is extremely unusual for a cat to be pulled from the public list by a member of the public.
I am contacted on a regular basis by people who do not live in New York City, many at great distances, who seek to educate me on WHAT REALLY GOES ON at a shelter that LOVES TO KILL with the HIGHEST KILL RATE IN AMERICA. None of that of course is true, and if they’d ever spent any time in shelter facilities they’d know that. But they don’t know of the shelter statistics, closely tracked and verified by New York advocates. They don’t know of the improvement in facilities, in staffing, in funding, in the treatment of animals in general. All they know is the kill list, because that’s all they see.
It is very, very difficult to even consider discontinuing the use of a tool that was responsible, by Shelter Reform Action Committee’s calculations, for 22% of 2015s Live Release Rate. I understand that. I understand that it’s been enormously effective. I also understand that it engenders the dislike and distrust that is the fuel powering New York’s shelter rescue engine – fuel that will either substantially impede future improvements or make current ones unsustainable. To take the next step – to reach higher – there is no question: New York must leave the kill list behind.
I’m well aware this is not original thought. I know this debate takes place inside the shelter on a daily basis. We are now in uncharted waters; New York City would be by far the largest shelter in terms of intake to crack the 90% yearly mark, and some tactics that work well in smaller markets do not adapt well here due strictly to the volume involved. But there are some obvious potential steps forward, and I’m sure others will chime in with what I’ve missed – this list is by no means a complete solution, but it’s a few ways to start.
– End the use of the list for convenience placement of more difficult to place animals. Make it narrowly focused on animals that are actually due to be killed in shelter as a temporary step until the day the list can be eliminated. Develop and publish the long-awaited evaluation matrix, as called for by the Asliomar Accords, so that everyone may be on the same page what is considered healthy, treatable, or not treatable in New York City and what the criteria are for kill listing an animal – something that should be reserved for the untreatable and the suffering.
– Focus New Hope staff on further developing personal partnerships with New Hope rescues. New Hope rescues are currently a sleeping giant – there are more than 250 New Hope rescues approved to pull animals from NYCACC, but most pull very few. The majority of registered New Hope rescues pull fewer than 10 animals per year, and a tiny handful represent the majority of the rescue pulls in NYC. This is an untapped market.
One of the most phenomenally successful New Hope counselors in recent memory, a specialist in cat placement, approached her job differently than others in the past. She set out to learn everything she could about the rescues she worked with, their needs and their abilities. When she had animals appropriate for a certain rescue, she reached out to them personally by phone or text. The rescues have her personal cell number, she has theirs. She built trusting relationships with rescues that helped to effectively move a tremendous number of animals out in a way that was satisfying to both parties, with a bond of trust. Embrace this model of personal relationships and pursue rescue. Court rescue. Call rescues that don’t pull much and ask why, and what could be done differently to help them. Encourage personal contact. Go see them. Have them come see you.
When I was pulling animals for rescue there was nothing quite as effective as when I showed up to pick up animals from the list and a New Hope counselor pitched me to take additional animals that they wanted to get out. I cherished those people, and I bent over backwards to say yes to pull those animals. We’re all somewhat immune to appeals on a screen, especially those who look at them all day. It is much harder to deny an appeal from someone you know who contacts you personally seeking your help.
– Beef up the foster program. When last publicly disclosed, New York had very few foster families for a city of our size and shelter intake. One of the major barriers to attracting fosters has historically been the number of orientation and training sessions required, and hopefully those could be streamlined. This could give the shelter more places to send animals who need isolation and a drop in stress to beat disease, or a little time for a more careful behavioral evaluation for a scared animal. Many of these homes are located where the shelter has the least presence – many homes with an extra room or a backyard are in the Bronx and Queens. The shelter has been beefing up their presence in these traditionally underserved boroughs and more attention to them can’t come fast enough.
– Market animals who need a little something extra in a positive way, both through daily notice via emails to rescue and publicly as well. Develop on-line outreach that takes advantage of both direct email to rescues/public and social media to focus attention on animals who are more difficult to place, but without the risk of death. Make sure this social media outreach makes it as easy as possible for other people to share, add information, add pictures, pitch animals to rescue, and donate to orgs who pull them. An easy way to start would be a Facebook page devoted to animals who need a little something special.
– Continue efforts to stop the spread of preventable in-shelter disease. Currently most animals on the list have some form of illness, and many of them acquired that illness in the shelter. There needs to be a continued, laser-like focus on maintaining the health of animals in the shelter’s care. This has improved considerably recently, with an obvious focus on not only handling procedures but reducing length-of-stay as much as possible to reduce exposure to disease while animals are in a vulnerable state. Don’t let up. Keep reaching. The New Hope rescues need the assurance that everything possible is being done to cut in-shelter disease transmission and that the shelter is being as transparent as possible about conditions of animals.
The engine of shelter rescue in NYC cannot run forever on the fuel of hate. It is a caustic fuel that eventually destroys all that it touches. The time is now to look to the future and to replace it with a fuel that is sustainable: partnership, transparency and trust.
There was once a time when the best way to advocate for change in the shelter was to advocate, metaphorically speaking, for burning it down. That time has passed. The proof is in the lifesaving, and I have indications that March numbers will be equally impressive. It’s time for advocates to shift from how to tear the shelter down to how to help the shelter reach higher.
I don’t feel good about the manner in which I got Biggie. It is disappointing and disheartening to me that an organization I support threatened her life in order to place her. But I understand why, I get the efficacy of the available tool.
It’s time to build some new ones. What would you build?
N.B.: It would be a mistake at this point to not treat animals on the nightly kill lists as if they are in the gravest of danger; no one external to the shelter can tell you if any given animal will actually be killed or not. For the moment the animals on the list should ALWAYS be considered in immediate danger of death.